Teaching the Latin alphabet

For the third article in a series, Babbel offers two methods for understanding the relationship between letters and their meanings.
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Teaching the Latin alphabet

This article is the third in a series of guides and suggestions for German classes with refugees — by Babbel. The articles introduce useful teaching methods regardless of prior pedagogical experience. Here, we summarize the experiences we’ve gained as part of our workshop for volunteer German teachers. The workshops are organized by Babbel language learning experts, and primarily serve volunteer German teachers for the organization Multitude e.V.


When you already know the Latin alphabet, it’s difficult to imagine how troublesome it really is to decode each individual letter correctly, pronounce it and combine it in a word with other letters. Let’s just think about our first lesson again and about how we laboriously had to learn, pronounce and ultimately write each individual letter. We often forget this. In this article, we’ll suggest some proven methods that can be used to teach the Latin alphabet thoroughly using a step-by-step approach.

Two methods for acquiring literacy

There are two classic methods that are used in order to teach the Latin alphabet: the visual and the phonological method.

The visual method:

The visual method is about the relationships between letters and their meanings. An example of this is the Japanese character for person: 人. The entire word consists of only one character. However, it’s not about recognizing and joining single letters — it’s actually a question of identifying a character and recognizing its meaning.

The phonological method:

The phonological method, on the other hand, is about identifying which letters form which sounds. This method is, therefore, more suitable for the Latin alphabet. For example, this table can be used to explain how the individual letters are pronounced:
Alpha 1Some effective exercises for literacy classes

Here are some exercises that can be used in class to teach the Latin alphabet.
Learn letters in groups: depending on its appearance, a letter can be assigned to a certain group. By using the system of classification, the learner can more easily remember the different letters and better differentiate between them.

Alpha 1
Learn letters phonologically: 

In order to associate letters with sounds, you can practice by using short words, for example ja, Mama, elf, lang, gut, Tag, See, or with phonemes ba, be, bi, bo, bu. It’s useful to repeat the vowels because they occur most frequently.

Draw letters on your hands and in the air: 

The teacher shows, writes and/or says a letter. Then the learners find words beginning with this letter. The teacher can also show individual letters on pieces of paper, and the learners have to identify the letter and say it aloud. If the learners do not speak any German at all, then words can be combined with pictures. You can also visualize letters in the air. The teacher draws the letters in the air with his finger, and the learners copy the letter. In doing so, the learners can learn the movements required for each letter. It’s best to practice this exercise before you learn how to write in class.

All of these exercises can be performed in groups of two. For example, one of the two learners draws a letter on the other learner’s hand. The learner then has to try and guess which letter it is. Similarly, the exercise where you write a letter in the air can also be performed in pairs. The most important writing exercises, however, require a pen and paper. It’s important that you are not scared of thinking that the exercises seem childish. It may well be that one of the learners feels like he is being transported back to the time in his childhood when he learnt to write in his mother tongue.

Some examples for writing exercises:

By using dictation, it’s also possible to write the lines of letters or short phonemes. This also works in pairs: one of you says a letter, and the other one writes it down, or one of you says a word, and the other tries to write down as many letters as possible that make up that word. Here, it’s important for the learners to understand that there are different fonts in the Latin alphabet, so that they have a better awareness of and feeling for the letters (since there are many ways that you can write a letter). Here are some examples:

Alpha 2It’s also helpful to compare whole words in different fonts:

Alpha 4
Situation-based learning offers further various exercises with a practical focus. 

For example, using a subway map, the teacher can say the name of a certain station, which the learners then have to find. Even if the learners can’t pronounce the name of the station particularly well, they are still able to find the name by visualizing it and recognizing it as a whole word on the map.

This method of visual recognition also works with international words that are pronounced in a similar way in almost every single language, for example, Coca Cola, McDonald’s or Facebook.

Many Arabic native speakers already know the Latin numbers:

If the learners are completely illiterate, or German is the first language that they are learning to read and write, then a different approach is likely to be more appropriate. In this case, for example, you can start with exercises that explain how you should hold a pen. Then you can begin to draw lines and curves on a piece of paper. The teachers should make sure that that the lessons are taught at a gentler pace and incorporate more frequent repetition.

Structuring literacy classes

When developing the structure of teaching hours, it’s important during every class to review the content of the previous class. In this way, newcomers will also be able to cope with more advanced lessons. The lessons should cover capital letters and their usage in nouns, proper nouns, their usage at the beginning of sentences and small letters and their usage.

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