Let's Talk Word Sorts

Let’s talk word sorts. If you’re using them in your classroom to reinforce the phonics patterns you’re teaching, you already LOVE them (most elementary teachers do). You’ve seen how they advance your students’ understanding of how patterns work in words.  They’re interactive and fun.  Plus, researchers support their use as beneficial tools for developing readers and spellers (Bear et al, 2016; Blevins, 2006, 2016; among others).  

Yay for word sorts! But, of course, sometimes problems arise. As I work with teachers in workshops across the country, several scenarios come up again and again.

See if you can relate to any of these: 

  • Do you have students who don’t actually read the words to sort them (effectively nullifying one of the main benefits of the activity)? 

  • Do you wonder how to best hold students accountable for their work when they sort words on their desks, on the floor, or in a center (after all, gluing words they’ve sorted to paper doesn’t seem like a good use of time)? 

  • Are you frustrated with a one-size-fits-all word sort approach that doesn’t truly fill the needs of all your students?

If you answered ‘yes,’ to any of these questions, then this blog post is for you!

Problem #1: Kids aren’t actually reading the words

Let’s address the issue of students who don’t read the words in the sort. You know the students, those who look at the words at the top of the sort and just visually match up the words with the same letter patterns: "Hey, these words look the same, they all have e-r, so I will sort them together! I don’t even have to read them!"

Yes, we want students to see how the words match (they are made up of the same letters), but we also want them to hear how the words match and understand why this is so, all while building their familiarity/automaticity with the patterns.

Even if we first support students by reading the words together before they are sorted, those who are experiencing difficulty may resort to this visual method rather than doing the work of decoding the words to sort them. But, doing the decoding ‘work’ is one of the big benefits of sorts!

What to do:

Here’s how I address this in my classroom: When I introduce students to our word sorting routine, I tell them there are some hard-and-fast rules. These are rules that cannot be broken! I tell students, “Before sorting a word into its proper column, you must read it out loud. No exceptions! If you get stuck on a word, read the other words you've already sorted in the column with the same pattern and/or go back and reread the header card for help. If you are still stuck, ask a peer for help, then reread the word three times before placing it." 

Naturally, I model this procedure for the class and have volunteers come forward to model the 'right' and 'wrong' way to sort words. I also set in place the routine of doing random teacher-checks as students sort, so they know they need to read the words aloud to be prepared. Students should understand this is important because if they just use the visual features to sort, they are not giving their brains the practice they need to develop their reading skills. Using this 'cheat' will not advance their phonological awareness or their decoding abilities.

Problem #2: Accountability

Let’s move on to another scenario. You have students sorting words on their desks, the floor, or in centers. They’re sorting independently or in pairs. Your aim is a quick practice activity, so you don’t want them spending time gluing the words on paper or writing the words down. How can you still hold them accountable? 

What to do:

I address this with another simple routine. When children finish sorting their words, they ask a buddy to do a "quick check" (if they've worked in pairs, they find another pair to do their check). The buddy randomly points to any word in the sort (five random words is sufficient). The child reads these words aloud. If she gets stuck, she refers back to the header card* for help figuring out the word. 

*“Header cards” have the words or word parts demonstrating the concept you want students to sort for. They are the examples.

For example, using the sample below, "If I know uck (looking at the header card) this must be 'cl-uck-ing, clucking!'” If a word is sorted incorrectly, the buddy assists and the word must be read three times before being placed correctly. I do the quick check with students who are struggling the most, so I can better support them. I might also work with them in a small group to assist as needed.

Another way to hold students accountable is to have them store the words and sort them again the following day with a different buddy doing the checking.

When we complete the sort on the first day, students collect their word cards and put them in an envelope. They write the headers on the front. On the second day, they get out their sorts again and re-sort, this time in one minute! (If one minute is too fast for your students, adjust the timed sort accordingly.) (Blevins, 2016)

Now, a different buddy does a 'quick check.' Students count the number of words they were able to sort in that minute, then remix the words and complete another timed sort, challenging themselves to get just a little bit faster. Students love the game-like feel of this activity and it builds automaticity. Finally, have students take their envelopes home and invite them to re-sort the words one more time with a parent or sibling (more accountability). This person can sign the envelope so it can be returned to school for "extra credit."

Problem #3: One-size-fits-all doesn’t fit all

Finally, sometimes we become tired of a one-size-fits-all approach to word sorts, but have trouble finding the time to locate different sorts for different needs. 

What to do:

Create a table with two or three columns. Write your header words or word parts at the top in the first row. Then, put simple single syllable words on the next few rows, moving to longer single syllable words (words with more complex onsets, like blends or digraphs) on the next rows, then simple two syllable words with simple affixes, followed by multisyllabic words and more advanced vocabulary in the rows at the bottom of the page. Here is an example for short i.

Now, all you need do is copy and make strategic cuts to easily differentiate for different groups of students. Below is an illustration of how this might occur (using a sort focused on short e).

Easy peasy! If you’d rather, you can see my new book, 85 Differentiated Word Sorts, for sorts ready-made in this way. The book covers short vowels, long vowels, r-controlled vowels, diphthongs and variant vowels, consonant digraphs, beginning blends, ending blends, and affixes, emphasizing all the highest frequency chunks as identified by research. There are also review sorts with mixed practice. All are one-page sorts, ready for you to use to reinforce the concept you’re teaching while easily differentiating with just a few quick snips. 

I sincerely hope this book makes your teaching-life a little bit easier. If you have further questions, feel free to contact me at janielwag@hotmail.com. Happy sorting!