Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

Lesson 2: The Greek Alphabet: more familiar than you think!

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The Lesson

Introduction

"Omega" is the last letter in the Greek alphabet.

"Omega" is the last letter in the Greek alphabet.

And the Greeks took up the letters from the Phoenicians, and once they had changed their shape somewhat, they used them. And when they used them, they called them “Phoenicians”, as was just, since the Phoenicians brought the letters to Greece.
—(Herodotus, History of the Persian Wars, 5.58.2)

 

This second lesson of the curriculum unit, The Alphabet is Historic, is about the Greeks, who inherited the alphabet invented by the Phoenicians, and used it to write their great literature.

Guiding Questions

  • Who were the Greeks and where did they live?
  • How did they come to inherit the Phoenician alphabet? 
  • Can we see that the Greek alphabet is starting to look more like our alphabet? 
  • What are some other things, besides the alphabet, that we inherited from the ancient Greeks?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Show that the Greeks and Phoenicians both lived on the shores of the Mediterranean.
  • Tell that the Greeks learned the alphabet from Phoenician traders.
  • Say why the alphabet was important for the Greeks.
  • Tell one or two other things, besides the alphabet, that we inherited from the ancient Greeks.
  • Compare some Greek letters to our own letters.
  • Do an art activity or write a short paragraph related to the Greek alphabet.

Background

Like the Phoenicians, the ancient Greeks lived in cities all over their rocky peninsula, and they also engaged in a lot of trade. But they were also unlike the Phoenicians in some ways, and in particular they had different forms of government. The Phoenicians had kings. But the Greeks passed through many different forms of government in their cities, and eventually the people at Athens invented democracy, which is rule by the people instead of by kings or nobles. The ancient Greeks also had a lot of other ideas and customs that are important for us: the Olympic games, for instance, began in ancient Greece.

The reason we know about democracy in ancient Greece, or about the Olympic games, is that the ancient Greeks wrote all about them. Once the Greeks had an alphabet, it seems they could not stop writing. They pioneered many of the kinds of writing we consider standard today. They wrote speeches, books about science and learning, plays, poems, and long histories of the things that happened to them. The alphabet was a very important part of Greek culture!

Preparation Instructions

The Greek Alphabet

Project the map of the Mediterranean region as you introduce Greece.

Point out Greece and Athens on the map.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Greek Alphabet Activity
  • Begin the lesson on the Greek Alphabet by asking the students if they still remember the Phoenician traders who were trading purple cloth for olive oil at Athens. Ask the children: What would the Greeks think when they saw the Phoenician ship returning to Athens, a few weeks later, all loaded up with the stuff the Phoenicians had asked for in their letter? Do you think they would want to learn to write? You could tell them that the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet so that they could start writing down all the things that were important to them.
  • At this point you could show the students the Greek alphabet. The Greek alphabet is about 2,700 years old. Nevertheless, there are many letters in the ancient Greek alphabet that you and your students will immediately recognize.
  • Show the children the letters A, B, E, I, K, M, N, O, S, and T. These Greek letters are essentially identical to the letters we use today.

If your students are very young, or if time is lacking, it will be sufficient for this lesson to have shown the students that the alphabet was developing into the alphabet they know. But many students will also be interested in knowing about some of the letters they do not recognize. Included is a short explanation of a few of the differences between our alphabet and the ancient Greek alphabet: you might choose to use none of this, just a few points, or all of it, depending on your class and students.

The following are some examples of how the Greek alphabet differs from the Roman alphabet we use:

The third letter, for instance, which looks like an upside-down L, is Gamma, our G. The Greek G does not look anything like our G, and we say "ABC", not "ABG". Over time G got bumped from the third to the seventh place in the alphabet and also changed his shape to the round shape he wears today.

The fourth letter (the one that looks like a triangle) is Delta. This letter is our D. Over the years, D changed shape somewhat, but D got to keep his place as the fourth letter of the alphabet.

 Again, look at the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet. That's Z! In the Greek alphabet Z was in the middle of the alphabet instead of at the end. But over time, the letter Z got bumped clear to the back.

 Two letters down from Z, after the "H", there is a letter that looks like a circle with a line inside of it. That is a Theta. That letter sounds a "th", and we don't have that letter at all anymore. We use two letters, T and H, to show that sound. In other words, letters don't only change, they also sometimes appear and disappear.

