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How to Teach the Alphabet to ESL Adults

by Megan Ritchie, studioD

A quick glance at articles and books about teaching the alphabet yields results that are obviously intended for elementary-level students. However, with adult ESL students, it is important to modify lessons so they do not seem condescending or too simplistic. After a few diagnostic assessments, use lessons specifically aimed at your students to help them learn the alphabet.

Diagnostic Assessment

Begin by giving your students a diagnostic to determine their literacy level. First, check for literacy in their first language by asking students to fill out a simple biographical form. Write "Name," "Age" and "Country" on the board and guide students to complete the information on a piece of paper or index card. Inform students they should complete the form both in English and their native language. Check to see if students are completing the task correctly, identifying students you think may have difficulty writing in their native language. In addition, dictate a sentence, such as "It is sunny today," and ask students to write what you say on their piece of paper. Collect the papers or cards to help guide the next lessons. Students not literate in their first language will need additional help and may benefit from break-away groups with an assistant after class.

Create alphabet flashcards and use the tried-and-true method of repetition to help students memorize the alphabet. Give students a set of cards to share in groups of two or three, and have students complete their own set of alphabet flashcards. Start each class with rote exercises aimed at memorization. Engage the entire class at first, and make it interesting by pausing at a few letters -- more as the course continues -- and asking students to name objects or people whose names start with a certain letter. After a few exercises with the entire class, have the students break into groups to practice using their own flashcards.

Go to a local dollar store and purchase metal baking sheets and a few sets of magnetic letters. Use these for cloze activities and dictations to practice both reading and listening skills. For example, you can write a word up on the board and have students identify the correct letters they need to form the word on their own sheet. In addition, you can say words aloud and have students sound out the words on their board. Use words they are familiar with and that you have already reviewed in class. As the course moves on, move away from the magnetic letters and have students practice writing the letters on their own.

Items you will need
  •  Blackboard or whiteboard
  •  Paper or index cards
  •  Diagnostic cloze activity
  •  Alphabet flash cards
  •  Metal baking sheet
  •  Magnetic letters


  • Choose a theme for each week's class and teach a set of vocabulary around that theme, which is more interesting than choosing words at random.
  • Choose vocabulary words and phrases from daily life and from materials that students already possess or had to purchase for the course. This gives plenty of opportunity for review and repetition.


  • Review any worksheets you may download or find in a book to check to see if the subject matter is appropriate for adult ESL learners.

About the Author

Megan Ritchie has been a writer for more than 10 years, and has been published in a number of journals and newspapers, including "The Daily Targum" (Rutgers University's daily newspaper) and "The Philadelphia Inquirer." She has a Master's degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

Photo Credits

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