Parents sometimes complain that the words in the sorts, particularly at the lower levels, are “too easy.” What do we tell them?

Parents often believe that the spelling words should be “hard.” Reassure them that spelling is more than just memorization – through Words Their Way in Action, their children are not just memorizing isolated words, but learning spelling patterns that will help them understand, learn, and spell hundreds of other vocabulary words. In order to learn these spelling patterns, students should be able to 1) read the spelling words and 2) be able to spell at least half of the words in the sort correctly (you may determine this by giving a pretest). This will reassure them that their child is working at his or her spelling instructional level. If on a pretest a student misspells most or all of the spelling words, then these words are probably at the student’s spelling frustration level. 

Are the sorts intended to be used purely on a weekly basis, or is it acceptable to take two weeks for a particular sort?

It is very important that teachers not feel “locked in” to doing a new sort every week. For some children, and occasionally most at a particular level, some sorts may require two weeks. This is especially true at Levels D and E.

How do I meet the needs of my students who are at different developmental levels?

Recognizing that students in your classroom are at different developmental stages of word study as well as at different levels within a particular stage will help you differentiate instruction for them.  In addition to having them work with sorts at their developmental level, you can meet individual differences by adjusting the pace of instruction, making sorts easier, and making sorts harder

Adjust Pacing

The pacing of the sorts in Words Their Way: Word Study in Action, Developmental Model is designed for average growth.  However, because all students do not work at the same speed, you can adjust pacing in these ways:

  • If students catch on quickly, move at a faster pace. Spend fewer days on series of sorts or skip some sorts altogether
  • If students are not keeping up, slow down the pace.  Do this by spending more time on the sorts. You can also create additional sorts using the pictures and words in the program.

Making Sorts Easier

Following are suggestions for those students who need more help with word study.

  • When beginning a new unit of study, have students sort with fewer categories.  As students become adept at sorting, increase the number of categories in a sort.
  • If an example word is unfamiliar to students, use one that is easier and familiar to students.
  • Provide additional example words for a category.
  • If there are unfamiliar words in the sort, put them at the end so that known words are the first to be sorted
  • Eliminate “oddballs”, the words that do not fit the targeted letter-sound or pattern feature, from the sort
  • At the first three developmental levels, do not include the Bonus Words.
  • Review sorts when necessary.

Making Sorts Harder

Following are suggestions for those students who need a more challenging word study routine.

  • Add more difficult words to the sort.  For example, adding words with blends and digraphs (black, chest, truck) to a short vowel sort is more challenging than simple words such as tap and set.
  • Have students suggest additional words that fit the targeted spelling feature.
  • Do fewer follow-up activities.
  • Skip sorts that review.

How do I effectively use Words Their Way with my English Language Learners?

Many challenges face students learning to read and write in a new language. However, it is important to remember that although students are new to English, the do have proficiency in another language.  In addition, two students who are the same age and speak the same home language may be on different levels with word study, just as English-speaking students might be.

When you form groups for word study, consider students’ developmental levels, but also take into account whether or not students are English learners who need additional language support. For students to benefit from hearing each other speak, form heterogeneous language groups so that you have a range of oral proficiency in your small groups; at other times group together students who are the least proficient in oral English skills in order to help them build those skills.

At the early stages of language learning, picture sorts are most appropriate for English learners.  Concepts sorts with pictures or objects are the least demanding.  When doing picture sorts for sounds, keep in mind that students need to know the names of enough pictures to demonstrate the sound relationship being sorted.  Always name the pictures before the sort begins and have students repeat the picture names.

When moving on to word sorts, ensure that students are making oral-written language connections by reading the words aloud.  Go over all the words before sorting, pronouncing them and talking about their meanings.  Continue saying the words aloud during a sort.  It is also important for English learners to say the words aloud as they sort; this ensures that students connect spelling patterns to what they hear in spoken words.

With Words Their Way: Word Study in Action, Developmental Model, here are additional ways you can support English language learners.

  • Provide explicit vocabulary instruction.
  • Pronounce picture names and words before, during, and after sorting.  Explain word meanings, and use words in sentences that give strong context for the meaning.
  • Have students illustrate words with simple drawings to remind them of meanings.
  • Provide additional picture support for words in sorts to help English learners build background knowledge and vocabulary.
  • Check for understanding of sorting words as you meet with students.
  • Encourage students’ frequent oral use of the sort words.
  • Have students use the words orally in sentences or phrases, depending on their proficiency.
  • Incorporate multimodal strategies, such as chanting, tapping, and movement.
  • Pair English learners with English-speaking patterns in buddy activities
  • Set a tone that will encourage English learners to ask questions about words whose meanings or pronunciations they do not know.

How do you balance teaching state grade level standards linked to word study/phonics (i.e. short and long vowels) to students who are in a lower level stage (i.e., emergent)?

I believe that a realistic approach is that your “whole class” instruction may address grade-level features, and while we do not expect below-level children to take as much from that instruction as those who are on level, I like to think of it as “planting a seed” for below-level children about how words work – knowing that I will not assess or expect those children to internalize and apply that information until they are ready later on. In the meantime, of course, we are meeting their developmental needs right where they are, usually in small group instruction.

What do you recommend to teachers who say "it is just too much work to differentiate by word study levels AND differentiate guided math groups AND write small group reading plans"

I understand their frustration, but I would point out – and make a big deal about! – the fact that their word study groups and their reading groups contain the same learners. So, their “below level” reading group will comprise the same learners as their “below level” word study group. This is why, by the way, the spelling inventories predict reading levels (and reading groups!) so well.

Can you skip sorts in the scope and sequence?

For students who are coming along quite well – usually your better spellers – this is okay from time to time. For on-level and struggling students, I would strongly encourage you not to skip. The reason is because word study is not just about spelling – the more students interact with, think about, talk about the words and the patterns the words represent, the more deeply they are processing these words and features – which in turn supports their reading more efficiently.

Can spelling difficulty point to a more serious language-based disability? 

Yes, though we first want to make sure why we think a student might have a spelling difficulty. If s/he is trying to master the spelling of words that are at her/his spelling “frustration” level, this is not usually a sign of a more serious disability. If on the other hand the student is properly placed for spelling instruction, is doing well in reading, yet still is spelling poorly, then there may indeed be a very specific disability.