Teaching Thailand #2: Focusing on the Alphabet

In “Teaching Thailand #1: My Past and Present”, I wrote that I have not been teaching full-time Kindergarten for very long — just over one year in which I taught this level exclusively. The school at which I taught last year (and to which I hope to return) had five levels: two Pre-K (which they call Nursery 1 and Nursery 2), and three classes each in K1, K2 and K3. I was a bit shocked that learning the alphabet seemed to be a low priority in the curriculum I am required to use with the result that very few of the graduating K3 students could recognize individual letters when removed from “the “”The Alphabet Song”.

A selection of the vocabulary flashcards I made last year. I had to teach words from a single letter for up to three weeks (2-3 lessons per week, five words per lesson) which made MOST letters of the alphabet difficult to find enough Kindergarten-appropriate words. I quickly ran out of “U” words as I wasn’t going to use any with the “un-” prefix and resorted to abbreviations such as “UFO” and “USA”.

By the time this past school year ended, many of the Thai teachers at the school (who largely remain in the classrooms during my lessons) had become comfortable enough with me that I felt I could make minor variations to the curriculum. For last year, this came too little too late but next year I will make the alphabet a priority. I feel this is the single most important task for beginning students and it should not be taken lightly.

My emphasis on gathering materials for the upcoming school year (which starts on 15 May) has been just that. In most cases, I need to create everything from scratch as it can be very difficult to find anything useful in Thailand’s office supply or toy stores. I can find various items on the popular mail-order app Lazada, most of which comes from China. I am not rich, however, so my Wish List there tends to grow ever larger and never diminishes.

These magnetic letters were very popular with my students towards the end of the term when they finally arrived from China. Unfortunately, they are only the capital letters (a similar set with lower-case disappeared into the bowels of Thailand Post who blamed a backlog due to nationwide floods last October and November). I used them mainly to review for the final exams which is when I discovered many students did not know the names of the individual letters unless they sang “The Alphabet Song”!

The English alphabet make look deceptively simple but there are many elements involved when teaching it to Second Language (L2) students. The first step really is Letter Recognition — the child needs to be able to identify and say the name of each letter of the alphabet before moving on to the sounds (Phonics).

According to the All About Learning Press blog:

Children who know the names of the letters have three major advantages:

  1. Kids who know letter names will learn the sounds of the letters much more easily. By contrast, children who don’t know the letter names often have tremendous difficulty in learning the sounds of the letters.
  2. Children who can easily name the letters of the alphabet have an easier time learning to read.
  3. As they learn the letter names, children tend to be more motivated to discover more about the letters and about the words around them.
How to Teach the Alphabet to Pre-Schoolers

This set of magnetic letters (both upper- and lower-case) finally arrived from China a few days after the last school year ended. I will use it next year but if I return to the same school, I will need to buy a portable whiteboard on an easel — most of the classrooms either don’t have boards at all or they are so covered with taped-on Thai writing that I cannot use them! I plan to do some letter matching games/races and show children how to spell their nicknames in English using these.

Which to teach first: the capital letters or lower-case ones? I have seen arguments for each type: for upper-case, “the visual form of the capital letters is more distinct” and “the only letters that could be flipped and mistaken for another letter are M/W”, while for lower-case: “These are the most frequent letters your kids will see in the world around them, so they are easy to point out”.

Last term, I taught the letter forms together but I don’t think it really sunk in. Another teacher recently gave me a printable activity in which children are to match the upper-case with their lower-case counterparts. I will definitely incorporate this into my lessons.

My version of the Alphabet Letters Game — capital letters are on red apples and green apples contain the lower-case letters. I suppose yellow apples could be used for sound blends. I was only able to use this activity regularly in one classroom last term. Most of the other Thai homeroom teachers didn’t like the kids getting up to participate or the noise it generated. The experience with the teachers’ reactions really soured me on games for the rest of the term, although I attempted to introduce a few “quiet” activities as time went on. I repeatedly used the Alphabet Letters Game in the classroom mentioned before and wasn’t really shocked that most of the students in that class ended up way ahead on final exam scores. Using a fun activity in the classroom always triumphs over tedium!

