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Using Word Sorts to Help Students Recognize Word Patterns

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 training sessions, teachers ask me how they can get their students to identify how one skill or concept is different from another during structured literacy instruction. (“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 to increase their understanding of how the English language works and 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 can spell by comparing words through sorts. Knowing how to spell familiar words gives the student reference points for learning 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’ workstations or as a class activity to reinforce a new skill.
  • Using nonsense words draws the students’ focus on the concept or skill rather than on any particular word they may already know. It expands the idea 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.


  1. slaze
  2. mo
  3. fet
  4. gred
  5. flamp
  6. bo
  7. glain
  8. pob
  9. bleet
  10. quast
  11. gand
  12. cloat
  13. crope
  14. hab
  15. fland
  16. fline
  17. smeak
  18. rike
  19. ji
  20. daip

2nd Sort:  Sort these long vowel words from these short vowel words. Two words have been done for you.


  1. tapping
  2. coping
  3. hopping
  4. rating
  5. pinning
  6. griping
  7. riding
  8. moping
  9. dotting
  10. pining
  11. winning
  12. mopping
  13. tiling
  14. scrapping
  15. hoping
  16. striping
  17. taping
  18. tilling
  19. gripping
  20. doting

Learn more about the Reading Horizons phonics reading program.

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