One of the early lessons with any group of beginners is the alphabet one. You know, the one where you teach them the song and they recite it back to you beautifully…
…but forever afterwards they have to go through the whole alphabet to work out what letter they need next, and there’s a bit of a mush in the middle because L-M-N-O-P is too fast and they can’t hear it.
I can’t remember the last time I taught that one.
Instead, I approach it as an exercise in de-confusing, not with the aim of teaching the alphabet, but of teaching the letters, so that students can spell and understand spellings. Today with my beginner teens it worked better than ever before, in part because they were teens and in part because we were on Zoom 🙂
Caveat: there are only 4 students, and I speak enough Polish to be able to justify what I’m doing with them sometimes.
I started by showing them the alphabet in the book. Cue rolling eyes and one kid saying ‘No’ loudly and repeatedly. Another kid started to immediately recite the song, so I got them to try that first. Two knew the song perfectly, one had the L-M-N-O-P problem, and the fourth one is generally pretty shy and said she didn’t know it at all.
I told them that was great because now I knew what was a problem. One of them said “No problem!”, so I asked them to write ‘A’ in the chatbox. Cue a series of E’s and I’s. “Not E, A.” I I I E E. “Not I, A.” Eventually we got there. I could then explain that for the rest of the lesson we’d be working on groups of letters and helping them to remember what the difference is. I already had the first group (A-E-I-Y) written in black on a mini whiteboard.
I pointed to each letter and elicited it, writing some prompts in green next to the letter to help them remember. For these four letters the prompts I normally use are:
- A a (b c)
- E eeeeeeeee [but drawn linked together, coupled with me ‘pulling’ the sound out of my mouth]
- I like dogs [or in a classroom I’ll stand very straight and indicate my whole body, as in ‘I’, which compares to…]
- Y Why? [or stand with my arms in a Y shape to compare to I]
We then worked out how these letters might be written in Polish ‘spelling’, and I wrote it in red on the board, something like this:
- A /ei/
- E /i/
- I /ai/
- Y /uaj/
They copied the black letters, green reminders, and red sounding out into their notebooks. I asked any student who had finished and was waiting to spell their first name, and helped them with the problem letters.
We then played a game in the chatbox where I said one of the four letters and they wrote it, then they took turns being the teaching and calling out a letter.
With revision of 1-100 and a homework check, that took the first half of the lesson. I wasn’t sure how interested they’d be when we came back after break and repeated the process with other sets of letters:
…but they absolutely loved it. This is mostly because they started racing each other to be the first person to get it right in the chat box, with no prompting from me. Then they started racing to show me what they’d written in their notebooks, to the extent that by the time we got to the final board (shown below), they wanted to copy the black letters immediately. Then when I was writing the red they were saying ‘Pani pisze’ (Miss is writing!) and were poised and ready to go as soon as I held up the board.
The whole lesson was very entertaining, and they really loved challenging each other on the particularly confusing combinations which they knew their classmates would get wrong because they were rushing. This forced them to think a little more.
I’m pretty confident that in Thursday’s lesson they’ll remember most of the letters because they know we’ll play the letter race game again, and they know I’m going to ask them to spell their names so they’ll practice that too.
The best kind of lesson: minimal planning, just enough variety to keep them engaged, lots of practice, driven by students, fun, and memorable for a long time!