In the book Words Their Way, authors Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton and Johnston explain that humans have a natural interest in finding order, comparing and contrasting, and paying attention to what remains the same despite minor variations. Teachers see this inclination in their students, who are trying to master reading and spelling the English language.
At many of my Reading Horizons trainings, teachers ask me how they can get their students to identify how one skill or concept is different from another. ("How can I get my students to understand why ‘fir’ has the ‘er’ sound but the ‘ir’ in 'fire’ doesn’t?" "How can I get my students to see the difference between words that follow Phonetic Skill 1 and words that follow Phonetic Skill 3 or 4?")
My answer is usually the same. Word sorts! Word sorts are activities in which students categorize words according to the words’ features. Sorting makes it easier to see the similarities and differences of words.
Even before being able to read, students can begin sorting. They can sort pictures by beginning sounds, ending sounds, vowel sounds, number of syllables, etc. Students can sort words they already know how to read in order to increase their understanding of how the English language works and they can learn how to analyze words that they have never encountered before.
Students can also learn how to spell words that they don’t think they know how to spell by comparing words through sorts. Knowing how to spell familiar words gives the students reference points for knowing how to begin spelling new words. Here are just a few of the sorts that students can experience:
- Sort beginning sounds
- Sort Digraphs from Blends
- Sort long vowels from short vowels
- Sort words with closed syllables from words with open syllables
- Sort words that double the ending consonant before adding –ing with those that do not
- Sort prefixes and suffixes
- Sort base words and root words
Teachers can even combine a sound sort with a letter pattern sort. The list goes on and on.
Following are some helpful guidelines for teachers who want to use word sorts in their classes.
- Start with the simplest of concepts and progress to the more difficult.
- Provide students with some example questions they can ask themselves to perform a sort. Examples might include: “Under which heading or into which pile would I place this word?” “What makes this word different from that word?” “What do all of these different words have in common?”
- Have students contrast at least two and up to four features in their sorts.
- Alternate between sorts that can be done individually or as a whole class. They are great to use as part of students’ work stations or as a class activity to reinforce a new skill.
- Using nonsense words draws the students' focus to the concept or skill rather than to any particular word that they may already know. It expands the concept that different words may have something in common. Noticing those similarities and differences is what makes us better spellers and readers.
Two of my favorite sorts are shown below.
1st Sort: Sort these 20 nonsense words into the correct column following Reading Horizons Phonetic Skill 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. Five words have been done for you.
2nd Sort: Sort these long vowel words from these short vowel words. Two words have been done for you.