Alphabet Soup

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Ask any adult learner of English who already possesses a fairly high level of proficiency in the language to spell their own name. It is more likely than not that they will be unable to do so—or at least unable to do so well.

This may shock you. But, in fact, it should come as no surprise.

As one learner put it to me recently after failing to spell her name:“I was trying to remember the rhyme we learned in school.”

The rhyme she learned in school clearly didn’t help.

This common problem with an aspect of language that seems so basic neatly encapsulates the multiple difficulties that arise when the arduous business of learning a language is further complicated by misguided teaching.

In the case of the alphabet, the traditional approach is encumbered by three fundamental flaws:

1) the alphabet is incorrectly regarded as something very basic;

2) it is therefore taught early on in a course and then forgotten; and

3) it is usually taught in isolation both from social use and from other aspects of the language.

On top of this, there is a whole truckload of ideological and socio-cultural baggage associated with the alphabet.

It is regarded in popular discourse, for instance, as something proverbially very basic or childish and hence easy to acquire. We say, in English, that something is ‘as easy as ABC’. In Portuguese, the term ‘alfabetização’ refers both to ‘literacy’ and to the first years of elementary school. People who are unable to read or write are termed ‘analfabetos’, literally ‘unalphabeted’. Learners naturally, therefore, feel a certain shame at seeming not to have mastered this very basic learning stage.

In fact, the alphabet is not basic at all and it is not a stage on the way towards anything.

This is not only because children happily learn to speak and to understand spoken language at a very early age with no recourse whatsoever to a written alphabet. It is also because the very process of learning the names of letters and reciting them in a certain order is not something that is fundamental for any essential communication skill. You can talk and listen to people talking and even read and write perfectly well without ever doing this, as the existence of many a competent adult language learner who has forgotten the alphabet readily attests.

Should you doubt this, try writing down the names of the letters of the English alphabet and try to spell them correctly. I guarantee that, unless you are a regular Scrabble player, you will find this difficult, if not impossible. The answer, should you be interested, can be found at the end of this post.

For the purpose of reading and writing in a first language, there is a good argument for teaching the alphabet to children early on in school. But is this true for adults? And what function could such a procedure possibly serve if adult learners are already literate and already use the Latin alphabet in their own language? Even if they use a very different writing system, they will undoubtedly profit much more greatly from preliminary lessons that focus more on basic spoken communication skills.

No need then to teach the alphabet early on in a course at all.

 I am of course not advocating that the pronunciation of the names of the written letters should be removed from the language learning curriculum altogether. I suggest only that it should be covered at a relatively advanced stage and that it should be related always to those (relatively few) practical contexts in which the alphabet is actually needed.

When giving one’s name, for example, it is often useful to spell it out loud. But this would normally be in the context of a situation such a telephone conversation, which already presupposes quite advanced listening and speaking skills.

A good way to introduce the alphabet, therefore, is not through the arbitrary traditional order of the signs, but through the spelling out loud of common words and names, beginning with listening. Another helpful method would be to draw the attention of learners to commonly used acronyms such as DJ, MC, CNN and BBC. Learners are thus introduced to the names of letters of the alphabet in a sequence that reflects the commonness of their occurrence in real discourse, as they are (or should be) with other words.   

The fact that so many language courses and course books still begin with recitation of the alphabet is a sign of how little has really changed in the business of language learning.

This failing also however encourages us to reflect one of the fundamental principles that should underpin any attempt to learn or teach a second language. The content of a language learning course should always be firmly embedded in real-life natural language use and as far possible avoid the employment of artificial devices, such as alphabets.

The alphabet jingle may jangle in your memory for the rest of your life. But it will not help you spell your name when you need to. This requires practice of a very different kind.   


The names of the letters of the alphabet in English are traditionally written as follows: a, bee, cee, dee, e, ef (or eff), gee, aitch, i, jay, kay, el (or ell), em, en, o, pee, cue, ar, es (or ess), tee, u, vee, double-u, ex, wy (or wye), and zee.


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