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How We Teach Alphabetizing

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“Why do I have to learn alphabetizing? I’ll never use it!”

Kids don’t always understand why they have to learn the skills we teach them, and alphabetizing might seem like one of those skills to them.

Why Teach Alphabetizing?

Contrary to what your child may think, alphabetizing is an essential skill that will help students in many day-to-day tasks both at home and at school.

Think of the part alphabetized lists play in your daily life, from phone books, directories, and recipe books to files in a filing cabinet and music playlists arranged by the artist’s last name. Knowing how to alphabetize will make it easier for children to locate and use commonly sought information.

The skill is also important when it comes to schoolwork, as children must be able to alphabetize in order to do their research effectively. Library skills are crucial to any child, and knowing how to find books listed by the authors’ last names or to look up entries in a textbook glossary or book index will make a child’s job that much easier.

Four Basic Stages of Alphabetizing

There are generally four stages that students go through when learning to alphabetize. Here are the stages, along with tips for each stage.

Stage 1: Begin with the alphabet

Letter tiles make it easy to learn how to alphabetize to the first letter. (If you don’t have letter tiles, you can use Scrabble tiles or squares of paper instead.) Lay out tiles A to Z in random order. One by one, show your child how to place them in alphabetical order, being sure to say the name of each letter out loud as you move it into place. Then have your child repeat each letter name.

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The following tips can help reinforce Stage 1 alphabetizing skills.

  • Work with your child to put the letter tiles in order at the beginning of each spelling or reading lesson.
  • Sing the alphabet song together.
  • Model for your child how to start from different points in the alphabet. For example, lay out the tiles through the letter M, then have him start the alphabet song from L and finish alphabetizing the tiles.
  • Hand your child the letter tiles in random order. Teach him that M and N are in the middle of the alphabet, so that when he gets those tiles he knows he should set them in the middle. As you give the child each tile, he should decide if it is in the first half or the second half of the alphabet.
  • Ask questions such as “What letter comes after __?” and “Is H in the first half of the alphabet or the last half of the alphabet?”

Stage 2: Teach How to Alphabetize Words

Once a child has mastered putting the letters in alphabetical order, teach him that words can be alphabetized, too.

  • Explain that we look at the first letter of a word to alphabetize it.
  • Write several words on index cards, each word beginning with a different letter.
  • Have your child line up the cards in alphabetical order.
  • Use the following words: block, cash, doll, fox, glad, kit, melt, pup, rest, sand, trunk, wish.

Stage 3: Teach How to Alphabetize to the Second and Third Letters

In real-world applications, your student will come across multiple items that start with the same letter (as in children’s authors Sendak, Seuss, and Silverstein). So the next stage is to look to the second or third letter to alphabetize them correctly.

  • Write the following words on index cards: bear, bus, bike, band.
  • Show your child that all the words start with B, so you must alphabetize by the second letter. Have her identify the second letter and alphabetize the words: band, bear, bike, bus.
  • Now add two more index cards with the following words: block, black.
  • Show your child that all six words begin with B, but in addition we now have two words with the same second letter. Explain that in this case, we must look to the second and third letter to alphabetize those words.
  • Have your child identify the second and third letters and alphabetize all six words: band, bear, bike, black, block, bus.

Stage 3 is a great time to show your child how useful these new alphabetizing skills are! Try implementing a few of these practical applications:

  • Take your child to the library to find his favorite books.
  • Look up your neighbor’s name in the phone book.
  • Dictate several categories for your child to look up in the Yellow Pages: plumbers, restaurants, electricians, veterinarians.
  • Find a book with a glossary or index at the end. Call out several words for your child to locate.
  • If you have more than one child—or even a group of your child’s friends—have them line up in alphabetical order according to their first or last names.

Stage 4: Teach Common Rules for Advanced Alphabetizing

This stage is for more advanced students who are consistently able to alphabetize words to the second and third letter. Your child will learn what to do with last names such as McAfee, Macauley, and O’Kearney; book titles that start with The; and numbers.

