Sunday, February 28, 2010

Alphabet, Spelling and Young Learners

Being able to spell in English belongs to the ELT basics category. Kids and adults alike learn the English alphabet with the help of the many alphabet songs, practise spelling their names and that’s usually all. They are expected to remember how to spell as it’s considred to be easy. Besides there are so many other important and interesting things to focus on.

I’ve been teaching 1st graders for 7 years now and admittedly, I have never paid much attention to spelling. 

My 1st graders have 8 hours of English every week – 4 with me, 4 with my Turkish colleague. My partner teacher uses a coursebook with the students; my job is to supplement and provide opportunities for extra practice.  That leaves us plenty of time for some fun.

Together with my American colleague, who teaches 1C (I teach 1A and B), we decided to spend 1 class a week focusing on a letter of the alphabet (starting with A). It’s been a few months now and this week, for example, we will be talking about the letter N.

Every time a new letter is introduced, the children learn a few words beginning with it. They also complete tasks to distinguish the new letter and practise using it. These include lettersearches where they have to circle e.g. all Bs, giving students pictures and asking which letter things shown in them start with, tracing, races to the board (each team member has to write / touch or circle a letter the teacher says) and so on.

We had a few reservations before conducting our experiment:
  •  our students were learning the Turkish alphabet at the same time (not starting with A though) so we were scared they might somehow confuse both alphabets. It does happen but very rarely.
  • they learn how to write in cursive whereas most of the books for kids and the handouts we had were written using the so called ‘the ball and the stick’Students should be familiar with both styles. They sometimes call writing in cursive writing in Turkish and ‘the ball and the stick’ – writing in English. We observed no problems with students being unable to use both styles. 
  • we thought it might be too hard and too boring for the students and we were wrong. Spelling is very challenging and my students can’t wait until we learn new letters.

Our main aim was to teach the English alphabet, giving the children an opportunity to pick up some new words, practice reading and writing.

Yet what has been taking place exceeded my expectations. One day, having reached letter H, I decided to give it a try and asked the students to write down a few words I was spelling. The words were DAD, BED, CAT. To my surprise, the students had no major problems with this activity. The following week I showed the kids some new words and asked them to spell these for me. They raised their hands immediately and spelled everything they were supposed to. That was a WOW.

So here we are – spending 40 min a week with 6-7 year olds exposing them to a new letter and a few words beginning with it. After a few months, most students spell a lot better than the students in High School.

Don’t you think it’s an achievement? I do J


  1. What a wonderful experience! Thanks for sharing. I teach second graders at my school (7-8 years old) and i tend to feel that we cannot teach spelling. It is something they should acquire naturally. You have made me reflect upon this, and I've realised that I just didn't know how to teach it (to put it in some way).

  2. Anita,

    Have you seen Barb's amazing voicethread for the letters of the alphabet?

    It really is outstanding... after reading about your own students, just had to mention it. Take a peek...


  3. Sabrina - thanks for the comment! How true your words are - we all tend to assume that students should simply acquire the ability to spell in time. But why wait?

    David - thanks for dropping by and the link! I love the idea of students making letters with their bodies :)

  4. I had a couple of informative experiences teaching children how to write. The youngest children were 3-5 years old and sometimes we did simple drawings which included a word, eg cat.
    More than once parents told me that their child "couldn't write yet". When I showed them their child's work, they were often amazed to see their child could write.
    The conclusion is that we sometimes underestimate children's ability to do what we see as complex learning tasks such as writing.
    Personally, I think a child could learn just about anything if we allow them to.

  5. That's a very good point Julian!

    A month ago I tried a mill drill in grade 3 with massive apprehension that they wouldn't handle it. 3B had some problems but in 3A it worked like magic!

  6. It is a good achievement. I too feel that the students should be introduced to the words which have the alphabet, instead of teaching them the alphabets and words respectively. The child should be able to know how to pronounce the sounds of the alphabets through these words. A drill in pronouncing the letter and the word is very important before they learn to write them.

  7. Great post. Please take a look at this spelling games for kids website.