Print or cursive? For letter recognition, I recommend using printed letters only. Reading cursive handwriting can come later. Keep things simple for beginners. That includes writing. Unless your school requires handwritten assignments to be submitted in cursive, it’s easier to master printing first. Also, whether you’re working with children or adults, beginners need a visual aid. In a traditional classroom, hang an alphabet chart up on the wall. A private student can easily print out a chart and hang it up at home.
Letter names or sounds? Students need to learn both. The letter names are essential. Very often we need to talk and ask about spelling, and this can’t be done without saying the letter names. A great way to start a lesson is to ask students to spell their names. Have the alphabet clearly visible somewhere. If it’s Day 1, then choose just a few students’ names and select them very intentionally. For example, you might write three names with the letter A: Maria, Sasha, and Ahmed. Ask students if they recognize the names and ask volunteers to spell them. If that’s not possible yet, underline all the As. Ask the class to identify which letter is in all three names. Then repeat this with another group of names. See if students can call out the one letter that all three names have. This could work well for teaching the five vowels.
Upper case or lower case? Your call, but students will need to learn both. In my beginner videos on YT, I chose to use only upper case letters to practice letter names, but then I moved to both upper and lower case letters when it was time to practice writing.
In alphabetical order or not? Letter recognition games can certainly mix up letters, but I think it’s helpful to practice saying the letters in order, too. One great reason is for ease in using dictionaries, indexes, a list of phone contacts, or anything else that uses alphabetical order. Music helps many learners, and even older students can be encouraged to watch one of the many cute alphabet songs online. YouTube has a few dozen to choose from.
Classroom games and activities:
1. Circle presentations. This is a good way to review letter names and sounds. Assign 2-3 letters to each student. For example, Maria must write her letters ABC on a piece of paper. Sasha will have DEF, Ahmed will have GHI, and so on. Students can use a picture dictionary to find a word that begins with their assigned letter. You can help as needed in the search or by reviewing the letter-sound correspondence. Once ready, challenge the class to place themselves in alphabetical order, clockwise. Maria will stand at 12 o’clock with ABC. Sasha will be on her left with DEF. The student with XYZ will be on Maria’s right. Once everyone is in order, go around the circle with students saying their letter names, A to Z. Then go around again, and this time each student will “teach” the others the letter name, the sound, and a model word. So Maria will say A /eɪ/ – /æ/ – apple, B /bi/ – /b/ – ball, C /si/ – /k/ – cat. The others can repeat after her.
2. Circle stepping. After the presentations, lead into this activity to test letter-sound correspondence. You will call out a sound, for example /b/, and the student with that letter must step into the center. Sasha will step in and say his model word: ball. Then Sasha continues the game by calling out another sound, any sound he’d like. Everyone should have a turn being in the center at least once.
3. Spelling cards. Prepare letter cards on 8.5 x 11″ paper, or use letter cards if they’re available. Shuffle and distribute them to the class. Call out easy words, like cat, pen, and study. Students must come to the front of the classroom with the necessary letters to spell the word. If you want to spell words with double vowels (school, tree), then prepare additional cards. One student may have two needed letters, so arms will be crossing and it might get a little silly. Once the word has been formed, the students holding the cards should spell it out. The class can shout out support at any time. If you want less movement and a quicker pace, then do a partial spelling of a word on the board. Students with the missing letters can hold them up and call the letter names out.
4. iPhone spelling. I spotted a creative alphabet chart online. Look at this iPhone alphabet on the right. You can ask your techy students to read a letter name and identify what it stands for: G is for Google. S is for Skype. Etc.
5. Creative letter forms. Let’s hear it for creative photographers! Check out the photo below. Can you see the letters A, B, and C? You can bring in other items and ask students to say what letters they’re reminded of. Open up a pair of scissor for X. Flip open an old cell phone for L. A dangling earring or its hook might look like a J. Every day for a week, bring in a few items and challenge students to identify the letter each object resembles.
6. Alphabet snack. If you have access to a cereal with alphabet letters and there are no restrictions on passing out food items, you can give a big spoonful of letters to each student. Have them put their letters in alphabetical order, left to right. Then pair students up and continue the alphabetizing. If there are multiple letters, vertical rows can form. Finally, challenge students to form as many short words as possible with their partners. Encourage as much talking as possible so letter names are used.
7. Back scratching. I used this game with my own children. Two people take turns drawing upper case letters on the other person’s back. The person has to guess the letter being drawn based on what is felt. If this kind of touching isn’t appropriate, you can use your partner’s palm. It’s less space to work with, but the idea is basically the same. Still too intimate? Use a long pencil on a blank sheet of paper. One person holds the pencil at the bottom. The other closes his or her eyes and holds on to the top. The person on the bottom is the writer and must draw a letter for the other to guess.
Needless to say, there are apps out there to help students learn the alphabet, from tracing letters to studying phonics. If you have another idea for a classroom activity, please share it.