Sorting Things Out – An Update

Jun 24th, 2012 | By | Category: Visual Phonics

Organizing is hard-wired into our brains – our brains love patterns and repetition.  The concept of similarity, or sameness, is a basic organizing strategy . . . a way to be aware of and recognize common characteristics of things seen, heard, or felt.  With the awareness of sameness comes the awareness of difference, another basic organizing strategy. Information that is sorted out through the process of comparing & contrasting (thinking about the similarities and the differences) has high storage strength, and as a result, also has high retrieval strength.

The underlying cognitive constructs of polarity, category inclusion and exclusion, are part of the brain’s hard-wired organizational default.  In education, we use the terms “alike”, “same”, “go together” and “not different” to teach and reinforce “sameness”, while the terms “different”, “don’t go together”, and “not the same” teach and reinforce “difference”.  Other ways to express the idea of inclusion include “goes with” and “belongs”, while exclusion can be expressed by “doesn’t go with” or “doesn’t belong”.

These very basic concepts of inclusion and exclusion can be infused into the literacy process of connecting sound to print through the use of Visual Phonics hand shapes and symbols, beginning as early as pre-school.  Through the use of sorting or matching activities, students can be exposed to print concepts at or beyond their pre-reading or reading levels.  These activities can be teacher-led or learning-center based (small group or individual). A few ideas for PK-1st grade follow – the listing of ideas is not exhaustive by any means, but offers a variety for consideration and inspiration.

At the end of this update is a routine created for a 2rd grade student who had struggled with spelling when words weren’t spelled phonetically. He hadn’t been able to fully develop the sense of what “looks right” (this typically happens by mid-first grade) and was trying to apply phonics rules he was learning to every spelling word he was unsure of. The routine developed a stronger sense of what looks right by drawing attention to vowel and/or consonant digraph spelling patterns that sounded the same by finding the word that “looked right” in a field of three possible spellings – all phonetic possibilities. See Building a Sense of When Words “Look Right” at the end of this article for the steps of the routine.


  • Students are beginning to become aware of letters and the sounds the letters represent. Learning by association is a powerful strategy often used to connect the sounds of letters to the names of the letters, and the use of pictures + Visual Phonics hand shapes provides visual and kinesthetic learning channel inputs to facilitate the association task.
  • There are a number of songs used in preschool (Dr. Jean and Jack Hartmann, for example, have CDs with many songs about learning) to learn about the alphabet. Students enjoy music, so songs are a great tool for connecting sound and print! The use of a song or songs can become a routine the children look forward to (Dr. Jean’s song “Who Let the Letters Out” is especially popular because it is upbeat). By simply adding visuals (a picture that represents the sound of the letter + the Visual Phonics hand shape for the sound the letter represents), the association or “connection” of sound and print is embedded into what the students view as “fun”!
  • Since we know that being able to isolate the first sound of a word is an early & critical emergent literacy skill, a sorting activity based on the 1st sound of words (such as finding all of the pictures that start with the /b/ sound) sets the stage for associating the picture to the actual word in print.
  • Another very basic and frequently used organizing strategy in Preschool and Kindergarten is to have students line up by the first sound of their name. For example, “If your name starts with the /d/ sound (as the teacher makes the /d/ Visual Phonics hand shape), line up.” In cases where the first letter is consistent with the first sound, the letter-sound connection is easily reinforced.
  • In cases where the first letter or letters of a student’s name do not represent the sounds typically associated with those letters (as in Austin, Chloe, Charlotte, & Alexis), all is not lost! This becomes a teachable moment – an opportunity to learn that letters can represent several sounds and to begin the foundation literacy skill of mapping sound-to-print for the “unique” beginning letters of their names. The “discovery” that two or more letters can make one sound also sets the stage for the recognition of consonant digraphs, vowel digraphs, and chunks of letters that make one sound (as in –eigh).
  • Playing a “memory” or “matching” game with pictures and letters can become more multisensory by simple adding the use of Visual Phonics hand shapes. Since the activity is to match up letters and pictures that begin with each letter, having the students make the hand shape for the sound of each letter and for the first sound of each picture as they turn the cards over.
  • Use of a routine can be a powerful connector of sound and print. It is not uncommon to have a center activity where students form letters from a model using Playdoh or pipe cleaners, make the letters in shaving crème or sand, or trace letters made of sand paper or felt with their fingers. This is all well and good for learning the letter name and beginning to set a motor pattern for letter formation with a pencil, crayon or marker, but there is no connection to letter sound in this activity. However, the absence of a purposeful connection of letter and sound is easily remedied by having the students make the handshape for the letter sound after they make or trace each letter. Repeating the handshape 3 times is a basic number of times to establish and maintain a strong motor-memory pattern in the brain.


