Learning Our Alphabet BY VISUAL SORTING

What is Visual Sorting? Alphabet Visual Sorting is when you put things into a group according to different characteristics that it has. With the Alphabet, it could be how their shaped. With Magnetic Letters, it could also be what color they are. In this post, I will show you how to improve your child’s visual discrimination of letters by sorting them many different ways. 

I think one of the trickiest things to consider when teaching young learners is their perspective. For a 3-4 year old, the alphabet, whether it’s magnetic letters, handwritten letters, or printed letters, seems more like a picture than a symbol that represents something so complex. Not only does each letter of the alphabet have a name, each letter also has one or more sounds, and groups of them stand for objects or ideas. 

Let’s start this process by using their name

As I said before, one of the most important words to your child is their name! They own that word. It’s how people identify them. If you missed Step 2: Teaching the Alphabet With Magnetic Letters, go back and check it out. It’s the best place to start. Here’s our Different Ways To Teach list from last time. Today we’ll learn about visually sorting the Alphabet using our Magnetic Letters!

Different ways to teach The Alphabet and their name

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Alphabet visual sorting

Anytime you’re teaching something new, it’s always the easiest to start with the most concrete tool that you have. In teaching the Alphabet, that tool is our Magnetic Letters. For this activity, you will need a large set of letters.

If you don’t already have Magnetic Letters, I recommend the sets from Educational Insights. They come with 214 pieces and include both Uppercase and Lowercase, as well as numbers and math signs. There are 2 of each Capital and 2-6 of each Lowercase letters. The letters v, w, x, y, z only have 2 each. Most others have 4-5 copies each. All of the lowercase vowels have 6 copies each. It’s a very useful set for now and for later!

What you will need:

  • Set of Magnetic Letters
  • Metal Pizza Pan or Jelly Roll Pan or Refrigerator
  • Magnetic Easel

How To Get Started

First, get out all of the multiples of letters that are in their name. For my example, if my child’s name is Kathleen, I will get out all of the k’s, a’s, t’s, h’s, l’s, e’s, and n’s. The letters in their name will be the letters that they will probably be most familiar with. Next, put all of these letters onto their Magnetic Easel or metal pan of choice or refrigerator. (*Note about the refrigerator: if they fall off of the fridge they have a very good chance of getting stuck under the fridge, so put something in front of the bottom edge before you start – a towel, etc.) Mix up all of the letters before you begin.

First Visual Sort

Have your child either stand in front of the Easel or Fridge, or have them place the pan where they can easily use it. Then ask them the following question, “How can you sort these letters?” If they need more direction, tell them to put the letters into groups. There is no wrong answer. It’s always good to see how they think and having them sort without complete directions will give you some insight into that thinking. 

List Of Ways To Sort Visually

There are many different ways to visually sort magnetic letters. I will give you a list of a few of them to get you started. The purpose of sorting is to improve their ability to visually discriminate between the different letters. If they can’t tell them apart, it will be very difficult to move forward. Not being able to discriminate between the letters visually, also increases the chances that they will develop confusions or reversals between several letters. Don’t be surprised if this is tricky for them in the beginning. 

Different Ways To Visually Sort:

  1. Color
  2. Letters with Circle parts and letters Without
  3. Letters with Round Edges, Letters with Straight edges, Letters with Both
  4. Letters with Curve edges

I always have students sort the letters in many different ways. The easiest way is by color, even if they don’t know their colors yet. They can usually discriminate between different colors. So if they’re having a hard time getting started, ask them to sort the letters by color.

1. Sort Letters By Color

If you have the Red and Blue set, they will be sorting all of their letters into those 2 colors. If you have the multicolored set, they will be sorting their letters into groups of Yellow, Orange, Red, Blue, Green, Purple, etc.

2. Sort Letters with Circle parts and without

Letters with Circle Parts

o, p, g, q, a, b, d

Letters Without Circle Parts

i, k, l, t, v, w, x, y, z

3. Sort with only Round Edges, Straight Edges, or Both

Letters With Only Round Edges

c, o, s

Letters With Straight Edges

i, k, l, t, v, w, x, y, z – (depending on your letters ‘t’ and ‘y’ will be straight or both)

Letters with Both

a, b, d, e, f, g, h, j, m, n, p, q, r, u, 

4. Add an additional sort for letters with curves

Letters with Curves

s, r, n, m, f, h, j – (c could also be sorted with curves)


As you can tell, the sorting gets more sophisticated as you go. The visual sort that is just Circle parts and No Circle parts does not require the same judgments as the sort with Straight, Only Round, and Both. The Letters with Curves is probably the trickiest, since they may not have a concept of what a curve is. By using this vocabulary with them, you are helping them look at letters more closely so they are creating new ways to evaluate the shapes so they can tell them apart. Evaluation is upper level thinking and something we want to encourage. Now you can see why we start with color!

Final Thoughts

As you are working with your child, take every opportunity to ‘notice’ that some letters look a lot alike. The letters b, d, p, and q can be very tricky. These are the most common letters to be confused. If your child is having trouble telling them apart, take that opportunity to share with them that letters are created from Left to Right and Top to Bottom. We can tell it’s a ‘b’ because the stick (or bat) comes first, then the circle (or ball) comes after. See how I did that! ‘B’ makes the sound of bat and ball. ‘D’ doesn’t! You may also need to look more closely at ‘m’, n’, w, and ‘u’. Those can also be a confusion for some children. Something to think about before tricky confusions are internalized.


 Tools You May Need

Magnetic Whiteboard Easels

I recommend either of the 2 Magnetic Whiteboard Easels above. They are very similar, but the one on the left would still look great in a teens room. Both are adjustable and can be raised up as your child grows taller. The optimum working height of an easel is at your child’s eye level. If they get taller than their easel, they can work sitting down. For young learners, the perspective changes when they are looking up or down at letters. They will progress faster working at an instructional height. If space is limited, consider hanging a Magnetic Whiteboard on the wall. Check out my Best Products To Teach Beginning Readers list on Amazon. It includes some other magnetic board options.

Hands-On Learning

None of these ways to learn the alphabet needed a workbook or worksheet. All of these ways are memorable and build on each other. When teaching the alphabet, you will not work on one way until it is mastered. You will work on all of these ways at the same time… just maybe not the same day!

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