How to Use Sorting to Improve Phonemic Awareness
1) To set up a sorting activity, an adult finds and cuts out pictures of words from two different sound categories. (The use of pictures instead of cards with words written on them will encourage the child to attend to what he hears instead of what he sees. Try doing an image search of “long a words” or some other category to easily locate pictures.) Students should be comparing two different sounds each time. The possibilities for combinations are almost endless, but some great categories to juxtapose are words that start with b versus words that start with d; simple words with long a versus simple words with short a; or words that begin with s versus words that begin with sh. Note: If the goal is for the child to distinguish between vowel sounds, be sure you select one-syllable words; “sidewalk” would be a poor addition to a long i category because it has two vowel sounds and may cause confusion.)
2) Once the pictures have been obtained, the adult mixes up the pictures and presents them to the child, who should say their names. The first time the child does a sort, she may need guidance in the form of key words and modeling. For example, the adult could choose one picture from each category and pull them to the side, then select a third picture, saying, “Ok, this is a picture of a cAt. Here I have a picture of a fAn and a picture of a clOck. Hmmm, cAt, clOck; cAt, fAn. Which does cAt go with, fAn, or clOck? I’ll put it with fAn because I can hear the same /ă/ sound in both words. Now you choose a picture.” As the child becomes accustomed to sorts, the adult can simply present the pictures without providing any clues and ask the child how she should categorize them.
3) Once the child has separated the pictures into two groups, the adult should ask him to slowly say the names of the pictures in each group to check for mistakes. If he skips over an error, the adult should repeat the erroneous word and another correct word several times, drawing emphasis on the sound that does not match, (“Are you sure? Listen: lĕg, slĒĒp; lĕg, slĒĒp,”) and encourage him to move the card to the correct place. If he seems to catch on quickly, he can think of another word that would fit into each category.
Optional Step for More Proficient Students
Once the pictures have been categorized, students who are a little older will benefit from matching written words to their corresponding pictures. The adult can ask the child what she notices about all of the words in one column, drawing the child’s attention to the fact that they all end with t or they all have more than one vowel. Then the child can copy a few or all of the words into columns in a word study notebook for future reference. Children who enjoy drawing can create a picture at the top of each column to remind them of the sound represented there, such as a bug above the short u column.
Picture sorts are enormously effective for several reasons. First, the child must rely on the sounds in the word, rather than the letters he sees. This will serve him well as he begins to sound out words when reading or spelling them. It can also help older children who omit letters when reading or spelling to attend to all of the sounds in a word. Also, categorizing information develops higher order critical thinking skills that children will need throughout and beyond school. Finally, picture sorts are fun! Children enjoy looking at the images and creating order.