Here are Common Rules for Advanced Alphabetizing that you can download and print.

How We Teach Alphabetizing - All About Learning Press

Remember, alphabetizing is an important skill, but it doesn’t have to be a boring one. With these tips, your child will be alphabetizing like a pro in no time!

Have you discovered a fun way to practice the different stages of alphabetizing? Share in the comments below and I’ll add it to our readers’ tips box!

Readers’ Tips for Teaching Alphabetizing

  • Pay them to alphabetize something, like DVDs or books. And be sure to have them follow all the rules that are appropriate for the alphabetizing stage they’re at. (suggested by Robin W. via Facebook)
  • Use large ABC cards. Lay them out across the floor. Have your child walk along and say the letters. After awhile, have your child hide while you remove one or more cards. Have the child put the letters where they belong. Mix all the cards up and have him put them all in ABC order. Let him look at an alphabet strip if needed. (suggested by Nancy B. via Facebook)
  • Use a children’s dictionary that has the alphabet down the side of every page that kids can refer to it as they are looking up a word. (suggested by Jenny H., AALP staff)
  • Find a printable file folder game like this one. (suggested by Tanisha, via Facebook)
  • Say a letter and have your child select the letter that comes before and/or after it. Limit the number of letters that you practice i each session to reduce frustration and make the game more fun! (suggested by J. via blog comment)
  • Have your kids look up new words in the dictionary to practice their alphabetizing skills. (suggested by Jessica B. via blog comment)
  • On note cards write the alphabet in groups of three letters (except the M and N). The cards should look like this: ABC DEF GHI JKL MN OPQ RST UVW XYZ. Place the MN card on the table. Then have your kids place the other cards either before or after the middle letters. Timing the students makes a game of learning the order of the letters. With practice children get it done in less than a minute. Be sure to shuffle the cards. (suggested by Sharon H. via blog comment)
  • Use a children’s dictionary. When your child asks what something means, get out the dictionary. Talk through how you know where to find what you’re looking for. (Suggested by Kelly via blog comment)
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Leave a Comment

Julie

says:

I was just realizing earlier today this is a skill we are neglecting to teach explicitly here at our house.

Pam

says:

Thanks for all your great tips. Love the specific ideas of how to give them real world practice and how to teach this step by step.

Raquel

says:

Thank you for your dedication, Marie.

sabrina yuzon

says:

Savvy suggestions ! I was enlightened by the specifics ! Does anyone know where my business could get a blank ZA BI-84 Form 11 document to fill in ?

Keith Bascom

says:

Hi sabrina yuzon. my partner saw a template a form example here http://goo.gl/HvVNsG

Megan Thomas

says:

Thank you for this! I had forgotten some of those alphabetizing rules, and this was helpful as a refresher and for fun game ideas.

Shannon

says:

There are some really great tips here. I am excited to dive into these.

Chere

says:

I love alphabetizing. Wish my kids liked it as much! ;-)

Sandrine

says:

Great and very helpful information. Thank you.

Rachael Niles

says:

Thanks for this excellent tool!

elin

says:

Thank you for this. This was very helpful for our little fun homeschool.

Renae B

says:

I have been doing a few alphabetizing games with my preschooler. It is great to know that this is also built into the program. Very useful article. Thank you

Nicole Murphy

says:

My son loves animals, so we named an animal for each letter of the alphabet in order.

Nicole,
Ooo, that would be fun, and I bet you had to learn about some new animals for some letters. But what animal did you find for X?

Ana

says:

We have started this yet, but I’m thankful for this article and the resource.

Carole

says:

Great ideas to teach alphabetizing! My son has struggled with this skill, but these practical ideas should be very helpful. Thanks for sharing!

Gale

says:

Alphabetizing is so useful. What ages do you suggest teaching the stages? Is there a developmentally appropriate time?

