My daughter is in second grade and is learning spelling. The teacher puts a lot of emphasis on alphabetizing words. I don't see the academic value in this, especially now that people, for the most part, don't use dictionaries but use the internet instead. How should I handle the work I think is a waste when my daughter brings it home for homework? How should I speak to the teacher about this?

  • @DAO1 This is different, one is academic disagreement (disagreement on the information taught) and one is style (disagreement on how something should be taught) Dec 20, 2011 at 19:16
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    If you were sincere, then my apologies. There's all sorts of homework I disagree that our children should have to do (I'm actually against homework in general). That said, I understand the reality that an education system targetted at the general public will never please everyone all the time and that it's best to pick our battles. Not sure alphabetizing is a major one.
    – DA01
    Dec 20, 2011 at 19:20
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    This is not really teaching style so much as disagreeing with a task. Teaching style is more about an over all philosophy, such as delivering all instruction verbally or giving homework every day. Perhaps the question would be clearer worded: I disagree with some of my child's homework, what should I do?
    – Erin
    Dec 21, 2011 at 16:28
  • Not that I want to expose your second grader to all the harsh realities of the real world, but not everything we are asked/told to do makes sense to us, and often times it really does have no practical purpose. And yet, we have to do it because someone in authority over us has instructed us to do it. Sometimes we are lucky to have bosses who listen to reason, and are able to explain their motives, but I find that to be the exception. Doing useless things is an important lesson in authority. Not that I recommend doing useless things for the sake of it, but learning to 'accept it' is important.
    – corsiKa
    Dec 22, 2011 at 7:49
  • Maybe alphabetizing itself seems unimportant, but it can be a step-up to other skills that are vital. This ressembles the "should my child study Latin" question, because "admit it, no one even speaks Latin anymore". No, true, Latin is not commonly spoken anymore - but the understanding of languages one gets by studying Latin is very useful through the rest of your life.
    – Konerak
    Jan 2, 2012 at 13:57

5 Answers 5


A lot of teaching seems to be "one size fits all." The techniques that work in general may not necessarily work well with your child, but I dare say there is some logic behind it.

My daughter is just finishing year 4 and her spelling word homework includes things like "which word contains another word that means home." These are particularly annoying and time consuming but the reason is it included is to get the child to spend time looking at each word in details. As it turns out, my daughter does not need this so it is just a waste of time. In this case, I will sometimes let her skip it since it does not add to the educational value of the work.

I would think that alphabetising the words has a similar purpose - to get the children to examine the words in detail. Obviously, with homework you can extend it to make the lessons more appropriate for your child's skills.

This was the easy bit since we have partial control over homework. The harder bit is having an influence on what is taught in class. My daughter is very good at language (about 6 years ahead of her chronological age). She is put in the top maths and english groups but for many assignments she performs roughly the same classwork as the other kids. She really needs specialised assignments to stretch her. We have spoken to the teacher about this and not had much luck.

For her next year, we have requested that she be given a teacher who would match her needs. Until then, we've just had to suck it up :-(

  • so you let your child know you don't value the homework that is coming home? Dec 21, 2011 at 0:25
  • @morah hochman - I tell my daughter the value (IMHO) of the homework given. Sometimes, the homework is of great value and I'll add more to it. Sometimes, it is partial useful and will tell her which bits I do not agree with. Often, I'll create my own assignments to help her with her weaker subjects. Teachers come and go, but you are responsible for your child's education for the next 15 years.
    – dave
    Dec 21, 2011 at 1:17
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    Wow! Teachers make mistakes, they are human and all - and overworked, but perhaps there is something the teacher knows because of all her methods training etc. that you don't know and it IS of value. Perhaps it is best to find a way to encourage your child without disrespecting the teacher and assuming you know the exact value in a particular activity? Jul 11, 2012 at 0:10
  • @balanced mama - few teachers are trained in dealing with kids in the extreme upper and lower parts of the bell curve. If a kid is in the top 1% then the teacher is likely to deal a with child like that once every 4 years. In the case of our child, she is in the top .1% for reading so most teachers will never deal with a child like that. On the other hand, we deal with her every day and have a good grasp of her strengths and weaknesses. She can get a A while slacking off, an issue we are dealing with (in conjunction with her teacher) at the moment.
    – dave
    Jul 11, 2012 at 12:11
  • OK. I totally understand as I too have a gifted kid and have actually taught at both ends of that spectrum you mention (three years at a school for highly gifted middle school and highschool studnets that ALSO had a learning, emotional or behavioral disability), but that has nothing to do whatsoever with knowing whether or not alphabetizing skills are essential or not, nor does it have to do with modeling a respectful and tolerant attitude. Jul 11, 2012 at 14:32

