How to Use Word Sorts Across the Levels

Your students are so different from each other.

Johnny has such a hard time remembering his CVC words. Meanwhile, Miranda can decode anything; but ask her to define any of these words, and she’ll hide under her chair.

You might not have interventions available to treat your students’ highly-specific issues. Or, if you do have interventions, they might be tricky to administer when you have a whole bunch of kids in your room, each with his or her own competing needs.

So, that’s where you… you wonderful Special Educator, you… that’s where you jump in with your bag of tricks.

Or, in this case: your boxes of tricks.

Your word sorts will live in special boxes designed for each student.

Words in boxes, for each child. Some of the best gifts in boxes that you’ll ever give.

Starting Off

The materials you’ll use are rather no-nonsense:

If you allow your students to decorate their own boxes, then you’ll set the stage for positive associations with this activity. Get some fun stickers and/or paint and allow your students to beautify these boxes to their hearts’ delight!

Of course, make sure everyone puts their names on their boxes. ;)

Collecting Baseline Words

You can collect words from a variety of sources:

  • Miscues from basal readers

  • Miscues from reading assessments

  • Unit vocabulary

  • Spelling word lists

  • Miscues from oral reading tasks

  • Unknown words—a student asks “What does that mean?”

Choose the method of organization that works best for you. Some teachers might prefer to collect words in different boxes for different word tasks.

You could have one box for vocabulary, and another for decoding. Or, you can combine these two and use dividers to separate them within the boxes. Individualize your methods based on your needs!

Adding Words

The amount of words you add at a given time will depend upon the developmental reading levels of your individual students. Some students might be able to handle ten new words a week; others might max out at three. There’s no magic number of cards—it’s a process of trial and error.

Remember: Word sorts teach students to recognize the similarities between words. The words you add to the box should build on the similar letter patterns or similar meanings of your baseline words.

Add new word cards based on your instructional goals. Use the baseline words you gathered (above) as a starting point.

You can also create a section of the word box for words that don’t follow specific patterns. These are the “outlier words,” those “exception to the rule” words. In some contexts, we might call these “sight words.” An example is the word “one,” which doesn’t follow the normal VCE (vowel-consonant-long e) pattern. The "o” in the word “won” says “w” instead of making a long “o” sound, unlike most words in the VCE group.

Using Word Sorts for Decoding

Gather as many similar cards to your “baseline words” as possible. For example, if you notice that your student is unable to decode words that start with the digraph “ph,” fill up your box with words in that family: phone, graph, phonics, dolphin, nephew, and etc.

Your teaching methods should be multi-sensory and memorable. Students should say the words as they practice them. Allow them to draw the words in a box of sand, create them out of clay, draw them out, sing them in a song—whatever it takes.

Once they have multiple categories of words (for example: ph and gh words), they’ll have to actually sort the words. They should be able to place the words in a stack or a long row to show which words are similar to which, and then read them out loud. “Ph” and “Gh” and so on. Never the two shall meet!

Assessment Notes

Lined index cards are so perfect for word sorts, because the lines allow you to keep neat assessment notes on the back. On your baseline word cards for decoding, use the lined backs to keep track of the date of the original miscue, as well as the error.

For example, your student might say the word “seven” as “seevan.” Write that down on the back of your “seven” word card:

2/25: seevan

Continue to keep track as you use the card:

2/26: seeven

2/27: seevan

2/28: seven

Vocabulary development

Vocabulary word sorts are a different animal. If you want to emphasize meaning, I highly recommend that you add images to the back of the card, and keep any assessment notes on a separate chart.

Some words are easy to create images for, such as: trampoline, skipping, tortoise. It’s easy to sketch out any of these words (or have the students draw them). Other words might be more challenging, such as: better, unless, choose. For these words, you might have more luck using a sentence-based approach, and writing a couple of sentences on the back of the card.

Add your new vocabulary words in groups, and allow students to sort them into synonym groups, almost like a visual thesaurus. For example, if your baseline word is glance then add the words watch, peek, and examine.

Students can practice these new words in a variety of ways. They can create sentences, songs, and comic strips with these words. Whatever you do, try to make it be as fun as possible. You really want your students to have good feelings about these practice activities.

Review, New, and Mastered

As your boxes get filled up with cards, you’ll want to blend in review, new, and mastered cards.

Review cards allow for continued practice. They exist as a part of a set, as words in a small or large group which follow a pattern.

New cards are the baseline cards. New cards are either “sight words” or they’re new cards which need to become a part of a set.

Mastered cards help the student’s self-esteem. The student can easily decode and define these cards, and can also use them in a sentence. Keep these words in the box and use them intermittently to demonstrate to your students how much they’ve learned!

Be sure to reward your students with special recognition when they spot a card from their word box in a book (or elsewhere)!

Use word sorts for teaching, practice, and assessment, and you’ll have an automated method to individualize your instruction!

Have you ever used word sorts with your students? Or, do you have any great ideas for how to use word sorts? Let us know in the comments section below!