Whenever I substitute taught in kindergartens, I played a game in which students pull a random letter card from a bowl and had to say the name to win a point. I used Velcro to attach these to a large piece of future board and could extend the activity by having the children rearrange the random letters into the correct order. That was also given to me by another teacher and I have since found that her version came from the excellent Miss Kindergarten blog. I recommend getting it from Miss Kindergarten who offers a great printable PDF for free on her site. She also had numerous other useful materials for sale.

These two games illustrate the best way to teach the alphabet to Kindergarteners: hands-on activities. My new school last year told me not to use paper (alphabet tracing worksheets) and most of the teachers did not want me to play games with the kids. I followed their rules as I was new there but, should I return I plan to introduce more hands-on learning activities.

For the alphabet, my plan is to focus on a single letter each week. At this school, I see each K1 and K2 class twice per week and three times in K3. Each lesson is just 30 minutes long. Rather than using flashcards, I plan to use such things as sand for the kids to trace the letter shapes into (it is a 30-minute walk to the beach so I have an endless supply of it) and clay to build letters with. I think if I give each kid a small plastic tray with a bag of letter-building material, it will minimize the mess. I might experiment with other objects such as stickers, buttons, small coins, etc. for the kids to make the letters out of. Hopefully, these will replace tracing and writing the letters on paper.

I will do chants with the kids for each letter. Here are the cards I made for A and B (front and back):

I would like to hide items around the classroom representing each letter for the children to find in a version of “I Spy” but the kids are always in the room when I arrive for my lessons. Perhaps I can place a batch of letter cards in the back and ask different children to fetch a particular letter for me. I can also use pictures once the students learn what they are and what letter they begin with. I could even scatter cards with capital and lower-case letters and the kids have to find each pair. Found objects — items that the Thai teachers stock in their classrooms — are often useful as well.

Another idea is having the children form letters of the alphabet with their bodies; some can be done individually but others in pairs or groups of three. This could be a lot of fun with a prize for the team with the fastest and the best-formed (creative!) letters. I believe I can experiment with this (it will be noisy!) with one particular Thai teacher who is particularly receptive to fun activities. It would be great to use something like this if we were ever to have an English camp-type of activity day (one was planned for last term but ultimately cancelled).

I am a lifelong lover of reading and am well aware of the power of books. I used to teach Reading to third- and fourth-graders in an international school. While I do not plan to teach Kindergarten students how to read, we can do some basic Spelling as we move through the alphabet and they begin to learn about the sounds the letters make. To that end, I can occasionally read a book to them; I only have one that focuses on the alphabet — Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. — but I cannot use it in Thailand as the phrase “boom boom” is considered inappropriate. If you can offer suggestions for other alphabet-themed books, please let me know in the comments below.

A few of the Thai homeroom teachers remained resistant to the students MOVING during the lessons. The kids were made to sit as still as possible in rows on the floor and any slouching or movement was met with either a stern reprimand in Thai or “the stick”. With these teachers, it did not matter if I was in the middle of teaching or had asked a kid to stand up for one reason or another.

These K1 students will be in K2 next school year and I am looking forward to building on the base I laid down last term. They are well-behaved through the strict discipline they encountered in K1 and they might want to bust-out a bit in more vigorous activities. I love dividing classes into smaller groups so they can compete against each other during games, cheering their team members on to victory! I might have to tone this down a bit but I think some of my favorite such as flashcard relay races can still be done in quiet mode. Although I do like the loudness (if a kid is loud, he is having fun in my book), I still have to respect how the Thai teachers want their kids to act in all lessons.