Gale,
It really isn’t about age so much, as it is about ability. Stage 1 can begin as the child has learned the alphabet and the alphabet song. Stage 2 would come with learning how to spell beginning words (approximately All About Spelling level 1). Stage 3 would be with higher levels of spelling, and Stage 4 would be after children are familiar with reading and spelling lots of names and titles.

Diana

says:

Brilliant! I’ve been trying to get my son to look up words when he asks me something like “What does WHAT mean?” because it’s hard to define words like that ;) But I quickly realized that alphabetizing comes first! These are superb suggestions :)

Fawn

says:

Wonderful topic along with practical ideas.

Monica

says:

What a great article! Alot of very helpful ideas!
Thank you…

Jennifer

says:

Thank you for the post and all the ideas (and read ideas) on incorporating alphabetization. We’ve had some crash courses in using the dictionary, but I’ve been missing a lot of opportunities to work with this skill. The tip to have the kids organize the DVDs (that they are mainly responsible for getting out of order!) is golden. I might skip the “pay them” part, though. ;) Their reward can be getting to watch a movie!

Jennifer,
It’s great to hear that you find this article and further comments helpful!

Amy

says:

My sons struggle with this. Thanks for breaking down the steps.

Shevon

says:

Thank you for the simple instructions on how to teach alphabetizing!

Georgina

says:

This is really helpful. I have been through the alphabetical order of letters and using the first letters to put them in the right order; I was wondering what my next move should be. The tip to go to the library for some real-life practice is great! Thanks!

You’re welcome, Georgina. It’s great to hear this was helpful to you to move onto the next step of alphabetizing.

Melissa

says:

I love this entry because I just started working with my daughter on this. She and I practiced at the library.

Love this summary of alphabetizing. My kids love putting things in order all the time. They read dictionaries!

B Brooks

says:

Love these tips! Thanks so much!

j

says:

Thank you for this article! It came at a most timely time. the other comments are good also.

I like to provide a letter and have the child select the letter that comes before and /or after it. I tend to do/provide three letters per week for child to select the before/after letter so that I don’t pressure the child. I also limit the number of select-able letters. Play quickly and put away and of course demonstrate, have child repeat, helping as needed. Example: (1) provide the letters A, z, L (2) have child select from the letters b, c, Y x, m, … Use only upper/lower/a mix whatever your child is ready for (3) repeat for a week.

This can be used successfully with any child who has pretty much mastered the names of the letters. Sometimes we skip a week before working with the next set of letters.

This is a great way to review and play with alphabetizing, without taking very much time out of your week. Thanks so much for sharing this idea.

Georgina

says:

Thanks for this tip – I shall try it this week.

Ann

says:

Thanks for such practical tips. It’s what I love about AAL.

Rebecca

says:

Thanks for the tips! We may not use alphabetizing as often as we used to (I still remember having to use the card catalogs at the library!), but it is still a very useful and necessary skill to learn!

Jana Cannon

says:

Love these ideas! Thanks for the extra help. I will be sure to use it with my upcoming reader.

Amanda Roby

says:

I have a question, too! I don’t have your programs, yet, but my 4 year old has a really strong grasp on the alphabet. He’s not reading yet, and I don’t plan on starting for at least a year. Is it too early to teach the first phase of alphabetizing as a game? I think he’d love it, but I would back off if he didn’t.

Not too early at all, Amanda, as long as you keep it light hearted and fun! Check out this idea that Sharon shared the other day. She explained an alphabetizing game that is a bit easier than doing individual letters.

Amanda Roby

says:

Alphabetizing was fun for me as a kid. My first job was in a bookstore, where I got a little tired of putting the same books back in order day after day! They tested our mettle by giving us huge messy shelf on our first day… one of the girls got fired for “finishing” in an hour. The story goes they didn’t even bother to check her work before they fired her, because they knew it would take hours to finish. Ha! Anyway, I can’t imagine not using alphabetizing skills in real life, since I use them often. Thanks for a great article on how to pass on the joy to my kids.

Amanda,
What a story, and what a test! It’s a smart way to ensure that someone is a good fit for a bookstore job, however. Thanks for sharing.

