How to make spelling interesting: Use word sorts (Word Study, part 4)

Are you ready to dive into teaching spelling?  So far in my Word Study series:

1) We’ve addressed why we need a different approach to spelling instruction.

2) We’ve looked at how children move through developmental stages as they learn to spell.

3) We’ve discovered how to determine a child’s spelling level  so we can begin instruction.

A lot of this has been theoretical.  Are you ready to get practical?



 (This post contains affiliate links.)

What are word sorts? 

Instead of receiving a list of 15-20 spelling words, children receive a group of words in table format.  They cut them out and arrange them in columns according to pattern.  Here are some sample sorts, progressing from easy to hard:

  • sort the -at (cat) and -an (pan) word families
  • sort short vowel words that end in ck (-ick, -ack, -ock, -uck, -eck)
  • sort short a words (mat) , long a words spelled with a silent e (cake), and long a words spelled ai (rain)
  • sort the long i patterns: i-consonant-e (kite), igh (might), and i-consonant-consonant (mind)
  • sort words with diphthongs: oyoi, owou
  • sort words that have the ed ending: by doubling the final consonant (robbed), doing nothing (walked), or dropping an e (amazed)

The word sort is the heart of Word Study – without it, Word Study doesn’t exist.  Word sorts allow children to make generalizations about words which they can apply to new words as they read and write.  Instead of being passive learners, students are active: they are comparing, contrasting, and analyzing.

Still not sure not sure that word sorts are the way to go?  Then check out This Reading Mama’s six benefits of word sorts. I don’t think anyone could say it better!

Where do you find word sorts?

You can find a list of word sorts (in order from easy to hard according to the levels of spelling development) at the back of Words Their Way.  You choose the list based on your students’ level of development (which we talked about in Part 3).  Then type up the sort yourself or purchase companion volumes which do the work for you.

sample word sort lists from words their way

I’ve never used the companion volumes, but a commenter informed me that they are extremely helpful and can save you some time.  If you don’t purchase them, you’ll use the lists in the back of Words Their Way.  The above image shows what you’ll find.

This widget shows both the 4th and 5th editions of Words Their Way as well as the companion volumes which can save you some time when you’re preparing word sorts.  If you purchase the companion volumes, I’d love if you’d leave a comment to let us know what you think of them!

One caveat: you are the judge as to what your students need to learn next.  If a group is struggling, add a review week.  If a list feels like too much too soon, save it for later.  That’s one of my favorite parts of Word Study: you are not a slave to a curriculum — you, who know your students best, choose what to teach – not a group of curriculum developers who’ve never met your spellers!

How do you introduce a word sort?

1. Once you’ve chosen your sort, you’ll decide how many words to include and type up the list in a table format.  As a teacher I made every list 20 words — even for my first graders. I felt that since the students were learning patterns and not simply memorizing 20 words, this was not unfair.  But there is nothing sacred about a 20-word list.

sample sort

2. Have your students cut apart the words and save them in an envelope or bag.   Here’s the first word sort I taught my daughter. Since her spelling inventory told me that she’s at the beginning of the Within Word Pattern stage, I started with the first list in that stage.  In a classroom you’d want to prepare word lists for each group of instruction.  When I taught Word Study I would assign each group a letter (the lowest group would be Group A).  I would write “Group A” (or “Group B,” etc.) in the center box on the top of the table.

3. Introduce the pattern and assign header words.

beginning of sample sort

Here’s how it might sound: “You know that the letter a makes different sounds.  Sometimes it makes the short a sound, and sometimes it makes a long sound.  We spell  words differently when the a makes different sounds.  Today we’re going to sort words that have short a and a-consonant-e.  You’ll also find some words that don’t follow either pattern.  We’ll call them our oddballs.   Here’s our first header word: hat.  Does that have a short or long a sound?  Where should we put it?  Here’s our other header: cape.  Can you tell me where this one will go?”


4. Guide your student to finish sorting the words herself.  Some students will need more guidance at the beginning, but let them go when they’re ready.  In my teaching I usually found that my students did not need me to do this initial step after several months of sorting.  They were able to discover the pattern themselves.

5. Have your students read the words aloud.  Focus on the sounds the words make.  At this point your speller may find that a word was sorted incorrectly.  At first my daughter did not catch the oddballs “what” and “have.”  But as she read the sort aloud I was able to show her that have does not make the sound you would expect — so it’s an oddball.  And what looks like it should be wat.  So that’s an oddball too!

