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How to Teach Alphabetizing

How to Teach AlphabetizingWhy teach alphabetizing?

Alphabetizing is an essential skill that will help students in many day-to-day tasks both at home and at school.

Think of all the ways we use alphabetizing in the home, 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 students to locate and use common household information.

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

How to teach basic alphabetizing

In Level 1 of the All About Spelling program, students use the letter tiles to learn how to alphabetize to the first letter. Here’s how:

  • Explain to your student that the letter tiles contain the same letters as the flashcards.
  • Point out several tiles and ask your student to identify them.
  • Lay out tiles a to z in random order.
  • One by one, show your student how to place them in alphabetical order, being sure to say the name of each letter out loud as you move it into place. Have your student repeat each letter name.



Use the following strategies to help reinforce basic alphabetizing skills: 

  • Work with your student to put the letter tiles in order at the beginning of each lesson.

  • Teach the alphabet song.

  • Model for your student how to start from different points in the alphabet. For example, lay out the tiles through the letter m, then have the student start the alphabet song from l and finish alphabetizing the tiles.

  • Hand the student the letter tiles in random order. Teach the student 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 student 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?” 


Alphabetizing Words

Once the student 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 in order to alphabetize it.

  • Write several words on index cards, each word beginning with a different letter.

  • Have the student line up the cards in alphabetical order.

  • Use the following words:    

block    cash     doll     fox       glad       kit     
melt      pup      rest    sand    trunk   wish


Alphabetizing to the Second and Third Letters

The next step is to teach that when we have several words that begin with the same letter, we must look to the second or third letter in order to alphabetize them correctly. 

  • Write the following words on index cards:  bear   bus   bike   band

  • Show the student that all the words start with b, so we have to alphabetize by the second letter. Have the student 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 the student 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 the student identify the second and third letters and alphabetize all six words: band   bear   bike   black   block   bus                                               


Practical Application

Now take your student on a little "field trip" around the house or around town to show him how useful his new alphabetizing skills are! Some suggestions for practical application: 

  • Take the student to the library to find his favorite books.

  • Look up your neighbor’s name in the phone book.

  • Dictate several categories for your student to look up in the Yellow Pages: plumbers, restaurants, electricians, veterinarians.

  • Call out several words for the student to look up in the dictionary.

  • If you have more than one student—or even a group of your student’s friends—have them get in alphabetical order according to their last names.                                          


Common Rules for Advanced Alphabetizing (1)

  • General sequence of alphabetization is by

• symbol ($, %, ‡)
• numerals (0 through 9)
• letter  (A through Z)

$10 a day
20 Ways to Improve Your Spelling
A-1 Steak Sauce
All About Spelling

  • Abbreviations are usually alphabetized exactly as written, not as they are spelled out.

Dr. Brown
Mrs. Smith

  • Numerals are usually alphabetized exactly as written, not as they are spelled out.

007 James Bond
101 short stories
3-D movies
3M Company
600 new churches

  • Names with Mac or Mc are alphabetized letter by letter as they appear.
    Names with
    O’ are alphabetized as if the apostrophe were missing.

Macalister, Donald
MacAlister, Paul
Macauley, Catharine
Macmillan, Harold
Madison, James
McAllister, Ward
McAuley, Catherine
McMillan, Edwin M.
Onassis, Aristotle
O’Neill, Eugene

  • Titles are usually alphabetized by the first main word, with initial articles (A, An, The) either put at the end of the entry or left out entirely.

Around the World in 80 Days
Catcher in the Rye, The
Hound of the Baskervilles, The
New York Times
Tale of Two Cities, A

1Source: University of Chicago Press. Chicago Manual of Style. 14th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.