Anna

says:

Thanks for the tips. We love your reading and spelling programs. They are amazing.

Deborah

says:

What a great reminder and awesome blog post! Thank you!!

Christy

says:

Thanks for all the wonderful tips!

Christy

says:

Thanks for all the great ideas!

Joy LeViere

says:

We would really like to try this curriculum

Sarah

says:

I am sad that alphabetizing isn’t emphasized like it used to be and think it is a lost skill. Thank you for sharing!

Beth

says:

Great points! Thanks!

Jessica B.

says:

I love to have my kids look up new words in the dictionary to practice this skill.

A very experienced teacher showed me this alphabet drill. On note cards she wrote the alphabet in groups of three letters except the M and N which are the letters in the middle of the alphabet. The cards looked like this: ABC DEF GHI JKL MN OPQ RST UVW XYZ Students have the MN card placed on the table. Then they place the other cards either before or after the middle letters. Timing the students makes a game of learning the order of the letters. It often takes five minutes for a student to do this the first time. With practice they get it done in less than a minute. Be sure to shuffle the cards.

Oooo, this would be a fun drill, Sharon. Thanks for the idea! I could see progressing it to fewer letters on each card.

Kelly

says:

I bought a children’s dictionary with teaching this concept in mind. Sometimes my daughter will ask what something means and I will get out the dictionary. I talk through with her how we know where to find what we are looking for. She thinks it is like a game so she has fun with the process and is hopefully learning. I am going to also try playing some alphabetizing games with our letter tiles. Thanks for the ideas!

Kelly,
My kids wore my children’s dictionary out! They loved it for the pictures when they were very little and then they loved it when they were older for the words and definitions. It was a great investment for years of learning!

J Price

says:

Thank you for this post. I did not realize what I left out teaching my children in the Advanced Alphabetizing. Have not tried the reading program, but our family enjoys the interactive spelling program.

Lisa Hommes

says:

I like your spelling and reading programs. Seeing progress with my boys 7 &. 10.

Danielle M

says:

Alphabetizing is one of those lost arts- much like counting change back. These are skills our children must know even in this day and age. Great ideas. Thank you.

Pam S

says:

This was great information. Thanks!

Rebekah M

says:

My children hate it when I have the alphabetize. I try to make it fun but I guess it isn’t working. Thank you for this article. I will keep it up.

Rebekah,
If they have a good handle on alphabetizing, you can practice it just occasionally through real world use. The dictionary, thesaurus, specific subject reference books (we use Math On Call for looking up math things), book glossaries, and more give alphabetizing practice. And, if they are ready to use the advanced alphabetizing rules you can have them practice their skills by alphabetizing your DVDs or book. My kids are always willing to earn some pocket money by doing some organizing for me.

Kelly Mergner

says:

I teach alphabetizing using Alphaboxes, especially when using the second or third letter and when there are multiple words beginning with the same letter. Students write the word or words in each box the word begins with. ( ex. hair, here, hound in H box) Then they look at the second letter or third and put the words in order before writing them. This helps organize the words.

Interesting, Kelly. I’ve not heard of Alphaboxes, but it sounds like it could be a useful tool.

Jenn Khurshid

says:

This is great! I really love the download! Thanks for the great info.

Julie Wolf

says:

Thank you for this! Very helpful.

Felicity

says:

Thanks for these great ideas!

Kaylee

says:

Some great tips in here – I am inspired to get one of my younger preschoolers involved with the older one’s letter tiles, to learn her letters better! Great idea.

joanna

says:

Great information. Thanks!

Laura

says:

I appreciate this blog, it’s like having an extra free resource.

Shannon

says:

I will be starting to teach spelling this coming year. Very helpful.

Stacie

says:

So excited for this

Amanda B

says:

Great info! Can’t wait to implement it into our lessons!! Thanks! :)

Kim R

says:

Thanks for all your wonderful resources and continuing education for parents and teachers. Your ideas and advice have changed how I teach.

