So you are ready to teach the alphabet to your students? Great. Where will you begin? Experts in the field have informed us that we should not be teaching one letter a week. In that case, how should we teach the alphabet? Keep reading and I’ll offer some insight based on the recent publication from Karen Erikson and David Koppenhaver.

Alphabet is one part of a series of required daily instruction

We know that as teachers of young or emergent literacy learners of any age, it is vital that we broaden what we teach to include a full literacy program. The key components of effective literacy instruction are shared reading, shared writing, teaching of the alphabet and phonological awareness as well as independent reading and writing (Erikson & Koppenhaver, 2020).

Why teach the alphabet to students with significant disabilities?

Firstly we teach the alphabet because everyone has the right to learn to read and write. I invite you to read more about the Literacy Bill of Rights Here. Yes it will take longer for students with significant and multiple disabilities to learn the knowledge. It is however critical that they get the opportunity over their lifetime. In order to receive this teaching we must believe that all students can learn. Learning to read and write should continue as long as it takes for our students to be successful.

Alphabet knowledge is a key component of learning to read and write. By learning at least some letters of the alphabet it will allow our students to cue us in on what their important message they are trying to communicate is. Let’s consider the suggested sequence for the teaching of the alphabet in our special education classes.

Green background, reddish speckled washy tape holding a white rectangle inner - words state Erikson And Koppenhaver "Teach One Letter A Day" To Students With Significant Disabilities

Teach One Letter A Day

You agree that teaching the alphabet is critical but where do we begin? Erikson & Koppenhaver (2020) p. 38, (based on the work of Jones et al., 2013) recommend teaching one letter a day in the following order:

  • First 26 days: begin with the letters within the names of the students
  • Next: the alphabetic order
  • Then: those that represent the sounds that are in the letter name, then those that represent sounds not in the letter name or those that represent more than one sound (b, f, m, p, j, d, k, t, v, z, l, n, r, s, h, q, w, y, c, g, x, i, a, e, o, u
  • Fourth Cycle: by frequency of use in writing (focus on the letters that appear LEAST frequently: y, q, j, z, x, w, k, h, g, v, f, b, m, p, d, c, l, s, n, t, r, u, o, e, a, i). Interesting – I wonder what your thoughts are on this?
  • Fifth Cycle: the easiest to pronounce based on typically developing students: n, m, p, h, t, k, y, f, b, d, g, w, s, l, r, v, z, j, c, i, a, e, o, u, x, q
  • Lastly 6th Cycle: based on letters that are visually similar or those that are more readily distinguished : c, g, o, b, p, d, q, a, m, n, w, r, h, t, l, f, i, j, g, y, v, u, e, z, s, k

And there you have it. Whilst I dabbled with the ideas from this book last year in 2021, I will be trialing this order from the beginning of our school year. My thoughts for what they are worth will be reported on later in the year.

Students’ names are used in multiple contexts throughout the day

It is suggested that we begin with the letters that form the name of the student(s). This makes sense as the name of the child is important to them. It is their identity. They are exposed to their name verbally and in print from a very young age. This is developmentally where their peers begin to learn to read and write so of course it makes perfect sense to begin here with our students too.

One of the suggestions of an effective teaching and learning program when it comes to teaching literacy is to teach the skill and then offer lots of practice in many contexts. The letters of the names of our students provide amazing opportunities to enable generalisation. Some examples are:

  • ‘signing in’ on arrival and ‘signing’ stories written, art etc. whether that means looking for their name as a whole and moving it to a sign in sheet, identifying and pushing a button on a screen or physically writing.
  • look for their name to place personal items when unpacking. Label drink bottles/cups and food containers
  • explicit teaching during predictable chart writing and independent writing
  • Sensory activities: hide the letters in sensory tubs. Ask student to find and make up their name
  • Sing songs about the letters that make up their name such as BINGO for example.
  • make little books that make up each letter of their name
  • form their name using playdough; sequins; stones; gems
  • magic paint and have their letters appear
  • thread letters
  • worksheets to colour/collage the alphabet letters that make up the names of the students in the class
  • online digital resources are loved by my students. BOOM cards are great. Check out my post here and grab a letter E Boom Card Freebie while you are there

Students hear their name all day so what an ideal place to start. I’m sure you can think of many more ways to expose the letters that make up the name of your students.

Point out the beginning letter of their name at every opportunity

Opportunities will be everywhere in the school environment to point out letters. Every time we come across a word on a sign, in a book, or on a poster we need to explicitly link their name and the letter. Generalisation is key.

Have fun and get teaching that alphabet. Our students are waiting to be literate. For more ideas for what I teach for literacy in a self-contained class and to download a Cheat Sheet to display or begin the planning process – check out this post here. NB: the letter recommendation of teaching 2 -3 letters a week in that post was prior to 2021’s trial as documented in this post.

Aroha, Ann


Subscribe to our weekly Newsletter & Get Access to ALL the FREE PRINTABLES

* indicates required


Erikson, K. A., & Koppenhaver, D.A. (2020). Comprehensive Literacy For All. Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Jones, C.D., Clark, S. K., & Reutzel, D. R. (2013). Enhancing alphabet knowledge instruction: Research implications and practical strategies for early childhood educators. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41, 81-89.

One Comment

  • Helen Brunner

    It’s worth reading the Jones et al article as it gives a lot of Background into why this is effective….distributed practice and all. It also discusses and provides a sample script for the actual format of a lesson. I learned about this from Erickson and Koppenhaver when I was lucky enough to attend Camp ALEC in the US in 2018 and do the level 2 literacy training with them ( having done level 1 in Australia in 2014).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.