ABC's for Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE)

Teaching the Alphabet seems so basic that most ESL teachers believe it is unnecessary. My experience has been the opposite. I teach the ABC names and sounds everyday for my emergent/literacy level English learners and review the Alphabet for higher level students as often as they need.

English learners must learn to recognize the letter's name, capital (tall), lowercase (small), and sound/s. Most Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal English (SLIFE) make the letter-sound connection slowly.  I teach/review the whole alphabet every day. I give (or I ask my students for) 3-4 examples of words which begin with the same sound of the letter. Sometimes I ask a student to teach the class one row of the chart (with my help). Students really pay attention when they think they might be called upon to teach. Below are essential vocabulary words to reinforce the sound of each letter. This simple exercise also helps students acquire new vocabulary.

  • Short A = apple ant answer ask and add attic after 
  • Short E = exercise exit extra elevator expensive enter exam 
  • Short I = in inch into inside insect itch instant internet imagine
  • Short O = on off October office odd opposite online object
  • Short U = up under unhappy upset ugly umbrella uncle untie


  • Long A = April apron aim ate ape ache area agent alien eight
  • Long E = eleven evening eraser eat even email equal electricity
  • Long I = ice  ice cream  idea iron item island icicle ivy
  • Long O = open over orange o’clock old ocean odor obey oval
  • Long U = U.S. uniform use unit universe usual utensil unique


  • Bb = bus baby book blue backpack bag bed banana boots bye 
  • Cc /k/ = cup coat cake car cook computer corn cloud country
  • Cc /s/ = city cents circle ceiling cereal center
  • Dd = doctor dime down dollar daughter day Dec. dad desk drink
  • Ff = fish five four family father February foot feet fly floor flower
  • Gg /g/ = gift grapes go gum game good gas God goodbye
  • Gg /j/ = gym general gel gentlemen gem giraffe giant 
  • Hh = hat hi hello hair house he head hand happy husband
  • Jj = jacket juice January June July jeans jar jump joy janitor jam
  • Kk = kids key kitchen kind king kiss ketchup kite keep
  • Ll = left light lamp leg love letter little lunch like look 
  • Mm =  milk moon Monday man May money mother marker movie
  • Nn = nickel nine name neck night number nurse nut Nov. no
  • Pp = paper pencil penny pen pants purple police purse plane 
  • Qu /kw/ = question quiet quarter quiz quick quart quit
  • Rr = run right rug rain red rice read ride restaurant ring
  • Ss = six soap seven sister Saturday son spoon Sept. socks
  • Tt = T.V. table tea telephone teacher Tuesday ten two truck tree
  • Vv = vegetables vote vacuum van violin video visit very volcano
  • Ww = window week woman Wed. white water watch walk 
  • Xx /ks/ = exercise x-ray exit exam extra
  • Yy = yes year yesterday yellow you your young yummy
  • Zz = zipper zero zoo zebra  zip code Zoom

In addition to the daily alphabet review, we focus on one consonant a day and one vowel a week. Vocabulary, life skills, writing/handwriting, computer skills, and speaking skills round out the class.

If a student struggles with sound/letter correspondence, I recommend using the following order. Focus first on the Beginning Sounds group. These letters say their sound at the beginning of the letter name. Once they make these letter/sound connections, move on to the Ending Sounds group. These letters say their sound at the end of the letter name. It goes without saying that the Unique Sounds group is the most challenging. These letters have a sound which cannot be taught by using the letter name.
  • Beginning Sounds: b, d, p, t, v, z, j, k  
  • Ending Sounds: f, l, m, n, r, s, x 
  • Unique Sounds: c, g, h, qu, w, y 

Some Newcomers have been taught the alphabet as sounds /a/, /b/, /c/, but do not know the name of the letter. I do several practical activities to reinforce the letter name that are very effective. I ask one student to spell their first name while I write it on the board. (This is a common question students with unique names must answer often.) Then I hand the marker to that student and they write another student's name on the board. We continue until each student has had practice spelling and writing a classmate's name. This spelling exercise can be done with other personal information like addresses and phone numbers (for numbers).

Games are a fun and effective method for teaching letter name and grapheme recognition. Play 'Go Fish' with uppercase and lowercase letter pairs. This simple game helps English learners remember the names of letters and gives them practice asking and answering questions, (Do you have a 'P'? No, go fish!)  Students also enjoy playing 'Concentration' with letter pairs. Be sure to limit the number of letter pairs used at a time. Both of these games help Newcomers learn and remember the names of English letters.

Of course, music is a very effective way to teach the Alphabet. Many cultures, particularly oral cultures, love singing and use it to teach and remember their history. The standard ABC song is good, but there are others tunes which you may prefer. Use rhythm and chants, too.

Many of my English Language Learners struggle with the alphabet because they use the same letters, but have different names and sounds in their native language. For example, vowels are different in Latin based languages - A = /long i/, E = /long a/ and I = /long e/. Students who use the Cyrillic alphabet and other similar alphabets also have difficulties with the English alphabet. 

One day while reviewing the alphabet sounds with literacy level students in my multiple level classroom, heads around the room began to turn and watch. Then my beginning and intermediate level students came over and began participating. I have discovered that many beginning and intermediate level English learners were taught read to whole words, and do not know the letter sounds. Phonemic awareness knowledge is necessary to decode new words. This epiphany caused me to begin reviewing the alphabet with my beginning to advanced level students.

One last observation, I have taught several students who are able to read phonetically, but had no idea what they are reading. They had excellent phonetic decoding skills, but did not know the meaning of the words they read. Vocabulary is essential for comprehending the meaning of any text. It is crucial to teach essential English vocabulary while teaching sounds of ABCs, blends, vowels, and diphthongs. English learners should be encouraged to learn 5-10 meaningful new words per day.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published