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How to Teach Alphabetizing

Welcome to our mini teaching guide on alphabetizing!

Alphabetizing is an essential literacy skill, and the resources in this post will make it easy for you to teach it. Let’s dig in!

Why Teach Alphabetizing?

recipe box with alphabetical dividers

Even with modern technology, alphabetizing is used in many areas of our lives. In fact, you’ve probably used your alphabetizing skills this past week without even realizing it. Maybe you looked up a friend’s phone number in your contact list, or maybe you’ve looked something up in a book index.

Here are some other common uses of alphabetized lists:

  • Finding a song on your music playlist arranged by artist’s last name
  • Locating a recipe in a recipe box
  • Filing a document in a cabinet
  • Using a map for public transportation
  • Locating a store by using the mall directory
  • Looking up information in a textbook glossary
  • Finding a book on a library shelf

Four Stages of Alphabetizing

Children go through four stages when learning to alphabetize.

the 4 stages of alphabetizing chart

Here are hands-on activities and tips for each stage.

Stage 1: Put Letters in Order

At this beginning stage, kids learn to arrange letters in A to Z order. You can use letter tiles, Scrabble tiles, or squares of paper, or you can download our free ABC Caterpillar activity.

ABC Caterpillar Download

Play with Our Colorful Caterpillar

This adorable hands-on activity promotes letter recognition and builds pre-reading skills. And as an added bonus, you can use the letter cutouts from this activity for some of the additional activities described in the tips below!

Follow these tips to 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.
  • Demonstrate how to start from different points in the alphabet. For example, lay out letter tiles A through M, and then have your child start the alphabet song from L and finish alphabetizing tiles N through Z.
  • 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 hand your 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 P?” and “Is H in the first half of the alphabet or the second half of the alphabet?”

Stage 2: Alphabetize to the First Letter

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

Sort the Seeds

Play “Sort the Seeds”

Sorting the seed packets in this hands-on activity from All About Reading Level 3 is a fun (and colorful!) way to practice alphabetizing words according to the first letter.

Stage 3: Alphabetize to the Second and Third Letters

In real-world applications, your child will come across multiple items that start with the same letter (for example, the names of children’s authors Sendak, Seuss, and Silverstein). The next step is to look at the second or third letter to alphabetize them correctly.

Who's Coming to My Party?

Play “Who’s Coming to My Party?”

Alphabetizing to the second and third letters can be tricky—but not when you can play “Who’s Coming to My Party?” from AAR Level 4. This engaging activity will make learning this skill seem more like a party than a lesson!

Stage 4: Teach Common Rules for Advanced Alphabetizing

When your child is more advanced and is consistently able to alphabetize words to the second and third letter, you’ve reached the fourth stage of alphabetizing. Now 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.

Common Rules for Advanced Alphabetizing

Download the Common Rules for Advanced Alphabetizing

Although alphabetizing is more difficult at this level, this handy quick-guide takes all the guesswork out of applying more advanced alphabetizing skills.

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!

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Jordyn

says:

Thank you, my students found these really enjoyable.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Jordyn. Let me know if you need anything else. 😊

Keryn Jasper

says:

Love ideas that teach clearly that can be a joy! Thanks

Vivian Asiedet

says:

Thank you, so helpful

Heather Hinz

says:

Thank you for a great info. Also the pdf with the rules for advanced alphabetizing was very useful!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Heather.

Shelby

says:

This was very informative.

Jill

says:

Fun ideas. Thanks!

Dorothy

says:

I am always re-alphabetizing books at the library or bookstore…comes from working in a library at one time, I suppose!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I know what you mean, Dorothy! And offering to pay your kids to alphabetize movies or books is a great way to get them to happily practice alphabetizing. 😊

Susie

says:

I’m a school librarian, continually frustrated by students who don’t know how or why to alphabetize and are unwilling to do the work to figure it out. Books are shelved in alphabetical order! Dictionary skills! Indexes! This is a skill I’ve used often throughout life and it isn’t on the standardized tests so it isn’t emphasized in class. Thanks for promoting this practice!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Susie. Even in this modern age, alphabetizing is an important skill!

L. James

says:

The information is very useful, I am happy for them

Katy

says:

Highlighting the levels is really helpful, and remembering they come in stages and ages is really helpful. One step at a time!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was helpful for you, Katy. We tend to think of alphabetizing as one skill, but there is a lot to it!

Nikadomi

says:

Thank You for the useful and straightforward information.

Aalonzo

says:

Thank you

Mary

says:

My boys really enjoyed these.

Jennifer

says:

Thank you

Susana

says:

Thanks!!!

Rachelle

says:

I didn’t know all the rules of advanced alphabetizing. This is so helpful. Thanks!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Rachelle. Some of those advanced rules are tricky, but once your student knows them he or she can find any book, video, file, or whatever anywhere alphabetizing is used!

Tara

says:

This is so helpful, thank you.

Shelley

says:

Thank you

Sheila

says:

This information came just in time. I need to incorporate alphabetizing into our lessons.

Rachel Tankersley

says:

Thank you for explaining, especially the reason why. I have had the thoughts of ‘is this really necessary?’

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are welcome, Rachel. Alphabetizing may seem a marginal skill, but it is used a lot.

Jenn A

says:

Thanks for explaining these awesome ideas so clearly!

Gale

says:

Great ideas! This is something we need to work on.

Katherine Blundstone

says:

Thank you. Helpful to have the stages outlined as you have.

Thia

says:

As an Occupational Therapist who works with children with writing delays, I am constantly emphasizing alphabetical a-z knowledge. Classroom teachers who have so many things to teach often miss this skill. I LOVE this post, particularly your example of the functional uses of the alphabet. Thanks!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thia,
Interesting that you need to emphasizing alphabetizing in your Occupational Therapy work, but it makes sense now that I think of it. Thank you for sharing this.

Rebecca

says:

Thank you for the download!

Heidi Crawford

says:

What a great guide! Thank you!

Christine Nadolny

says:

My boys found it tricky at first. I put alphabetizing lists in our review.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Christine,
Some students do find alphabetizing, especially alphabetizing to the second letter and beyond, tricky. Adding to your regular review is a great way to ensure they master this important skill!

Christina

says:

Great ideas!

JJ Lea

says:

Love the rules download!

Machalah

says:

I am excited to use the alphebetizing seeds activity that you wonderful people provided. My daughter is not quite to that point, yet as we are still on Level 2.

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