Alphabet in adult ESL classes? Yes!
So you’re teaching an adult ESL true beginner class, and the alphabet is one of your starting points. You know there are millions of resources and ideas for teaching the alphabet, but everything you find is made for children. Your adult students don’t need to use a finger to trace a letter in a tray of sand. They need alphabet resources and activities that are age-appropriate. Like what, you ask? That’s just what I want to share with you.
Ten Ways to Teach the Alphabet in Adult ESL
1. Practice alphabetical order.
Is alphabetizing a list of words still a worthwhile skill to teach? Growing up, my teachers always emphasized how knowing alphabetical order was vital to look up a word in the dictionary, but that isn’t a relevant reason anymore now that we have technology that eliminates the need to thumb through the pages of a paper dictionary.
Still, imagine going to a conference and having to locate your name tag on a table full of them sorted in any way other than alphabetical. Can you think of a more efficient organizational method? Even if you were to divide the name tags into some kind of groups, within those groups, you’d probably use alphabetical order. You can justify teaching alphabetical order to your adult ESL students because it helps us
quickly locate a name when searching through our phone contacts, find a song in a playlist, or a file on our computer. Imagine trying to find a topic in a book where the index wasn’t organized alphabetically. It gives us a method for filing paper documents that makes it easier for anyone else to find a file efficiently.
- Say a string of letters and have students then repeat them back to you in alphabetical order (or write them in order).
- Make a grid with all the letters of the alphabet placed randomly (leave two blanks spaces in the grid so you can have even placement). Students work in pairs. Student A points to each letter in alphabetical order, and Student B identifies the letter. OR Student A points to and identifies the letter while Student B confirms. Switch.
2. Use modified spelling activities.
Adults often need to spell aloud their names (as well as the names of any spouse or child), their email addresses, and their home addresses. Point out to them that this skill is needed often needed when making or asking about registrations and reservations. When they call for an appointment with a doctor or dentist or when they make a ticket reservation over the phone, they’ll likely have to at least spell out their names.
- Give students examples of times YOU have had to give (or correct) the spelling of your name.
- Have students spell their names and the names of their immediate family members to a partner who writes down everything. Then have them check to see if their partner got it right. Be sure to also teach them how to clarify letters by saying something like “D as in dog.”
- Write out (or type) any vocabulary words you’ve covered but leave a few letters blank. Only blank out the letters that match their sound. For example, you can have them listen and fill in “_augh” but not “la_gh.”
Give your students lists of simple three-letter words where each letter makes the sound the letter is commonly known for, such as pat, sit, & dog. Then dictate the spelling of these words using one incorrect letter like “d-a-t”. Students correct you by spelling the word back to you, emphasizing the correct letter. “p-a-t”
Be sure to group short word lists of not more than ten words per group so that students aren’t spending an excessive amount of time search for the correct spelling. This also gives you the chance to make “pat” the correctly spelled word that you later incorrectly dictate as “b-a-t,” for example. This activity requires listening comprehension, recognizing the letters in written form, and the ability to pronounce the letters well enough to be understood.
This is a slightly more challenging version of the Spelling Error activity. Use lists of words with four letters. Rather than using one incorrect letter, dictate all the letters of the word mixed up. For example, spell out “post” as “s-o-p-t” and have students correct you with the correct spelling “p-o-s-t.”
Like the Spelling Error activity, this requires listening comprehension, recognizing the letters in written form, and the ability to pronounce the letters well enough to be understood.
3. Send them on an alphabet scavenger hunt.
Is it a beautiful day outside? Send them on a campus scavenger hunt to photograph at least one thing that starts with each letter of the alphabet. Have them work with a partner who doesn’t share their first language, if possible. You can follow that up by having them put the photos together in a digital presentation (in alphabetical order, of course). If wandering through campus is not possible or feasible, they can find plenty of images online to use. You can even assign a theme such as food or animals.
4. Have them make their own alphabet books.
I don’t like alphabet books or posters because the words used are either random or from a theme that doesn’t appeal to everyone. However, if your students make their own alphabet books, they’ll create lists of words that have a real-life meaning to them. You can assign a broad theme that helps them focus but still gives them room to choose words relevant to their lives.
For example, I assigned one of my students the topic of “homestay life” because he had just moved in with a homestay family. He loved it because it gave him a purpose in approaching his homestay family with questions, and it helped him get to know the names of things in his home environment. His focus on the kitchen resulted in his homestay family discovering that he loved cooking and wanted to cook for them.
Have students use paper to fold into flip-books or just write a letter at the top of each page in a notebook and make lists of things in their homes. First, have them only write the words they already know. Next, have them use a dictionary or translating app to find the words for things they don’t know yet but want to know. They’ll build an alphabet book that has meaning for them and represents what they know or what to know instead of random words they are not interested in.
5. Play musical alphabet letters.
Getting students up and moving around gets the neurons firing up and helps them think and remember. While this is a popular children’s game, using age-appropriate music makes this musical alphabet moving activity work well with adult students. You’ll need some index cards.
- Write one letter of the alphabet per card. You can use only uppercase, just the lowercase, or both.