  • Word families begin to show up in curricula, presenting another opportunity to sort into like spelling patterns. Since beginning word families have the same vowel sound and are often short vowels, Visual Phonics hand shapes and written symbols can help to “differentiate” between short E and short I sounds because students can “see” that they are different sounds. Not only that, but the hand shapes and written symbols also serve to reinforce the association of a sound to a letter, which helps with reading (decoding) as well as spelling/writing (encoding).
  • Decodable words present learning opportunities for words that “sound like they look” or vice versa, “look like they sound.” Sight words offer teachable moments in the ability to decipher the “code” of English because they don’t always “sound” like they “look”. An activity such as sorting words into groups that “sound like they look” and “don’t sound like they look” can be useful in building decoding skills and automatic recognition of sight words, especially when the words are coded with Visual Phonic written symbols under the print. In addition, automatic recognition of CVC words and word family “chunks” sets the stage for being able to break multisyllabic words down into decodable chunks.
  • The “building” of Word Walls is also an organization strategy, alphabetically based on the 1st letter of a word. Organizing words by “letterness” is an adult-thinking strategy, and is commonly used in early elementary classrooms. This sorting by 1st letter helps to reinforce the letters of the Alphabet, but does little to facilitate struggling children’s ability to map sound-to-print because fairly soon, “exceptions” begin to show up. For example, under the letter A there could be the word “a” and the name “Austin” . . . under the letter C could be a CH word such as “chin” or names like “Chloe” & “Cheri) . . . under the letter T might be “the” & “thank” – none of these words have the main 2 sounds taught for vowels and the 1 sound taught for the consonants. When we add Visual Phonics written symbols under the letters that do something different, struggling students are able to “sort things out” more easily by shifting to thinking about the words from a “letter” basis to a “sound” basis because the written symbols tell them immediately what sound(s) the letters are going to make.
  • Since children think in “sound” vs. “letters” when they begin school, classifying words by their vowel sounds links back to the oral language basis for literacy. As mentioned in the first bulleted point for Kindergarten, the short vowel word families easily lend themselves to “sorting” by sound, and I have been in many Kindergarten rooms where small word family posters are up around the room. With addition of the Visual Phonics symbol for the vowel sound in each word family, students can easily “see” and know what sound those vowels make, which strengthens the sound-letter associations that are necessary for spelling/writing

At a point in the year where vowel sounds are beginning to be represented by vowel combinations, the ”sound wall” strategy of grouping words by the vowel sounds becomes a viable option. Depending on the time of year or skill level of the class, there could be posters for all long and short vowels, with the Visual Phonics written symbol for the vowel sound at the top (just the written symbol – no letter(s) because the listing of words is based on the sound of the vowel(s) that are heard) and words that have that vowel sound  listed underneath. For example, under the long A symbol, words such as “tape”, “pail”, “hey”, “May”, and “weigh” would be listed, while under the long I symbol, words such as “hi”, “high”, “tie”, and “cry” would be found.

1st grade

  • At the end of Kindergarten and all through 1st grade, word family work expands, as does the variety of spelling patterns that sound alike. With the growing number of spelling patterns in 1st grade, the need to organize them beyond “letterness” arrives as an additional organizing strategy for students, especially those whose Alphabetic Principle and/or Phonemic Awareness skills are weak. As was stated above in Kindergarten information, by adding Visual Phonics written symbols under the letters that do something different, struggling students are able to “sort things out” more easily by shifting to thinking about the words from a “sound” basis because the written symbols tell them immediately what sound(s) the letters are going to make. Sound Walls can go a long way toward helping students make sense of the code of English from a “sound” basis vs. a “letter” basis.
  • Phonics lessons. Whether working on the silent E rule, the 3 vowel sounds of the letter Y or “ou/ow”, use of Visual Phonics hand shapes and/or written symbols “breaks the code” of English quickly and concretely. Mapping sound-to-print from symbols that consistently represent specific sounds is more brain-compatible for younger students than memorizing rules of phonics. It’s a well known fact that embedding phonics rules in a short phrase (“I before E except after C”), rap or song builds memory pathways much quicker than just doing a work sheet about the rule and hearing the teacher state the rule.

Verbal presentation of phonics rules (even after working on examples) has the weakest input/retention strength, with rap/song embedded rules being much stronger. This is because the use of movement and the rhythm/melody of music results in more learning channel inputs than talking & pointing by the teacher. Besides, only 25% of all learners are primary auditory channel learners! Considering that hand shapes are visual & kinesthetic and the corresponding written symbols offer strong visual information, the associative learning strength provided by Visual Phonics is high.

  • Word Walls. See this information above in the Kindergarten section.

Words Their Way

  • Words Their Way is a powerful program that involves a hands-on word sorting approach to word study. The words sorts are organized by two categories of words that fit a pattern and one category called “oddballs” for words that don’t fit the designated sorting guidelines. Sorts are done in a variety of ways, including sorting by short & long vowel sounds. When sorting by sounds, some spelling patterns that look alike do not “fit” or “belong” in either of the two main sort categories – for example, if sorting for long O, the word “done” would go in the “oddball” category.
  • For students who struggle with mapping sound-to-print, placement of the Visual Phonics symbols under the spelling patterns gives immediate visual information about the sounds being the same or different, and facilitates the sorting decisions based on sound  rather than “letterness”.

One of the great quotes from Reading Recovery is “Make them strong at what they know.” Our brains are hard-wired to organize information by seeking patterns and establishing high storage strength through meaningful repetition. Using best practices and brain-friendly techniques, it only makes sense that we would give the brain as much evidence as possible in congruent ways so that the sorting results are usable and strongly connect sound to print.



Building a Sense of When Words “Look Right” – 1st Grade and Beyond

This routine works best with a small white board. There are 5 steps:

  1. Write the spelling word and two other forms of the word that are phonetic. For example, if the spelling word is “leaf”, two possible spellings that are phonetic would be “leef” and “lefe”. Be careful not to put the “correct” word in the same place each time!
  2. Have the student look at the 3 possible spellings and circle the one that “looks right”. To add a little quiz show twist, ask them if that is their “final answer”.
  3. Ask the students to tell the vowel sound(s) of the word and point to the location.
  4. Have the student spell the word while looking at the white board.
  5. Have the student spell the word without looking at the white board.
  6. Have the student use the word in a sentence. (erase the white board while they are spelling the word)
  7. Have the student write the word. Give appropriate feedback.

An alternative for step #1 would be to dictate the 3 possible spellings and have the student write each word one letter at a time. In this way, the students would be looking at each of the 3 example words in their own handwriting.

The value of this activity is that it gives the students experience at building stronger skills about what “looks right” by giving an equal amount of thought to when words “don’t look right”. This goes right back to the very basics of brain organizing strategies – sorting things out!

© 2012  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved






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