I want to begin by tempering my answering by saying that I quite literally saw red when I read that alphabetizing is not important because we do not use dictionaries, we just use the internet. As a Library Media Specialist, one of the greatest weaknesses I see day in and day out is that students have no idea how to alphabetize. They are literally unable to find the book they want because they do not know that Ac comes after Ab and before Ad. Additionally, there are times in the educational setting that they indeed will use a dictionary unless your child attends a very privileged school that has a computer devoted to each student.

Further, there are time that alphabetizing is important - what if in college your child has the opportunity to work in an office and they cannot file things because hey have no concept of alphabetization. Finally, it is a developmental benchmark. Often an inability to alphabetize can be indicative of a learning disability.

So, while you personally seem to find this task a waste of time, it is a well thought out task that should serve your child well in life. Times it may impact them: if they ever encounter an index in a book, corporate filing cabinets, perhaps a glossary or if they ever consider finding a book in a library.

In parting, by all means, question things you do not agree with that happens at school, but be aware that much though goes into lessons and tasks asked of students and very little of it is busy work or worthless. I strongly suggest that you privately ask the teacher without attacking them and listen to their answer. If it is something that is not going to change and it is not hurtful to your child, support the teacher. Help your child be a respectful student and learn tasks that might not seem clear at the moment, but may come clear and useful down the line.

  • 6
    I am a software developer and agree with Erin's statement that alphabetizing is a very important skill. Especially these days with computers users are often presented with alphabetized lists (list of files, photos, songs, etc...). Knowing this skill will benefit your child greatly in every day use of technology. Dec 21, 2011 at 7:51
  • @Erin While I fully agree with you about the importance of alphabetizing, and the pitfalls of relying upon the Internet and computers to substitute for basic skills, please be careful not to use answers to soap-box or attempt to brow-beat the OP. You do address the OPs question, but the focus is more on why she shouldn't be taking the stance that she is. It would be preferable for the focus to be on the answer, with your opinions on her stance secondary.
    – user420
    Dec 21, 2011 at 13:45
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    @Boefett, no intention to brow beat or soap box, but truly to provide perspective to why the task is being required of the child. I apologize if in any way my response is disrespectful.
    – Erin
    Dec 21, 2011 at 16:23
  • @Erin I don't believe you were being disrespectful, which is why I only left a comment. Perhaps my use of the term brow-beat was too harsh, but we've had incidents in the past where discussion rapidly took a turn for the worse when answers focused too much on disagreeing with the premise of a question. Really, the amount of focus you put on the answer vs. the additional perspective as to why the task is required is what I was focused on, rather than any problems with tone.
    – user420
    Dec 21, 2011 at 17:19
  • @ Boefett and Erin. Thanks for your comments, sometimes the greater public doesn't understand the long-view the best teachers do try to apply and simply pointing out the long - view can be helpful in calming things and finding the value in something one doesn't previously value simply for lack of understanding. @ Boefett, it is good to better understand the community at large and what is looked for in these types of situations. Jul 11, 2012 at 14:49

As DA01 mentioned above, public education will generally not please every parent, 100% of the time.

If your concern is about teaching material you think is incorrect, then the advice present in this question will likely be applicable to some extent.

However, in this case, you seem to be objecting to just how important a particular skill is to learn. In that case, quite frankly you don't have a lot of options.

Your choices essentially boil down to:

  • See if there is another teacher at the school who covers the same subject, but with a different emphasis that you find more in keeping with your personal priorities, and find out if you can transfer your child to that instructor's class.
  • Look for another school that has an emphasis that matches your priorities and move/transfer there.
  • Tell your child that they don't have to do the work because you think it is a waste of time, and support them through the consequences of bad grades.
  • Explain to your child that you don't feel that the work is important, but point out how there may be many times in their life that they will have to perform tasks that don't seem particularly important or fun, and that learning how to do those tasks anyway is an important skill.
  • Support the teacher's decisions and priorities in favor of passing on good study habits to your child, rather than making an issue out of your personal educational preferences.