- Arrange them on the floor a circle or any meandering shape that doesn’t result in an endpoint.
- Students line up and walk next to the cards while music is playing. Every time you stop the music, they must identify the letter nearest to them.
- You can give them more of a challenge by also requiring a word that begins with that letter, the letter immediately before or after it in alphabetical order, or the sound that the letter makes.
6. Practice filling out forms.
You know those forms where you have to fill in personal information writing only one letter/number per box? These are great for practicing writing alphabet letters. Most of your adult students will readily realize the real-life application. You can use this to assess their letter formation. You can also easily transform this into a listening activity with a partner. Just have one student request the information and one student give it.
- “Name, please?”
- “How do you spell that?”
- “No, J-i-e-u- N as in November”
7. Display a variety of fonts.
Have you ever realized just how different any given letter of the alphabet looks depending on the font used? To us, every letter a or G is easily distinguishable, but that is rarely the case for students whose primary language doesn’t use the Latin, or Roman, alphabet. When teaching your students the capital A, show it to them using a variety of fonts. They’ll need to be flexible in recognizing the letters in various fonts because they’ll be exposed to so many different ways letters can appear whenever they are outside the classroom, in a real-life environment.
This is why printed flashcards are not ideal for teaching the alphabet. Make a PowerPoint so you can easily utilize a wide variety of fonts. Plus, you’ll be able to make the size large enough for everyone to easily see–unlike a flashcard.
8. Use videos to help with pronunciation.
Correctly pronouncing the names of the alphabet letters, like any other word, can be challenging for your students. If you feel comfortable doing so, creating videos of yourself saying the letters will help your shyer students who may feel embarrassed about speaking in class. (Absolute beginners generally loosen up about speaking in class once they are more comfortable.) They can watch the videos at home and use a mirror to copy how your mouth moves. Be sure that your videos are zoomed in on your mouth, or at least your face.
Not comfortable showing your mouth up close? Explore YouTube videos to find someone who is. Try this one if you want an American accent. Tell your students to start at 24 seconds. Don’t want an American accent? Use this one if you prefer British English.
9. Go with a classic game.
Games help everyone exhale and shake off any stress they feel about learning a new language. Students who’ve played it before will relax with the familiarity of it. Students who don’t know what it is will love the simplicity of it. You can make bingo cards with only uppercase letters or only lowercase letters. Another option is to put the upper and lowercase letter pairs together in each square. You can include a picture that represents the sound that the letter makes. When playing it, you can call out just the letter name, the letter name along with the (a) sound it makes, or just the sound. Encourage students to repeat back each letter that you call.
10. Alphabet Smackdown
You’ll need to get a couple of new fly swatters for this. Get different colored ones. To set up this game, write the alphabet letters randomly all over the board. Or tape cards with one letter per card all over a wall. Have a small container full of slips of paper with one alphabet letter per slip.
- Choose two volunteers to come to the wall and give each a fly swatter. Depending on how competitive they are, you may also have to draw a line they must stand behind until they hear a letter.
- Choose another volunteer to be the speaker. The speaker draws a slip and says the letter.
- The pair with the fly swatters try to be the first to locate that letter and swat it. They must KEEP their fly swatter on the letter as this helps to see who got it first.
- The first to correctly swat the letter wins one point.
- After they have swatted five letters or so, choose two more students and another speaker.
The alphabet is a foundation that cannot be ignored.
Too often, beginning-level students are rushed through the alphabet, with the only objective being to recite the letters in order. Spend more time building this foundation with them, and other skills will come more readily to them.
How about some digital, self-checking BOOM cards?
Read more about teaching adult ESL!
- 6 Ideas for Teaching Animal Vocabulary in Adult ESL
- 3 Fun Comparative Adjective Speaking Activities
- 3 Powerful Reasons to Incorporate Conversational Visits in a Speaking Activity
- 7 FUN Activities for Opposite Adjectives
Alphabet Freebie Alert!
I used these alphabet cards (and cards like them) to assess my new students’ knowledge of the alphabet and reinforce their understanding of uppercase and lowercase letters after we worked on the letters for a lesson or two.
You can use them as an assessment to gauge your students’ knowledge of the alphabet. Point to a letter one by one and ask them to identify the letter. This will help you determine which alphabet letters they are familiar with and which ones might need more attention. Of course, you can use the cards in the same way with students still learning their alphabet letters to offer a review opportunity. Point and ask students to say the letter’s name and, if you want to challenge them further, to make its corresponding sound.
I used a variety of fonts to add an extra layer of exposure to various letter shapes. This exposure can help students recognize alphabet letters in different styles, which is crucial as they will see a wide variety of fonts used in advertising, signs, documents, etc. You can use a card to record each student’s progress as you work through the letters. Just show the student one card while using a copy of it to mark the letters they could readily identify, were hesitant with, got incorrect, or just didn’t know.
I used to circle the ones they confidently identified, underline the ones they were hesitant with, cross out the ones that they got wrong, and put an X over the ones they got wrong. That way, I never left one out. Of course, you can use your own method for marking, but however you do it, this documentation will help you track their growth and keep track of who needs additional review and who does not.
As always, adapt the pace based on your students’ needs and abilities.