Teaching the Alphabet: Literacy 101

Adult literacy students range from pre-literate to non-literate to semi-literate to those from non-Roman alphabets. Some do not know how to hold a pencil. I’ve had students with no idea when their birthday was because they came from cultures where no one knew dates or years. Some students from non-Roman alphabets may know the names of all the letters of the alphabet but have 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 your use of upper and lower case in board work.

When you assign alphabet practice for homework (or classwork), take time to go over each student’s work in class with a coloured pen. 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 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. I go over each letter and take time to point out when a letter is beautifully formed. I also point out when the proportions are not quite right.

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. The book is “sanitized for your protection” in that there are no difficult to depict words or words 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!

Click on the page below to download some alphabet practice pages for your own use. 

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