Teaching the Alphabet: Literacy 101

Posted by Nancy Callan on 1 September 2013 | 2 Comments

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Adult literacy students range from pre-literate to non-literate to semi-literate to those from non-Roman alphabets. I've had some students who did not know how to hold a pencil. I've had others who had no idea when their birthday was because they came from cultures where no one knew dates or years. But the majority of literacy students I've had came from non-Roman alphabets and had some knowledge of the English alphabet. Some even knew the names of all the letters of the alphabet, but had little knowledge of the sounds of any letters. Trouble writing on the line, confusion between upper and lower case and some letters backwards or reversed are all clues that a student may fit in this category of students. 


Just as in all lower level classes, because literacy students do not yet know the spelling and grammatical conventions of English and are learning them from you, it is very important to be consistent in the use of upper and lower case in board work. I've seen many teachers with their own idiosyncratic printing, adding flourishes such as an artistic looking upper case R in a word like fiRe. That is not appropriate at this level. 


When you assign alphabet practice for homework (or classwork, if homework is not practical with your students) take time to go over each student's work in class with a coloured pen. I go over each letter and take time to point out when the letter is beautifully formed. I also point out when the proportions are not quite right. I suspect the reason many teachers don't do this is because they don't want to talk down to adult students or to place too much emphasis on something they deem an elementary school skill. The fact is that if you have true literacy students, they put a lot of effort into an exercise like this. Tasks requiring fine motor skills take time to learn. Taking time to check their work acknowledges this effort and shows that you deem it important. Your students will correspondingly value the exercise more.


Here are some tips for teaching the alphabet. At the bottom, you'll find some alphabet sheets free for you to download and use in your own class. 


     1.  Start by introducing letters that have similar shapes, for example c,

          e, and o or l, i, t.  


     2.  Discriminate between shapes.  Focus the attention of students on differences--

          don't assume they already see them. Write the lower case alphabet on the

          board, naming each letter as it is written and repeat that several times.


     3.  Use alphabet hand-outs that have students trace over the letters and then write

          them themselves several times on the line. 


     4.  Name letters and have students circle them on a hand-out.


     5.  Demonstrate stroke order on the board, insisting that students use the

          correct stroke order. 


     6.  Teach upper case.  Use hand-outs with exercises asking students to match

          upper and lower case.  At this point, you might wish to draw students attention to

          the typewritten and handwritten lower case a, which often confuses students.


     7.  Play a concentration game with students matching upper and lower case letters.


     8.  Teach students when to use capital letters. 


     9.  Move on to sounds after students have fully memorized the names of letters. 


Check out Callan's Beginner Essentials, which moves systematically through the sounds of the alphabet, using a scaffolding approach to build on knowledge. I like to refer to the book as "sanitized for your protection" because there are no words in the book that are difficult to depict or which students would be unlikely to encounter. Virtually every word is 6 letters or less and follows the spelling conventions of English. There will be plenty of time later for students to get discouraged by all the exceptions to the rule!


Here are some alphabet practise pages. Click on one of the pages to download them for your own use. 




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  • Callan's ABC's has been replaced by Callan's Beginner Essentials.

    Posted by Nancy Callan, 24/02/2019 11:02pm (9 months ago)

  • I highly recommend Callan's ABC's books for any ESL class. Even the material for lower levels might be modified and used for higher levels. Starting the weekly class with a spelling exercise from Nancy’s book can easily become students' favorite every day routine.

    Posted by d.holly, 22/10/2013 9:50am (6 years ago)

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