As I mentioned, at the beginning of the term there was one teacher in the entire school who was receptive to any and all of the fun activities and would assist me in managing the kids. Her class had a reputation for being the “noisiest” whether I was in there or not (the Chinese teacher told me she spent entire lessons trying to get the kids just to be quiet and sit down). The kids would come up to me at all times of the day (my office was on their route to the restroom) to ask when I was coming back to their class. This soon became my favorite group of students and their exam scores reflect that they were actually learning. I hope to work with this teacher again in the coming year as I think we made a great team. Most of the other classrooms did allow me to do more learning activities as time went on. By the end of the school year, there were only two or three “forced quiet” classes remaining out of a total of eleven.

To quote Miss Kindergarten herself,

“The key to a curriculum or unit for homeschoolers (or any learner) is to keep it FUN, engaging, and hands-on! Approaching a subject from many angles helps with retention, progression, and mastery. . . .when the child sculpts the letter from playdough, recites a fun poem, or makes a craft, learning will be fun, creative, entertaining, and long-lasting. Add in games, song, and movement, and you’ll have eager little beavers, ready to learn!”

How To Teach Kindergarten

Mama Teaches adds,

“Learning the alphabet needs to be as multisensory as possible. And you need to move slowly; take the time to let these brand-new shapes and sounds sink in. Learning a letter a week is a great pace with which to begin. You can always speed up or slow down the pace if you need to.”

How to Teach the Alphabet

Nin is smiling because he is in the “loud” class, the most fun class, and the smartest class. These kids may have appeared hyper-active to the older Thai teachers when they peered into the windows but they out-scored every other kid in the school except for one! Thankfully, their homeroom teacher slowly began showing her much older colleagues the positive results of all that noise — they scored well in Thai and Chinese as well as my English assessments. This was that particular teacher’s first year on the job — young and fresh; as time went on, some of the other teachers allowed more activity. It also seemed like this new teacher had been told to discipline the kids more, even if they had done nothing wrong! The Thai teaching method seems rooted in making the students shudder in fear and I really hope this teacher retains the sweetness she exhibited towards the children last year.

I am going to do my best to have hands-on activities for learning the alphabet (and the other topics in the curriculum) and be consistent about it each week going forward. The method this school had me utilize for most of last term was the endless showing of flashcards with the children repeating the word and concentrating on the overall pronunciation, as per the curriculum. I had to do this ad nauseum with very little variation allowed. This method (largely based on how the Thai teachers teach) is NOT effective in L2 teaching, and never for Kindergarteners.

I have no doubt that the students were bored and I certainly was. The Thai teachers have the advantage of explaining everything in Thai while I have to make the children understand and learn without the use of Thai at all. They will not learn English by rote repetition; they might learn the words but not how they are formed or how to use them.

In all of the K1 classes, the children were gradually allowed to get up and participate in activities. During this particular lesson, I had hung up the flashcards throughout the classroom with Velcro. I told each child a different word and they needed to find the card that matched the word and bring it to me, telling me the word when they returned. Out of all of the classes in which I did a similar activity, this was the only one where 100 percent of the kids returned with the correct flashcard without any prompting by other kids (or the Thai teacher!). While I did this with the vocabulary words (and they weren’t all easy like “car” — some of the kids struggled with “sailboat”, “submarine,” and “balloon” in particular), I could easily do this with letters of the alphabet as well (bring me the card starting with “B”, for example).

As the term progressed, the class in which I was allowed to incorporate various games into the lessons expanded to two and then three and ended up with eight or nine (one had a substitute teacher off and on for the last few weeks). I certainly had more fun in the classes where I could do things that the kids enjoyed. By this time, it was too late to recover their lack of Letter Recognition in the alphabet. Achieving that universally in this school will be my primary goal should I return for the next school year. Hopefully, I will receive word on this very soon.

Wish me luck!

One thought on “Teaching Thailand #2: Focusing on the Alphabet

  1. Pingback: Teaching Thailand #4: Alphabet Materials | Mark Joseph Jochim

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