Quite frankly, I think the third option is a terrible choice, and in your case the chances of finding other teachers or schools that don't think that learning the basics of spelling or alphabetization are important because "the Internet does that for us now" are (hopefully) slim.


The teacher and the school have the authority to select teaching styles. Parents should be able to propose a different style. The proposed style may be for one specific student or for the class. Depending on the relationship between the parent and the teacher, the approach may be formal or informal.

Please remember that the relationship with the teachers and the school is extremely important for the overall best interest of our children.

Here is a formal approach for completeness:

  1. Before talking to the teacher, parents need to investigate the pros and cons of the current and proposed styles. This can be achieved by
    • searching the internet,
    • searching the local library,
    • talking to other teachers and education specialists preferably not in the same school, or
    • posting a question on the internet about comparing both styles.
  2. If after step 1 the parent is still convinced of changing the style, then a meeting between the parents of the affected children may be held. Parents would discuss the pros and cons of each style and try to reach an agreement.
  3. If enough number of parents are in favor of requesting a change, parents may prepare a brief summary of their request supported by pros and cons of each style. One or more parents may arrange for a meeting with the teacher. The discussion may follow the following agenda:
    • Brief the teacher about the purpose of the meeting.
    • Ask the teacher to explain the rationale behind the current style.
    • Solicit the teacher’s opinion of the proposed style.
    • Carry on the discussion with the goal of convincing the teacher.
    • Thank the teacher for meeting and discussing the subject.
    The outcome of the teacher’s meeting could be one of the following:
    • The teacher agrees to the proposal.
    • The teacher promises to consider the proposal and respond later.
    • The teacher refuses the proposal.
    • The teacher convinces the parents that the current style is better than the proposed.
  4. If the teacher refuses the proposal or does not respond in a reasonable time and the parents still believe that the change is in the best interest of the children, a meeting with the principal may be effective. The meeting may be conducted in the same manner as the teacher’s meeting. The next step after the principal is the school district.
  5. If all fails, activism is the last resort.

Hopefully, the proposal can be accepted informally while maintaining good parents-teacher relationship.

  • 1
    In the US, teachers have little to no direct control over curriculum in the public school system. They certainly have influence in terms of what the district may adopt, as do parents, but so does the school board, legislatures and lobbyists. Not that any of that should prevent an open dialogue as you suggest. Just go in with realistic expectations. Teachers can only tailor their teaching to individuals to a certain extent. The alternative is to hire one's own private tutors.
    – DA01
    Dec 21, 2011 at 7:06

I'm a little surprised that I don't see more votes for the answer of setting a meeting and politely ASKING the teacher about her reasons. I would make this as a comment, except I have more to say than will fit and would argue MORE points to back up Ali Habbek's point.

As a teacher and parent I understand the value of maintaining a good relationship between these two significant influences on a child's life. When a parent and teacher work together and in concert, they often find they have similar objectives and they are powerful as a force that benefits the child immensly.

Perhaps the parent would learn something from the teacher about why the skill IS useful (like the reasons pointed out by Erin) or how it helps the child to learn another skill in the next step.

Additionally, and possibly most beneficially, the teacher may learn something of import about you and your child that helps her to become a better fit for your child. If the issue is that the alphabetizing is simply too easy and therefore is boring, many teachers are willing (if able) to give alternative work where possible.

The one place Ali is incorrect is in the power the teacher has. He/she does NOT have a lot of say over the curriculum and a lot of influences converge and interact to impact the little choice and control he/she does hold in the classroom. You might learn that it is a political issue. Many states have required objectives at each grade level (alphabetizing is a common one in the primary grades) that the school must address and prove it is addressing to the state periodically in order to maintain its certification as a school. This would let you know that no matter what school your child attends this would be a focus anyway.

By taking this route respectfully, everyone is gleaning information they may not have otherwise had. You may find yourself surprised at the validity of the activity or maybe the teacher will see that while valid, the exercises don't work for your individual child. Maybe you'd even learn the teacher doesn't really like doing it either and you can brainstorm solutions together. Of course, it is possible that you are totally right and the teacher would be stubborn and nothing would change. In this case, you could take some of the other routes already delineated but is seems like open communication is the most constructive place to start.

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