Using Special Interests to Teach Alphabetical Order

If you've been following this page for a while, you probably know that one of my favorite teaching strategies is to incorporate my students' interests into whatever I'm teaching. It makes learning more fun for the students and they're often more engaged in the learning process. I was working on alphabetical order with one of my students recently, which is an easy skill to teach using a student's interests. He's really interested in Star Wars right now, so I've been having him alphabetize some characters from the movies (more on this later in the post, along with some free printable activities). When my son was interested in the video game Skylanders, I made him the activity pictured above to work on both fine motor skills and alphabetizing (by clipping the links together in alphabetical order).

Alphabetical order activity for putting Skylander character names in order.

Steps for Teaching Alphabetical Order

1. Putting Letters in Order

When I was working with my students on this recently, I first wanted to make sure that they could put the letters in alphabetical order. I used a set of alphabet flashcards and started by putting the A and B cards down on the floor next to each other with the other cards laying around and mixed up. Once I got the pattern going, the students saw what they were supposed to do and continued putting the letters in order. I was pretty sure that they could already do this skill (I just wanted to check and make sure), but if they didn't, this is where I would have started teaching.

2. Alphabetizing by First Letter

Here's the basic format I used for working on this. The student cut out the words and then glued them on the table in alphabetical order. For some students, I prompted by saying, "OK, what's the first letter of the alphabet...A...do we have any that start with A?" If the answer was no, then we moved on to B. I tried to fade the prompting as soon as possible and, by the second day of working on this skill, the student was able to do this more independently.

A photo of cutout rectangles with words written on each rectangle.

A paper that reads "put the words in alphabetical order" and has a rectangular box draw to place each strip of paper in.

3. Alphabetizing by First and Second Letter

Once we had practiced the previous step over multiple days, I started to introduce alphabetizing by first and second letter (as an example, if we had the words "block" and "ball").

A picture of a list of Star Wars character names, cut and pasted on construction paper in alphabetical order.

This was a little bit more tricky for my students to understand, so I added some extra teaching steps. Once we had identified two words that started with the same letter, I covered up the first letter of the words, so that we could clearly see the second letter. I then asked, "Which ones comes first, 'e' or 'u'?"

A picture of two word cards, one that says Leia and one that says Luke. The first letters of each word are covered up by a piece of paper.

Sometimes, students have trouble answering this question verbally, so I might add an extra visual prompt. Once we had identified the second letters in each word as "e" and "u," I could write these letters on small pieces of paper, and have the student physically take the letters and put them in order, with me singing the alphabet song (if needed) to see which letter we heard first.

A picture of the "Luke" and "Leia" word cards next to letter cards for "u" and "e."

If the student needed some additional visual cues to understand what I was asking him to do with putting the second letters in order, I used this as a visual prompt. Once we figured out which of the second letters comes first, we then look back at the original words, find the word with the correct second letter, and put it next in the alphabetical order list.

An image showing a piece of paper with a one and a two printed on it. The student puts the letters on the one and two, based on which comes first in the alphabet.

Again, I would try to fade these prompts as soon as possible.

If this is a skill you're working on with your child or students, I've made some free printable cut-and-paste alphabetical order activities with an "animal" theme. You can download them by clicking on the image below.


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