Learning alphabetical order


...one of the best-known English language alphabet songs, and perhaps the one most frequently referred to as "the alphabet song", especially in the United States. Music for the alphabet song... was first copyrighted in 1835 by the Boston-based music publisher Charles Bradlee, and given the title "The A.B.C., a German air with variations for the flute with an easy accompaniment for the piano forte".
- Alphabet Song, Wikipedia

Wikipedia tells me that "John Harris is often credited with introducing the now-familiar alphabetic format in 1704 with his English Lexicon Technicum: Or, A Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences: Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Arts Themselves." But this seems wrong. I mean, he may be "credited" but he shouldn't be.

My recollection - and you must forgive my fuzziness - was that the first alphabetized book of knowledge was a bestiary published in the late 1200's by the (I think) Benedictine Konrad de Mure, rector for a school near Zurich; though it may have been the Franciscan Bartholomew, a.k.a. Bartholomaeus Anglicus or Bartholomew the English. Ivan Illich, who has wasted even more time on medieval history than me, points to Albert the Great (c. 1250) as an early source of this method.

In any case, we're looking at a tendency which is about 800 years old. (The alphabet itself, in contrast, is about 3000 years old.) We're also looking at an unnatural tendency. Consider the days of the week, laid out either chronologically or alphabetically:




Monday Friday
Tuesday Monday
Wednesday Saturday
Thursday Sunday
Friday Thursday
Saturday Tuesday
Sunday Wednesday


There is no doubt that one is more commonsensical than the other.

We who work in the field are familiar with the obstacle learners face while looking up a word when they are unsure if it starts with "j" or "g", "c" or "s". Add to this an uncertainty about the order in which "j" or "g" or "c" or "s" appear, and a phone book or glossary becomes nearly useless. And yet....

Two stories.

I'm reading with some kids in the storytent. We finish a book, and someone hands me Dr. Seuss's ABCs. I open the first page, and they immediately begin singing "A, B, C-D, E, F, G...." I join in, and we sing our way through the book three times before moving on. This isn't an unusual thing, by the way; this repurposing of a book. Quite often, when I open a nursery rhyme book to "Little Miss Muffet" the children sing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." Such is the way some children's rhymes supplant others, I suppose. But in the case of the alphabet song, I'm aware that the children, in singing the song together, are building a needed intellectual tool for the future.  This is an important thing, this singing.

Around about the same time, I meet with an adult learner who reads at a very low level. Among his goals is to memorize the order of the alphabet. He understands perfectly well that, in our society, we tend to collate (sort and arrange) written information in any number of "looking up" places - dictionaries, phone books, office filing systems, library catalogs - alphabetically. Using these tools, these shared sources of information, requires a knowledge of alphabetical order. This is knowledge he needs.

Now, when I, personally, am filing a folder labeled "Thomas" or "Unemployment" or "Waiting List" I always sing, just under my breath, the second verse: "q r s / t u v / w x / v and z." Like the children in the tent, I sang this song over and over, until I had a reliable mnemonic device.

But what will this guy do? I mean I can hardly teach him the song. Well, I could, but we've just met and it would ask an awful lot of our relationship.

I suppose I can do drill and kill. You know, provide some "sort these words into alphabetical order" exercises. (But has anybody ever learned the alphabet that way?) Maybe I can create a business card sized "cheat sheet" for him. We can use the phone book in each class. I can assign homework. But still....

Well, as it turned out, poor health and some other matters scuppered his efforts to attend class. But I haven't stopped thinking about the question he posed.

How do we help middle-aged men learn the right order to the alphabet? How do they do it in ESL classes where the learner comes from a culture that uses a totally different script? How do you do it? Did it work? How long did it take?

How 'bout if I played A, You're Adorable in all my classes?

3 comments:

Ginny Hooper said...

Great question!!!

Anne D said...

Put it on a tape/CD and give it to him to play in the car. He can sing along alone without feeling self-conscious.

Wendell Dryden said...

Great suggestion, Anne!

(Though it certainly wouldn't preclude me wandering about the classroom singing A, You're Adorable... right?)