No Child’s Play: 5 Activities for Teaching the English Alphabet to Adults

You know the tune, sing along with me…

A B C D E F G!

But wait! Is that really appropriate for this class?

I mean, the average age here is around 25 years old.

These are adults! Do they really need to sing the same alphabet song you learned in kindergarten?

Yes and no.

Adult English learners will have to know the alphabet just as much as the kids you teach. And we, as teachers, need to be aware that adults learn differently than children. For this reason, you need to choose the best activities for their maturity level.

Learning the ABCs in English is actually probably one of the easiest tasks you’ll have in your ESL classroom. The information to be learned is finite—there are only 26 letters, after all! What’s more, the practical use of the alphabet is also pretty limited. Students mostly need to know it when spelling out words in class, as well as names and other information when they’re speaking English out in the world. In other words, there’s a very specific context in which one teaches the alphabet, which reduces the likelihood that your students will become overwhelmed when learning it.

It’s highly unlikely that any adult (or kid for that matter!) will actually recite the English alphabet from A to Z outside of class. There just isn’t any real-world application for that. So, the ESL activities you do will need to mirror real-life situations like those listed above.

We’ll take a look at five ways you can help your students master their ABCs, both by naming letters and by spelling out words. Let’s jump right in!

No Child’s Play: 5 Activities for Teaching the English Alphabet to Adults

You’ve probably spent some time going over the alphabet with your students in the traditional, alphabetical way, teaching them how to pronounce the name of each letter. However, you don’t want them starting at “a” each time they need to name “w!” These activities focus on naming the letters spontaneously, without using alphabetical order as a crutch.

1. Flashcard Countdown

This is a random warm-up activity you can use in early classes until students have a pretty good grasp on the majority of English letter names.

You need:

  • A progress chart (lines for students, columns for progress: 1-5; 6-10; 11-15; 16-20; 21-26)
  • Gold star stickers


  • Shuffle the ABC cards.
  • Have one student sit in front of you. Rapidly show the student each of the cards.
  • If the student names the letter correctly, put the card in a pile to the right.
  • If the student names the card incorrectly, or takes more than a second to name it, put the card in a pile to the left.
  • Count the correct cards and put a star next to their name in the appropriate column of your chart to indicate progress.
  • Review the cards from the left pile with the entire class. Other students will share these failures!
  • Move on to the next student.

Present this activity to your adult students as an exercise in agility. Keep up a brisk, regular rhythm when showing the cards. Students don’t need time to think, they need to spontaneously say the name of the letter without hesitation.

Go easy on beginners; but when students have the alphabet pretty much in their pockets, speed up, challenging them to get the perfect 26 in less time than before.

2. ABC Rummy

This is a take-off on Old Maid and Gin Rummy, in which students gather pairs, trios or quartets of same-letter cards. It’s also good practice for basic question structure.

You need:

  • Four ABC card sets
  • Scrap paper for calculating scores


  • Shuffle the ABC cards.
  • Deal out seven cards to each player, leaving the rest in the center, face down.
  • Students check their hands for any existing combinations. The three combinations are: pairs, trios, quartets.
  • Students may lay down any of the three combinations now, or reserve pairs and trios in the hope of getting larger combinations during play, which have more point value.
  • The first student then asks any other student if they have a particular card: “Pietro, do you have a ‘w’?”
  • If Pietro has one or more “w” cards, he says “Yes, I do,” and hands them over. The first student can then either lay down the combination or continue trying for a larger one.
  • If Pietro doesn’t have a “w,” he says “No, I don’t, go fish!” and the first player takes a card from the pool. The turn goes to the next player who asks anyone for a card.
  • Gameplay continues until one player is left with no cards in their hand.

To score, add up the following points for each combination students have laid down:

  • Give 5 points for each pair.
  • Give 10 points for each trio.
  • Give 20 points for each quartet.
  • Subtract 5 points for each unused card in their hand.

You can speed up the game by using colored poker chips for scoring. Use red for 5 points, blue for 10 and white for 20. And at the end of the game, have students calculate their scores. That’ll give them the opportunity to practice their numbers as well.

