Sunday, 19 July 2015

Reciting letters and numbers

I don't recall learning to say the alphabet in French at school. When I began teaching French in 1980 I didn't teach the alphabet either. By the time I finished teaching in 2012 I had come round to regularly teaching the alphabet to Y7s. But was it a good idea?

My approach eventually became to teach A-Z using an American marching song melody. It was a fun thing to do at the start of lessons, brought the class together, helped developed pronunciation and encouraged a focused, disciplined start. Classes liked it and it no doubt helped somewhat at later stages when pupils had to spell out words.

Saying the alphabet out loud, just like reciting numbers in order, seems like an obvious thing to do.

And yet... the reasons we didn't do it at school and I balked at doing it in my early career, were as follows:

1. Spelling out letters in alphabetical order is not a typical communicative task. How often do we do it in life apart from when teaching the alphabet to children?

2. If you teach letters and numbers in order it may slow down a child's ability to instantly recall them when this is required for a real-life tasks such as spelling a name out, saying a year or giving a phone number. We have all seen children having to go through the alphabet or numbers in order before finding the one they need. If we did not teach the alphabet in order would they identify letters more quickly?

I have mixed feelings about this. If you want learners to get good at using individual letters and numbers quickly (in other words, if you want real internalised competence with letter and number production) then the best practice is not to recite them in alphabetical or numerical order, but to play letter and number games which get pupils used to using them more randomly.

There are plenty of ways of doing this which I have blogged about before: aural anagrams, transcribing words, playing hangman, doing mental maths problems, playing "Countdown" and so on. "Fizz-buzz" is an interesting case for number play; although it takes numbers in order it does help develop mental arithmetic through the target language so is more useful than simple counting out.

Does all this mean reciting the alphabet and saying 1-20 has no value? I would say that these tasks still have a use in the early stages for the reasons I mentioned above. The main thing, though, is to move beyond them as soon as possible and to build in regular, spaced practice of randomised letter and number.

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  1. I agree that learning the alphabet in order can slow down recall. I find students pick it up faster if done through just spelling stuff. They notice the similarities and differences quicker. I always teach the alphabet at the beginning of Year 7. I also teach the names of accents and punctuation marks, and we can quickly have conversations in French about spellings, helping to build sentence structure, and focus on attention to detail. I find that our learners come with a very slack or unconfident attitude to spelling in English, and it is helpful to prioritise literacy from the very beginning of the course.

  2. Thanks for commenting. It's really only the recital of the alphabet I question, and even that tentatively so!