How to Alphabetize a List of Words

Using a few tips and tricks can make the process fun

Leaning to alphabetize a list of words is one of the first skills students learn in primary grades, particularly kindergarten through first or second grade. Before they alphabetize words, of course, students need to know the alphabet. They should be able to use the alphabet in order to assimilate new vocabulary and ask spelling questions about new vocabulary they will be learning in future lessons.

Before tackling the mini-lessons and tips on how to alphabetize, post an alphabet chart in the classroom, home, or wherever the students are studying. The chart should have pictures of various objects beginning with the letters of the alphabet. You can even start this process in preschool.

Alphabet-Learning Strategies

Review the alphabet chart with students to ensure they have a basic understanding of the correct order of letters. You can also use alphabet flashcards—these are plentiful and free online—to teach the alphabet. Alphabet songs also work well for motivating young students to learn the letters.

All About Learning Press suggests having students practice with alphabet letter tiles, using word-game tiles or downloading free ABC caterpillar letter tiles, which the curriculum-materials website offers on its site. Once students are able to place the letters in the alphabet in correct order, use the lessons below to teach them how to alphabetize lists of words.

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A-B-C Order

To alphabetize a list of words or names, tell students they will start by placing them in A-B-C order according to the first letter of each word. Tell students to recite the alphabet silently to themselves, or have the class recite the alphabet in unison before tackling this task.

As you did with letters of the alphabet, you can also download Dolch sight words for students to use. The Dolch Word Lists were developed by Edward W. Dolch. He researched English texts published in the United States and found those words that show up the most often. By using these words, your alphabetization lesson will serve a dual purpose: You'll be helping students learn to alphabetize word lists while at the same time reviewing the most important words they'll need to know through their years of education.

Once you've downloaded the words (or created your own), have students put them in order based on the first letter of each word.

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If the First Letters Are the Same

If two or more words begin with the same letter, tell students to look at the second letter. Ask them: Which of the second letters comes first in the alphabet? If the first and second letters are the same, go to your third letter.

Students may have some difficulty with this task because they have to focus on multiple tasks: They need to first alphabetize the terms by the first letter of each word and then focus on the second letter (or the third) if the first letters of two or more words are the same. If students are struggling to remember the alphabet as they focus on these new tasks, review the alphabet and the proper order of letters as explained in the introduction.

The “A” words shown here are alphabetized according to the second letter. They are in order using the letters P-T-X.

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Alphabetizing Titles

When alphabetizing titles, tell students they will not consider the words a, an, and the as part of the title. They will place those words at the end of a title and set them off with a comma. Use the image in this section to explain how to separate the articles and move them to the back of the titles before alphabetizing.

Teaching this particular skill may take a bit of preparation. First, download a free list of book titles such as one from Teachers First, which is divided according to age recommendations, or another from the​ New York Public Library. Copy and paste the lists onto a word-processing file and enlarge them. Cut out the titles and have students place them in order.

While you're at it, check out one or two of these books from your school or city library and read them to students. This way you'll bundle your lesson on alphabetizing words with teaching reading and listening skills.

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Words That Are Similar

Tell students that if they find that two words are spelled the same way at the beginning, but one stops and the other continues, the shorter comes first. Explain that this is because a “blank” space is alphabetized before a letter space. For example, in the list on this image, B-E-E comes before B-E-E-S because there is a blank space after the word bee, whereas, the word bees ends with an "s."