Kayla

says:

One question: When is a good time (age or grade) to start teaching this?

This has so many good ideas. Thank you for the downloadable rules too. I didn’t know some of those and it is great to have resources.

Kayla,
Stage 1 fits in well with beginning spelling instruction, as in All About Spelling 1. Since we recommend beginning spelling after the student has completed All About Reading 1, or the equivalent reading level, that would mean starting alphabetizing would start around 6 to 7 years old for many kids. However, a student that starts reading later would start alphabetizing later.

I know this isn’t a straight answer, but I hope it helps.

Anjali

says:

Thank you for all the wonderful resources made available to the parents. It helps to enrich and teach kids in much more engaging and simpler way. Ian definitely going to try this one.

Karen

says:

I like to incorporate alphabetizing naturally by having my child look up a few of his spelling or vocabulary words in a children’s dictionary each week. It doesn’t take a lot of time and is not overwhelming, but is just enough to make him think about the concepts.

Karen,
Great idea for a natural approach. Thanks for the idea.

Amanda

says:

Thank you for this!! It’s so helpful to have these ideas and instructions!

Kathleen

says:

Thanks for this post!

Ida

says:

Such a great idea! I love the AAS manipulatives and I wish that I had known about this program before my children learned alphabetization. Even at middle school age, we find the program very helpful!

Byers mom

says:

Thanks for the article- super helpful for teaching my kids!

Virginia

says:

Thanks for the wonderful tip!

Alysia Boland

says:

This is a great post! So helpful!

Wanda

says:

Very Interesting. I will definitely be trying this.

Samantha H

says:

Everything is better when I take time to make it fun!! Thanks for the suggestions!

Tina

says:

Thanks for the great post. I didn’t realize how important alphabetizing was until I asked my 8 year old to look something up in the glossary…she couldn’t do it! Now I have some tricks to help teach her to do it.

Tina,
Yes, things like glossaries, indexes, and dictionaries assume the user knows all the advanced alphabetizing rules.

Ashley

says:

Very helpful! Thanks for this post.

Jennifer

says:

Thank you for your wonderful, fun ideas.

Ginette

says:

Thanks-I never thought of Stage 4 alphebetizing. I’ll be using your suggestions!

Victoria

says:

Just added my 5/6 child to our homeschooling day…it was our first day using AAR and when her Dad got home she told him she “was reading!!!” ;) Grateful for an easy to use program with tons of creative ideas!
Thank you for doing the extra work for me!

Victoria,
How exciting! Have lots of fun with your new reader! :D

Judy

says:

Thank you, this is very helpful!

JOY

says:

Is alphabetizing included in any of the AAR or AAS levels/lessons? Or are you writing that this needs to be worked on when it can be fit in? Is there a certain age you would say the different stages of alphabetizing should be mastered? Thanks in advance for the answers! Love AAR!!!!

Joy,
All About Spelling covers alphabetizing here and there throughout the levels, although it doesn’t get into the advanced rules of alphabetizing. This blog post simply gives ideas on how to teach it if you aren’t using AAS, and ideas on how to expand upon what AAS teaches.

I estimate that most children would be ready to learn the advanced alphabetizing rules by AAS 5, or even earlier.

Kimberly

says:

I am so thrilled that I finally found this program. Both of my children will benefit it huge ways from it. I’m excited to start using it.

Mary Taylor

says:

We have been struggling here lately with alphabetizing so this comes at just the perfect time for me!!

Lydia

says:

Thanks for this post…

Becki

says:

Perfect timing, we were just getting to tackle alphabetizing!

I love when our blog posts are timely for someone! Have fun alphabetizing, Becki!

emily

says:

I never really thought about the importance of alphabetizing, thanks for this.

Lindsay S

says:

I have thought about having my oldest (5.5) alphabetize our collections of books. She lives to organize. The thing is, she’d have to do it daily, as our third (2) likes to pull multiple books off the shelf and leave them all over the house.
I am thankful our kids love books though.

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