“Give me that!” my youngest son, Jon, yells at his older brother, Joel.
“Come and get it!” an antagonistic Joel replies. I resume writing, but the back-and-forth banter continues. I wonder, What is this skirmish about? No longer able to write, I order, “Sort it out!” and then locate the combating brothers.
I encounter a remote-control wrestling match. “Can’t you two sort this out?” I ask.
“And how do you suggest we do that?” stops me in my tracks. I want to say, Are you kidding me? but don’t.
Raising a pair of teenagers keeps me grounded. They are being real. I’m asking them to sort through their dilemma, which is not an easy task. I assumed a lot.
My boys have me wondering about school: Maybe we assume a lot when we have kids sort. I have been reconsidering and refining my word study thinking. Word sorts are an important word study activity. Kids are asked to “sort out” their spelling confusions. Maybe, like my sons, students are not clear about how to sort through words.
When launching sorts at the beginning of the year, do kids have a clear model in their heads? This year I tried something different to clarify sort thinking.
But first, let’s refine sort thinking by sorting through these words.
energetic analyze manipulate operate study
examine rowdy handle active lively
Finished? Frustrated? Confused? Was it easy? Did you wonder what the point was? Or do you want to know “the” answer?
Sorts. What is the point? To think, of course! To notice details, compare and contrast, revise and refine understandings. To sort through confusions, create categories, and develop conceptual knowledge, and then use this understanding as a link, connecting prior knowledge, developing new knowledge.
When you sorted my list of words, did you discover a pattern? Did you read the entire list and discover how these words are linked together? Was this an automatic process? Could it have been a learned habit? Or maybe a combination of both?
Did you try to accomplish this sort solo, or did you recruit help? Did you cross words out? Did you write words into categories? Did you ask yourself how the words went together or why you were doing this? Of course you were an active participant.
Word Study Basics
My word study activities need to build on these ideas. To ensure this occurs, I want all my word work activities to be
- manipulative, and
Creating a climate of wonder and excitement is critical to word study, especially spelling. Wondering minds are engaged minds. Kids can manipulate words by sorting word cards. Copying words into categories absorbs learners. Allowing them to participate in pairs or small groups invites conversation and reflection. To ensure children understand the power of sorts, I used a new but not untried teaching strategy.
Launching a Sort
“Today we are going to think about sorting. Yesterday while walking in the woods I collected this wonderful bouquet of leaves.”
I reveal my leaf collection and place it on the floor. Instantaneously hands shoot out. Most children snatch a leaf or two. Leaves are inspected, twisted, spun, wrinkled, and traded.
“What do you see?” I say, interrupting temporary chaos.
“BUBBLY!” Emily squeals.
Imperfections invite children to reinspect their specimens. Refocusing the group, I wonder, What just happened?
A moment of silence is followed by a recounting of events: children grabbing, wanting to hold a leaf, describing leaf attributes and then flaws.
“Why do you think this happened?” I ask, probing for deep reflection.
“You asked us to tell you what we see,” Carson bravely announces. The group responds with shifting eyes and then bobbing heads.
“What I hear you telling me is that when you have an open sort, you first examine obvious characteristics. You look for similar patterns. Once you notice the obvious, you are ready to reexamine, and discover hidden characteristics.”
Student nodding and leaf twisting provide feedback as I push on.
I revise my prompt: “Sort this group of leaves into two groups. Then tell me what attribute you used to form each group.”
Prince’s hand shoots up. “What does attribute mean?”
“What do you think it means?”
“Ah, um, I’m not sure.”
“Characteristics!” a chorus of whispery voices informs Prince.
Carson takes charge, placing a huge maple leaf down. “Put all the maple leaves here!” A stack of maple leaves forms.
Jose and Hyuga hang on to their maple leaves. Stephanie retrieves a leaf from the stack, points to it, revealing a similar shape, and then pantomimes to the boys that they are to lay their leaves down. “Maple leaf,” she reiterates.
I help the children notice that there are two types of oak leaves and three types of maple leaves. We glue leaves onto butcher paper and label them. Over the next few days, we refer to the sorted leaves. This display anchors our thinking while sorting names, numbers, and words.
This experience confirmed that I use terms kids do not understand. I thought kids would easily detect patterns, and I assumed this because they had completed a similar task last year. Helping my children detect and connect spelling patterns will be an important goal during word study activities.
Word sorts are a common activity used in most spelling programs. When learning to spell, vowel and consonant patterns need to be sorted out. Students who struggle with spelling have not learned how to sort out phonological knowledge with their visual memory. Designing effective word sorts can support spelling development, especially for struggling spellers.
Ways I Use Sorts
- To notice words with the same beginning or ending sound and letter
- To notice words with the same beginning or ending sound, but different letters
- To notice short-vowel patterns (CVC)
- To notice long-vowel patterns (CVCe or CVVC)
- To notice the number of syllables in words
- To notice spelling patterns
- To notice exceptions to spelling patterns
- To notice spelling features
- To develop academic vocabulary
- To develop content-specific vocabulary
Benefits of a Word Sort
- Develop a visual memory
- Connect phonological awareness to letter(s)
- Develop self-regulating skills
- Associate words that use similar spelling features
- Develop knowledge of synonymous terms