Inside: My 10 favorite word sort activities. Use these in your classroom or for distance learning to build up spelling and phonics skills.
n Thursday nights when I was in 2nd grade, my mom turned into a spelling cheerleader.
“B clap, U-R clap, R-I clap -E-D!” she’d chant.
It wasn’t that my mom loved spelling like teachers love a snow day.
But there was a reason she got involved.
I did the typical practice, copy the word a few times, try it from memory, question what in the world is wrong with me when my attempt doesn’t match the narrow paper list… again!
That’s when my mom stepped in with something loud and theatrical to sear the word into my memory (and also to get my perfectionistic butt to bed!)
The question is: why, for a decent reader and writer like me, was it so hard to memorize the words on my spelling list?
The Problem Was This:
In the early 90s the weekly spelling lists were a random collection of words that someone, in some office, somewhere, thought kids needed to know how to spell.
With no rhyme or reason to the word lists, it WAS a tedious effort to memorize those spellings.
But that’s just the way spelling had to be… or was it?
Enter: The word sort
Words in a sort are chosen because they fit in specific categories.
Word sorts work like this:
- Kids learn the sound or rule for each category
- They sort cards with words that each fit into each of the categories
- They practice with the spelling sort in a variety of ways
So the critical question is…
Do Sorting Activities Actually Improve Spelling?
I was excited to learn that researchers find word sort activities improve not only spelling, but also reading skills!
Studies show that students who receive word sort instruction perform better in phonemic segmentation, word identification, and spelling than students who receive traditional spelling instruction.
Word sorts help you explicitly teach phonics skills and tap into the power of word families, both research-based strategies for teaching.
You might be thinking: Ok, word sorts improve spelling, but don’t kids get bored with lining up word cards? How do I keep the task fresh so kids stay engaged?
9 Word Sort Activities for Busy Teachers
With simple supplies that you probably already have, you can easily switch up your word study routine to keep it interesting. These tasks work well as part of a daily whole-class word study time, a spelling center, or as homework.
1. Highlight the pattern – When kids notice familiar letter patterns in words, suddenly they go from tediously sounding out “c – a – t” to fluently putting together chunks in bigger words, like “c – au – tion.” Have students use highlighters (and even color-coding) to mark the patterns they find.
Keep in mind: this might be a “sometimes” activity because finding and marking the patterns is beneficial but students could then rely too heavily on color matching instead of pattern recognition when using the word sort repeatedly.
2. Speed Sort – Lots of kids are motivated by competition. Here are my favorite ways to speed sort:
- Students start sorting their words when you say “go.” They stand up when they’re done.
- Students race against a partner to see who can sort faster.
- Students work on their own with a timer and try to improve their time.
3. Sort and Write – Students sort their word cards and then record their work by writing it in a notebook or on a whiteboard.
**Definitely do this one!** Students seem to retain the words much better if they have practiced writing them, not just sorting the pieces.
4. Find My Mistake – Challenge students to solve the puzzle and prove that they can’t be tricked!
- Each student completes their own word sort.
- Then the move a few words into the wrong columns.
- Switch with a partner and see if each student can find the other’s mistakes and fix them.
5. Digital Sort – Take word sorts to Google Classroom, SeeSaw or another digital platform. Set up a background and word boxes yourself or go for a premade set of digital word sorts. This option is great as a word work center in class or as an option for distance learning.
6. Sort the Room – Cut apart a word sort and tape the words around the room. Kids write the headings in their notebook. Then they walk around the classroom and write the words in the correct column as they find them.
Worried about finding the time to cut and tape up the words? Make it a special job that a student or two can help out with.
7. Rhyme and Write – Students draw out a card from their word sort. They write the word and see how many other rhyming words they can come up with. This way they are generalizing the spelling pattern to more words.
8. Quiz a Partner – Students work in pairs. Both write the sorting categories on their paper. One partner pulls a word card and reads it. The other partner tries to spell it in the correct column. They check the word together. Then they switch roles and continue.
9. Use in a Sentence – To push students to the next level of understanding, challenge them to use words from their sort in the context of a sentence.
10. Sort and Glue – Save this one for the last time you want to use each word sort. Kids sort out their word cards and then glue them down either in a notebook or on a piece of paper. The glued sort can be used later for reference during writing and for review.
A Simple Routine for the Win
One of the worst mistakes I made as a new teacher was thinking that kids could be exposed to a skill once and be good to go! Wouldn’t that be nice? That would be like if I could follow my phone’s navigation to get somewhere once and never need to look that place up again….pshh :::shades face with hand:::
Kids need to practice with the same sort a few times.
You don’t want them to get bored with it but you also don’t want to exhaust yourself by reinventing the spelling practice wheel every day or week.
There’s a simple solution: Set up a weekly rotation of word sort activities from the choices above. After a few weeks, change out one of the activities for something new. Repeat all year!
It might look like this:
- Monday – Introduce the spelling sort, kids all sort once
- Tuesday – speed sort
- Wednesday – sort and write
- Thursday – sort and glue
- Friday – spelling test on the sort words
Looking for More Support with Word Sorts?
Joseph, L. (2000). Developing first graders’ phonemic awareness, word identification and spelling: a comparison of two contemporary phonic instructional approaches. Reading Research and Instruction, 39(2), 160-9.