Word Sorts… of a Different Sort

How many times has a colleague shared something with you, have you watched an instructional video, or read an article and said to yourself, “I used to do that! I haven’t done that for a long time – I wonder what happened?”

It is pretty common in this day and age of multiple resources bombarding teachers with “new and different” materials and ways to teach, that we put aside those tried and true practices that got results. We all need change in our lives, perhaps that is what drives us to constantly seek and try new tools in our classrooms.

Word Sorts is one of those tried and true processes. Whether word sorts are applied regularly or sporadically in your classrooms this blog provides suggestions to help your Word Sorts become more effective. A Word Sort is only as effective as the amount of reading practice that actually takes place during the sort – reading practice that includes connection to orthography and meaning during that practice.

The Practice Potential                                                 

Word sorts have the potential to really build up your students’ practice quotient, but have you noticed that many times students perform word sorts and don’t even read the words? I have observed students doing word sorts and just looking at the target graphemes in the words and sorting them into categories based on spelling – but NO reading takes place.

The word sort is a wonderful, and powerful activity when we understand the important roles of the brain’s orthographic processor as it functions in cahoots with the phonological and meaning processors. Yes, these separate distinct areas of the reading brain (visual, sound, and meaning), work in tandem to help students recall how to read a word, bring meaning to the word, and also how to spell it. In other words, when students recognize and read a word and know what it means, the likelihood of spelling the word correctly improves!

Try these steps to bring word sorts back into your regular practice routines – or to revamp the word sorts you are already doing.

Prepare the materials:

  1. Prepare your list of words. These should be words from your phonics lesson for the week, or your spelling list. Choose a few words from previous lessons that will benefit from some review and add these to the list. You want the group of words to include more than one vowel sound as you will be asking students to group words by sound and you want them to differentiate by sound AND spelling.
  2. Moveable words, words written on separate slips of paper that students move around into groups, work best for these sorts. Direct your students to create their moveable word ‘slips’ using one of the two methods: 1) Students write their words on separate ‘slips’ of paper and collect them in a baggie or envelope. This can be done over a couple of days, introducing the words in groups as you study the words with students. 2) Create a grid of the printed words and students cut them out. Remember, reading the words comes first. Make sure students can read the words they will be asked to sort and spell.
  3. Alternately, you can ask your students to write the words as they perform the sorts. In this case, make sure students have practiced reading the words and are familiar with them. Students will need paper and pencils or white-boards.

The Sorts:

Use these teacher-directed sorts in the order presented.  The sorts can be done in the same lesson or spread them out over a few days.  You can start by asking students to find different ways to sort their words and share with partners how they sorted their words. But to strengthen the ‘miles on the words’ reading quotient, follow this open sort with the following purposeful teacher-directed sorts.

Number one rule for word sorts: If you touch it, you read it. Lips in motion – LIM. You want to HEAR students reading the words. Kids will be touching the words all the time as they move them into groups – every time they touch the word is a potential read-it opportunity! If students are writing the words into their sorted categories, your rule can be read it before and after you write it!

Prepare Three Types of Sorts:

  1. Start with a Sound Sort. This sort will ask students to think about the phonemes in the words. Your sound sort will depend upon your words. Study your word list ahead of time to determine the sound sort(s) you will use (one or two sound sorts is enough). Some examples include:
    1. Ask students to find words that rhyme and put them together.
    2. Ask students to find words that share the same vowel sound. For example, if the words have double oo with the two vowel sounds, shoot and brook, ask students to group words that have the same vowel sound as book.
    3. Your words might lend themselves to long and/or short vowel sounds.
    4. If you have a nice selection of words with two phonemes for C (/s/ and /k/) you could sort by consonant sound.
    5. If your word list is multisyllable, you can ask students to sort words by accent – eg., Find all the words that have an accent in the second syllable.

The goal for this sort is to get kids reading and paying attention to the phonemes in the words.

  1. Next, do a spelling sort. Ask students to find all the words that spell a certain phoneme with a given spelling. For example:
    1. Find all the words that spell /z/ with an S.
    2. Find all the words that have /ow/ spelled with OU.
    3. You might even ask students to find words that have a schwa vowel sound and group them by spelling of the schwa if your word list has multisyllable words (the schwa only occurs in an unaccented syllable of a multisyllabic word).
  2. Lastly, end with a meaning sort. Students will really be reading the words for this one. I suggest you start with a closed sort, one directed by you.
    1. Find words that will go with the topic ‘animal’.
    2. Find words that would fit under the heading school.

Students love to create their own meaning sorts too. After you model for them how to create categories for groups of words, ask students to create a category sort for the class to do.

  1. Finally, end your sort with “Feed the Bag”. Students read each word one last time as they put them into their ‘bag’, or envelope.

Word sorts of this sort will really make a difference in your students’ word reading, spelling, and reading fluency with comprehension!