Alphaboxes is a fairly common activity that is most often used at the elementary level for the purpose of reviewing content. As I worked with Meghan Loveless to finish up the last of the Flex units this spring, she suggested we find an Acquisition-friendly way to use it in the curriculum. We did, and we think it will be a useful activity for you in the coming school year!
What is Alphaboxes?
A quick Google search will turn up many explanations of Alphaboxes on teacher blogs and school district curriculum sites. Most commonly, students are given a worksheet that contains one box for each letter of the alphabet (or for groups of letters of the alphabet, such as XYZ). They typically work individually or in pairs to brainstorm words that are related to a piece of content that they have been learning about that begin with each letter, and they fill in the 'Alphaboxes' accordingly. Afterward, the teacher leads the class in sharing what they have written down on their papers.
Honestly, it doesn't take much to find a home for Alphaboxes in an Acquisition-focused course: it's all in how you look at it. If you look at Alphaboxes as a vocabulary activity, it's hard to see how it fits into a communicative course. Instead, consider it as a conversation starter! The purpose is not to come up with words; the purpose is to come up with ideas–represented by words–that are worth talking about.
Imagine one of these scenarios:
- You want to recall together what happened in a story that you read or created yesterday.
- You want to review the facts that you learned about a topic in a previous class.
- You want to activate background knowledge (vocabulary and topical) before you dive into a reading.
I'm sure you've had a class that won't stop talking when you've set out to have one of these conversations. And on the flip side, I'm also sure that you've had a class that you can't get to talk! I did too, and I found that the best way to get those classes talking was to 'prime' the conversation. Often, I would hang question posters around the room and have them record their answers on the posters before I asked the questions in class. I then had something concrete to ask questions about during the discussion. Alphaboxes can serve this function!
How to use Alphaboxes
Decide whether you want to give students individual processing time before you start sharing together. If so, you might distribute a worksheet (like the one in The Comprehensible Classroom's Subscriber Resource Library) and give students think time (like, 3 minutes!) to fill it out on their own or with a partner.
To begin the whole-class portion of the activity, display a slide with spaces reserved for each letter of the alphabet, or draw a grid on your whiteboard and label each one with a letter of the alphabet.
Starting with the letter A, ask students to share words from a familiar story or informational text that begin with that letter. You could even ask students to do this WHILE LOOKING AT THE TEXT!
Once students give you a word, ask them to put it in context: what is the sentence from the story in which it was used? Or how is it connected to the topic? Then, talk about that part of the plot or that piece of information. THIS is the portion of the activity that matters! It's not about the words; it's about the ideas represented by the words.
After one or more words have been shared for a letter, move on to the next letter and repeat. Remember to keep the focus on communication. Use this as a brainstorming activity to recall what students know about the story or topic. If students cannot come up with any words for a given letter, NO problem! Move on to the next one. You do not have to create an exhaustive glossary.
At the end, if there are any blank letters (no words in the story/about the topic begin with that letter), see if your students can come up with words that begin with that letter that they COULD use to tell the story or talk about the topic. Of course, this will be more successful as students continue in their journeys, so don’t spend too much time in the early stages of Level 1.