Learning to Alphabetize

One of the smartest women I know once said to me that she didn’t see any point in teaching children to alphabetize in this computer age. She had heard something and it sounded good to her at the time.

Alphabetizing to me is one of those skills like cursive, which at first hand seems no longer important, but actually, has greater use than first appears. We probably use it more often than we realize because we take it for granted. I don’t think a specific target age is necessary, but somewhere they should be learning it.

Incidentally, I am also old fashioned enough to believe in teachingchildren the names of the alphabet as one of the first steps in learning how to read. The letter A is the letter A, all the time. The sound ‘a’ sometimes look like a (father), sometimes ah (Ahmed) or Aw (flaw, paw), and sometimes o (Bob). I don’t teach the names of other things by their function, but by the name by which they are commonly understood. Holding off on the names of the letters and teaching their sounds first seems unnecessarily confusing, and much more involved than first teaching the names of the tools for literacy, and then teaching the various sounds and combinations you can create with those tools, such as “a and w together say aw, as in saw, flaw, awful, and b and e together

At least with the notion that we don’t need to know the letters but only their sounds to begin reading, eventually the children do learn the names of the letters. But I feel like not teaching them letter order is an unnecessary encumbrance. Alphabetizing is something kids should be able to do. Not knowing this skill, like cursive, cuts them off from part of the past- old books and papers are stored and sorted alphabetically, as are ephemera at history museums and other old collections.

Knowing abc order is also useful if you organize papers of any sort, or want to organize your own books alpha by author, of if you want to look something up in the index of a paper book (such as using a cookbook to find a recipe, or looking up a reference in a history book Perhaps you want to work part or volunter time at your library. Maybe you wish to help a teacher put together packets of information for students or organize materials- probably, they are stored alphabetically. Maybe you want to quickly find a new canned vegetable or spice at the grocery store (where they are organized alphabetically). Possibly you’ve been asked to hang up the personalized name key-chains at the local gift shop (or you want to find your name)- they will be alphabetical order. Suppose you need to file dental x-rays at your job, or insurance claims. Many are computerized, but I still my doctor carrying around medical charts with my name on them, and these are filed alphabetically.

I am sure I could come up with a dozen more uses without too much straing on my foggy brain. Having been convince by my sterling logic because of course you are, what next?

It does require more than just knowing the alphabet- that gets you so far as organizing alpha by letter, but it doesn’t help much when it is time to sort the Dickens from the Dixons, not to mention Dickman, Dickerson, and Dickey.

Teach them first to put words in order based on the first letter- this is simple. Use spice names, author’s last names, the names of political figures, the ames of fish or butterfly species, or some favourite foods. It’s not that important what. It’s important thye get used to doing this. Maybe pick ten words a day and work on it for five minutes or less.

Next teach them that if the first letter is the same, then they alphabetize with a group of words where the first letter is the same by looking at the second letter. Here are some sample words to make it easy for you (just cut them apart and then have the student put them in order):

1. Some African countries:
Cape Verde

2. Some flowers
Flamingo Flower
Foxtail Fern
Fuji Mums

3. More flowers
Goat’s Beard
Guersney Lily

4. Random critters
Clown Fish

Go to a library and look at how the fiction is arranged, or pull out an old, actual dictionary and flip through the pages finding a few more examples.
Look in the index of a few books, look up some specific words by the first letter.

When they are comfortable with this, teach them what to do if the first two letters are the same (you look at the third letter), and put this list in alphabetical order:

5. The longest rivers in the Philippines
Cagayan River
Rio Grande de Mindanao
Agusan River
Pulangi River
Pampanga River
Agno River
Abra River
Abulog River
Chico River
Davao River

6. Some rivers on the main island of Luzon in the Philippines:
Abra River
Abulog River
Agno River
Angat River
Apayao River
Balili River
Bay River
Bicol River
Libmanan River
Naga River
Yabu River
Mangayawan River

7. Some vegetables
Patty pans
Pinto beans
Purple Salsify

8. More vegetables

Bamboo shoots/Bamboo sprouts
Banana squash
Basil/Sweet basil
Belgian endive
Broccolini/Baby broccoli
Brussels sprout
Bitter leaf
Bitter melon
Black-eyed peas
Bok choy

This resource might be useful: https://www.superteacherworksheets.com/alphabetical-order.html

Make your own by looking up a few words in the index of any book your student is reading that has such an animal.

Or copy a few words from a dictionary.

A list of African countries in alphabetical order


Practice filling in the blanks on a short group of letters like this:

l, m, n, __, p

h,__, j, k

q, r, s, __

c, __, e, f

q, r, _, t

b, __, d

(make your own)

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  1. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted August 10, 2020 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    OH, yes. Being a word and word meaning lover, the first thing I thought of was, “Ack! How would they use a dictionary?!” And I mean a good, old-fashioned, heft that baby in your hands dictionary. 🙂 And just learning something orderly like that is beneficial, I am sure.

  2. NC Shari
    Posted August 12, 2020 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    ” but I still my doctor carrying around medical charts with my name on them, and these are filed alphabetically. ”
    More likely, your name is on your chart, but so is your number. Paper files are filed by Number as a medical standard these days, to protect patient confidentiality. If some evil doer wanted your medical records, they’d have to get to the index that matches your name to your number, rather than just stealing your named file from the cabinet.

    and I agree, Alphabetical skills are critical. Aside from helping literacy, some type of sorting skills are necessary to function efficiently . How does one organize any set without being able to put them in some kind of order? In my office, I’ve had helpers who not only couldn’t alphabetize, they couldn’t put things in numerical order either! (Color coding helps.)

    When there were littles at my house (a long time ago) we used to have magnetic letters and numbers on the fridge door and they would practice putting them in abc or 1-10 order or other groups while I cooked. I hope it paid off, I haven’t asked them if they actually have that skill as adults. hmm, I will do that next visit! lol

    • Headmistress
      Posted August 15, 2020 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

      Then why are they always asking me to spell my last name as they go through to find my files? And sometimes when they have gotten to my son’s records, they pull out his father’s instead (they have the same first name, different middle names.

      • NC Shari
        Posted September 1, 2020 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        Because they look up your file number by your name. Most medical offices still prefer calling a person by their name. But, first name or last name only, never both out loud in front of other people. That’ could be considered a HIPAA violation. And during the Obama administration, people were actually paid to go into doctor/dental/health office waiting rooms to listen for violations of this, and the offices were subsequently fined. Really.
        ( You could ask them for your number, and next time you go say you are “File 57812”. )

        A lot of offices confirm a record by asking for date of birth in addition to the name, that would prevent the son/father record mixup. That is just professional carelessness.

        Whereas in the “old days” you could sometimes read your name or check the file number in a paper chart on the door rack as you go in to the exam room, most places are using EHR (electronic health records) now, so you never even see your chart/file because the dr holds his electronic tablet so you can’t see it. So, you should always confirm with doctor/healthcaregiver that the correct record is pulled even for yourself.

        (Sorry for the delay in responding)

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