6.Explain any unfamiliar words.  This list is pretty straightforward, but I might ask my daughter how any different meanings she can think of for “jack.”  As the lists progress in difficulty, there will be more challenging vocabulary.

7. Form generalizations.  In the case of the above sort, the generalization would sound something like this: “When you hear a short a sound, you spell it with just the letter a.  When you hear a long a sound, you put an e at the end of the word.”

 A more complicated generalization – which is above my daughter’s head – would sound like this: “When you hear a short a sound in a single syllable word, use just an a between the consonants.  When you hear a long a sound in a single syllable word, spell it a-consonant-e.”

A rule of thumb: Word generalizations according to what your students can understand.

8. Have your students shuffle and resort the words themselves.  Before I dismissed a student from a word study meeting, I required him to sort the words all by himself and read them aloud one last time.

9. Have your students record (or paste) the word sort into  a Word Study notebook.  I had each of my students copy the word lists into their spiral notebook. I checked for spelling errors, which they corrected.  Looking back, it might have been better to have first graders glue the words into the notebook at the beginning of the year.  Copying 20 words was a real chore for some of those little ones!  I chose the pasting option for my daughter.

Be sure to read This Reading Mama’s post about how to introduce word sorts.

What kinds of sorts can students do? 

1) Teacher-directed closed sort (as described above): You define the categories, model the sort, and and then have your child complete it.  (This sort is for short a words and long a-consonant-e words.  I’m going to start with hat and cape.  My next word is glad.  It will go in the short a column under hat.  Can you finish the sort?)

2) Student-directed closed sort: As kids are ready, they create the categories and sort.  You check for accuracy.  (Can you tell me how you sorted?  That’s right – this week is short a words and long a words.  What do you notice about the long a words? Yes, they use a silent e at the end.  Tell me about your oddball words.)

3) Blind sort: A friend or parent reads each word to the child.  The child points to the column (on a clear desk or table) where each word should go.  Mistakes are addressed as they occur.

4) Writing Sort: Follow the same procedure as with a blind sort – but this time, students write each word in its appropriate column.  This is a good one to use toward the end of the week when preparing for the weekly test.

5) Speed Sort: Some students will enjoy using a stopwatch to time how quickly they can sort their words and work toward improvement as the week progresses.

6) Draw and Label / Cut and Paste: Young spellers are given drawing paper that has been divided into columns headed by a key letter.  They cut out pictures that begin with each letter and glue them into the appropriate column.  Some students may be able to draw the pictures instead.

7) Word Hunt: Sometimes I would assign a word hunt as homework.  Students would hunt through reading and writing, in books, on signs, etc. for additional examples of the sound or pattern they were studying.  They would write the words they found in the appropriate columns.

So how should you structure spelling instruction for the week?

That’s my final Word Study post!  Stay tuned!

Be sure to check out the rest of my Word Study series!  If you like what you’ve read, please share with other homeschooling parents or classroom teachers!

© 2013 – 2014, Anna Geiger. All rights reserved.


  1. says

    I have all the supplement books and love them. But, I also make my own if the sorts from the book don’t quite match where a child is. Great post, Anna!

  2. says

    This just makes so much sense! My daughter is getting to a point where I think word sorts will be extremely helpful–I’m so glad you shared this at Teach Me Tuesday at Preschool Powol Packets!!

  3. says

    Visiting from Teach Me Tuesday. Great post, my daughter is great at reading words with certain spelling patterns but they have not appeared in her writing yet. I think a word sort will be very helpful. We’ll try a few this week.

  4. Sarah Fish says

    Just out of curiosity, what is the goal here? Is it to memorize this set of words or the spelling pattern to be able to generalize to other words? If generalization is the goal, would a purely auditory task be even more beneficial? A task where the children are given pictures (without words) and they sort them by vowel sound and spell them based upon the spelling rules that have been taught. Using that method would a person be tapping into higher level thinking skills as well as applying the new skill?

    • annageig says

      Hi Sarah,
      Actually, both are the goal — to learn to spell a set of words because learning a generalization helps to spell them… and also being able to use that generalization to spell future words. Actually, auditory/visual sorts are used for children before they are ready to actually write words. Words Their Way contains many ideas for picture sorts for young children, as well as concept sorts for older kids.

      I think that what you mention is utilized when children do a blind sort… a word is read aloud to them and they think about how to spell it, then point to the correct column. The word is then revealed and placed in the correct spot.


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