ABCs for Emergent Multilingual Students (Newcomers, ELs, SLIFE)

It is is critical to teach the alphabet to emergent / literacy level English learners. These are essential tools for reading and language development. Students who have minimal educational background are usually eager to learn the letters and their sounds.

English learners must learn to recognize the letter's name, capital (tall), lowercase (small), and sound/s. Most students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) make the letter-sound connection slowly. Asking students for 4-5 examples of words which begin with the same sound expands their vocabulary by including verbs, adjectives, and common spoken words (hi, bye).

Below are some essential vocabulary words to help reinforce the sound of each letter. 

  • 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

After practicing the alphabet for a while, ask different students to teach 1-2 rows of the chart (with assistance). Students really pay attention when they know they will be asked to teach.

Some Newcomers have learned the alphabet as sounds, but do not know the names of the letters. An effective strategy to reinforce the letter names is having class surveys where students must answer questions by spelling. Ask questions about first and last names, or family members. Other students can write these on the board or on paper. (This is a common question for English language learners.) 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 uppercase and lowercase letter 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 consider. The ABC lullaby is excellent because each letter is distinct. Use rhythm and chants, too.

Try a Different Order

If a student struggles with consonant sound/letter correspondence, try 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 

First language Interference - 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 Romance languages (E = /long a/ and I = /long e/). Students who use the Cyrillic alphabet and other similar alphabets may have difficulties with the English alphabet, too. 

Alphabet for Higher Level Students

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. Many beginning and intermediate level English learners were taught read  whole words, and do not know the letter sounds. This epiphany caused me to begin reviewing the alphabet with my beginning to advanced level students. A simple screening test to determine decoding skills is to ask a student to read unfamiliar decodable words individually. Without context or pictures, students must sound out  unfamiliar words. Phonemic awareness knowledge is necessary to decode and spell new words. 

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

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