Back to Basics: Teaching the Alphabet

Welcome to our Back to Basics series! In this series we explore some of the foundational methods, practices and terminology for teaching reading and writing. This series is for those new to the field of literacy, beginning tutors or those who would just like a refresher. This week we discuss teaching adults the English alphabet.

Some adult literacy learners, especially English Language Learners, are not familiar with the Roman alphabet of the English language. While there are many instructional resources for children learning the alphabet, many of them are not appropriate for adult learners. Learning the English alphabet is fundamental for literacy learning. However, some learners will not be familiar with the relationship between oral language and written language and may also have limited experience holding and using a writing implement, such as a pencil. How do we teach adults the alphabet in a way that suits their learning needs?

“Before they can receive instruction in the alphabet skills including phonological processing and decoding, learners may need to develop pre-literacy concepts and skills. These include distinguishing same and different objects and shapes, how to hold a pencil and paper, copying basic shapes and patterns, and understanding directionality, like scribbling from left to right and top to bottom.” – Tutor Curriculum Guide for Teaching Adult ESL Preliterate Learners

If the learner is not comfortable using a writing implement at first, do not give them a pen or pencil straight away. Instead, introduce the concept of letters using tactile objects such as pipe cleaners, sand or beans. You may even introduce the names of the letters using the learner’s first and last names. After that you may move on to teaching handwriting skills.

The Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) suggests the tutor take their time teaching the alphabet and spread the lessons out over several sessions. Do not expect learners to learn the alphabet all at once. Teach only five letters at a time. You may also wish to only start with uppercase letters. Alphabet games, cards, and magazines or catalogues are all useful materials to use when teaching the alphabet. See the resources below for lesson plans and instructional ideas for teaching adults the alphabet.


We’re looking forward to welcoming many of you to the Decoda Literacy Conference 2022 next week! It’s a great opportunity to hear wonderful speakers, attend inspirational sessions and connect in person. We’re taking a blog break to enjoy the conference; expect the next Back To Basics post on May 10.

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