These are a few examples of the many changes the alphabet underwent on its way from the Greeks to us. As with the Phoenician alphabet, the students might enjoy copying down some of the strange looking Greek letters, just to try them out.

You might also point out that people living in Greece still use this alphabet for everything they write, just the way we use our alphabet. The fact that the Greeks changed the Phoenician alphabet, or that the Romans changed the Greek alphabet, does not mean that either one was deficient, but only that each subsequent group needed to change the letters to accommodate their language and culture.

Activity 2. Greek Vase Activity

Show Greek vase Berlin F2285. On this "image browser" page there are 19 thumbnail images of a Greek vase shaped like a large shallow bowl. The vase depicts a school and ancient Greek children learning in school. Click first on the thumbnail image called Side A: School. A large image will appear. As your students look at the image, point out that on this side of the vase a child is learning to read a poem, and another child is learning to play a Greek instrument called a lyre.

Return to the image browser page.

  • Now select the image called Side A: Teacher and Student with Writing Tablet. This is a close-up of the image you just looked at. Point out the paper in the teacher's hand: the letters are clearly visible. The teacher is showing the student a poem. The first word is spelled M-O-I-S-A. It means “muse.” The poem is addressed to one of the muses, the goddesses of art and music. Point out to your students that they can recognize the Greek letters and learn to read a word. They can do this because our alphabet comes from the Greek alphabet, and so we still know some of the Greek letters. Congratulate the children on learning to read a Greek word!

Return to the image browser page.

Return again to the image browser page.

  • Now select the image called Side A: Teacher and Student Practicing Lyre. Here a teacher and a student are practicing music together. Point out the prominent place of music in this depiction of school life. Music was a very important part of ancient Greek elementary education.
  • Select the image called Side B: Teacher and Student Practicing Flute for further evidence of this.
  • Then select the image called Side B: School. On this image you an see the "Teacher and Student with the Stylus" together with the "Teacher and Student Practicing Flute." Like Side A, Side B shows a pair of people learning literary skills and a pair of people practicing music.

(The third major activity of ancient Greek elementary education was sports. Because Greek athletes exercised naked, no scenes of sporting activity have been included here. Many scenes of exercising athletes can easily be found if the teacher would like to show some.)

Activity 3. Art Activity: A Teacher and Student Vase

Show the students two or three of the school scenes again, asking a few questions as you go along. In these pictures, how can you tell who is the teacher and who is the student? (Teachers are larger, seated and often bearded. Students, on the other hand, are smaller and usually standing.) What are the students doing? (Watching and listening or practicing their instruments.) What are the people wearing and holding? (Notice their long robes. The students are usually all wrapped up!) What kind of stuff is hung on the walls behind them? (Boxes, baskets, cords, extra instruments and extra drinking bowls.) Finally what color is the vase? Look at the vase and it's figures and decorations. Even though the vase is black, it does not seem dark.

Perhaps the students would like to make their own pictures of a Greek teacher and themselves! Can they imagine themselves as a Greek student? Can they imagine you as a Greek teacher? Download and print out the Greek Alphabet PDF. Print enough copies for all the students. Let each student cut out a tiny alphabet for his or her picture. Then have them use black pencils or crayons to draw you and him or herself, dressed up as a Greek teacher and student studying the alphabet, on tan or crème colored paper. They can also draw special chairs, or musical instruments, or things to hang on the walls if they like. Have the students cut out their figures and paste them on black paper. It might be best to give them somewhat smaller sheets of the light colored paper so that the pictures don't get too large.

Writing Assignment:

Ask the children to write a short description of what it would be like to go to school in ancient Greece. They could tell how it feels to wear long cloaks to school and to learn poems from the teacher. If they could choose an instrument, would they learn to play the flute or the lyre?

Assessment

Conclude the lesson by asking the children to identify Greece and Athens on the map. Ask them to explain how the Greeks first learned the alphabet. Why was the alphabet important for the Greeks? What sort of books did they like to write? What kinds of things did ancient Greek children study in school?

Ask them to describe one or two contributions of the Greeks to history. Remind the students that they were able to recognize many of the Greek letters, and ask them to point out some of the ones they know.

Useful Link

The EDSITEment lesson plan Live from Ancient Olympia is for older students, but contains material that might be a useful extension of your studies of ancient Greece.

The Basics

Time Required

4-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Foreign Language > Ancient > Ancient Greek
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • Foreign Language > Ancient > Latin
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Visual analysis
Authors
  • Edith Foster, Kenyon College (Gambier, OH)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media