Activities That Teach the ABCs by Using Words

When adults actually use the alphabet, they are usually spelling out something over the phone: their name, their weird email address, maybe the name of their street. These three activities involve spelling out words, but also place that spelling in different contexts, giving additional practice to areas like building vocabulary, forming questions and general class material review. Plus, they’re good, competitive fun!

3. Wheel of Fortune!

This is a good review game for material you’ve already studied in class. Unlike of the somewhat limited (and lugubrious!) game of Hangman, Wheel of Fortune allows you to use complete sentences from classwork.

You need:

  • Sentences taken from recent in-class lessons you wish to review
  • ABC flashcards
  • One or two die
  • Play money ($100 bills are best)


  • Separate the ABC cards into vowel and consonant piles. Make sure they’re in alphabetical order for quick location.
  • Draw the sentence on the board, each letter represented by a line, with appropriate spaces and punctuation.
  • Student A throws the dice, the number they role is the money they wager.
  • If the student rolls a three, you announce: “For three hundred dollars, choose a letter!”
  • Student A asks, “Is there an ‘f’’?”
  • If there is an “f,” write the letter above the appropriate lines on the board.
  • Award Student A with $300 for each “f” in the sentence.
  • Move on to Student B, who throws the dice as well. (You could let Student A continue as long as they get letters in the sentence, but moving on makes sure that everyone gets to play!)
  • Players may purchase a vowel with “I’d like to buy a vowel,” before rolling the dice at $100 a vowel.
  • A player who wants to solve says “I’d like to solve the puzzle.” The student then has to say the correct letter name for each of the remaining blanks on the board. For each correct letter, pay $100. If the student says an incorrect letter, they lose this bonus and you move on to the next player to continue the game.

Add drama by making a throw of one or a pair of ones, also known as “snake eyes,” a lost turn. Throwing a six or double sixes could result in bankruptcy, where the player loses all of their money.

You can do speed rounds, having students take turns saying letters and earning $100 for each correct letter until one student solves the puzzle.

Run this game quickly and agilely, act like a TV game show host, always positive and animate students to applaud and cheer on the current player chanting out “You can do it!” or “Awwww!” on a lost turn or bankruptcy.

For writing practice, rotate students to play the role of Vanna White by letting them fill in the blanks on the board while you run the game. Chances are, you’ll find that most students love bringing non-educational material into your lessons.

 4. A Is for Apple

Students look up new words in the dictionary using the first letter of the word. This exercise combines letter names with vocabulary building.

You need:

  • An ABC card set
  • An egg timer


  • Shuffle the cards.
  • Hand a card out to each student.
  • Set the timer to one minute.
  • Students list all the words they can think of that begin with their letter.
  • When time’s up, students must put their pencils down and spell out their words, one at a time.

For every word correctly spelled out, give a poker chip. For each word misspelled, take a poker chip away.

Alternatively, you can hand out two or three cards and have students think of words that contain all of the letters they have on hand.

For writing practice, you can have each student write out their words on the board instead of spelling them out.

This game can be played in pairs as well.

5. The Longest Word

In this activity, players try to make the longest word possible using random letters in a limited amount of time.

You need:

  • ABC cards
  • An egg timer
  • Poker chips


  • Put students in pairs or small groups of three or four. More advanced students can play individually.
  • Divide the ABC cards into consonants and vowels and shuffle each pile.
  • Each team calls out for a card, either consonant or vowel. Turn the card over so all can see.
  • Once seven cards have been chosen, give teams one minute to create the longest possible word they can from the letters available.
  • Vowels can be reused in the word (if an “a” is chosen, students can use it more than once).
  • Consonants can be used twice if necessary (for a more challenging game, restrict consonants to single use).
  • When the timer rings, each team spells out their word.

Award a poker chip for each letter in the word. After several rounds, the team with the most chips wins.

Who Knew the ABCs Could Be Such Fun?

Learning the English alphabet is as easy as cake. The challenge comes up because it’s not used all that frequently outside of the classroom. These drills and review activities, revisited throughout the course, should help to cement the names of English letters firmly into your students’ minds.


Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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