Picture This!: Picture Sorting for Alphabetics, Phonemes, & Phonics January 19 2009

Teaching Resource Center is pleased to announce a revised version of author Shari Nielsen-Dunn's book "Picture This!: Picture Sorting for Alphabetics, Phonemes, & Phonics" is now available with a special sale price of only $21.95.

Teachers working with primary students, second language learners, and special education students will find this book filled with ready-to-use, hands-on templates for picture sorting (helping students hear and feel the sounds of the words) and word sorting (helping students see the patterns of the vowel sounds within words) - an excellent transitional step toward word sorting! 129 picture sorts are in a developmental sequence, increasing in difficulty and complexity.

The sorts are organized in 5 sections: concept, initial consonant, blends and digraphs, short vowel, and long vowel sortsThe sorts are organized in 5 sections: concept, initial consonant, blends and digraphs, short vowel, and long vowel sorts. A brief introduction helps teachers match the appropriate sort to the developmental level of the students. Then, with teacher observation, the students can move through the sorts as their phonemic awareness increases.

In order to help our teachers better understand the contents and value of Picture This! the author's introduction, excerpted from the book directly follows:

Picture This! The Author's Introduction

Picture sorting is an effective way to teach phonics and develop   phonological awareness. As a primary and intermediate classroom   teacher, I developed these picture sorts to help my students
correctly identify the sounds in our language. I had noticed that my students were not effectively learning to  identify sounds through lists of spelling words. They weren’t developing any concrete knowledge of phonics. Some were learning the concepts, but the majority of my “at-risk” students, including my English Language Learners, Special Education students, and other disadvantaged students, were not able to incorporate and utilize the concepts.

The spelling book series our district was using at the time was not designed well. The students would match the wrong word to a picture on the worksheet. They were often making logical connections, but did not have the opportunity on the worksheet to justify their thinking. The spelling series took the approach that students should learn the parts of a word first, but then did not introduce the words containing those parts. I thought the students would have more success if they were able to look at both the whole word and the sound parts.

Another important piece missing from my instruction was the opportunity for students to have many repeated interactions with the letters, sounds, and concepts we were working with. The spelling book typically introduced a concept with one lesson and didn’t readdress it until the review section of the chapter.

Finally, I noticed that I was spending more time explaining how to do the worksheet than I was actually teaching the concept. I continued to search for more effective techniques and materials. Finally, I found a way to address these concerns. My school, which is located near the University of Nevada, Reno, was chosen as a demonstration campus for professors Donald Bear and Shane Templeton’s developing theories on word study. Donald Bear utilized my classroom for testing beginning reading and word study practices. This experience, along with the professors’ invaluable book Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, written in collaboration with Marcia Invernizzi and Francine Johnston, exposed me to a whole new way of teaching that involved active exploration and examination of word features that are within a child’s stage of literacy development as assessed by the teacher. The book provided me with the rationales, goals, and lists of materials for implementing picture sorting in my classroom. So, I began.

Trying it on…

Picture sorting dramatically changed my teaching. I came to understand that there’s a continuum of learning in language skills and that effectively identifying my students’ place on that continuum was the first step. Once we started picture sorting, my students moved further and faster through the stages of literacy development than they could have without it. This game-like, interactive phonics activity made sense not only to me but to them.

Sorting pictures gave the students a stronger oral language base than looking at the sounds in isolation on a worksheet. They were now dealing with words at a visual level, so they could analyze the speech sounds that went with the pictures. Therefore, they had a phonological underpinning they hadn’t had when just looking at written words and letter combinations. They were able to approach phonics at a more concrete level of learning, which they were missing because of their confusion.

Students began employing higher-level critical thinking skills to make their decisions while sorting; for once, they were determining the similarities and differences among the pictures and features. In addition, I now had the ability to provide multiple examples that the students could study. They were able to move from the known to the unknown by first removing any pictures they were unsure of and then bringing them in later. I was able to use careful observation to decide whether to reuse a sort or move on to another sort. The best part for me was not having to spend time repeating instructions on how to do a new workbook page. The procedure was always the same, no matter what pictures I was having them sort. Once the students knew the procedure, they were able to direct themselves. Success!

As a literacy coordinator, I have the opportunity to work with students at many levels. I wondered if picture sorting would work with older students. I tried it. First, I found that older students could use the pictures to help them learn, or relearn, the difference between short and long vowel sounds. Having learned to hear and feel the difference in these sounds, they began to pay attention to the differences in their writing of words like plan and plain, and hoping and hopping. They were able to move on to word sorts in order to look at distinctions such as one- and two-syllable words.

Are these pictures and sorts appropriate for older students? Yes. Beginning readers are all ages; Second Language Learners enter our classes at all stages of English language acquisition. They are among the many students who need to work on learning the relationships between the letters and sounds.

Now that we know that picture sorting works, where do we begin? Let’s start with the children. Let’s take a look at what they’re doing and at what levels. That will tell us where to begin in phonics instruction and developing phonological awareness.

An excellent transitional step toward word sorting! 129 picture sorts are in a developmental sequence, increasing in difficulty and complexityWhat do they know?

Educational research categorizes children’s learning into stages to help with planning instruction. Picture sorting is particularly appropriate for students in the Emergent, Beginning, and Early Transitional stages of reading. To help identify where students are, there are many informal assessments available. Developing Literacy: An Integrated Approach to Assessment and Instruction (Bear & Barone, 1998) explains several valuable assessments that can be administered in whole-class and small-group settings as well as with individual students to help determine where to begin instruction. Below is a brief overview of the stages.

Children who are Emergent Readers/Emergent Spellers may scribble letters and numbers, pretend to read or write, and memorize simple books with high picture support. They are usually able to memorize simple songs and poems. At this stage, some students can recognize some letter sounds, though not necessarily in relation to any word knowledge.

Children who are Beginning Readers/Letter Name Spellers often can represent their beginning and ending sounds in their writing and may add incorrect vowels to words. They may read word-by-word in books at their developmental level and may finger-point as they read out loud.

Children who are Transitional Readers/Within Word Pattern Spellers may spell most single-syllable short vowel words correctly. They attempt to use silent long vowel markers (t-r-a-n-e for train), and are able to read silently with more fluency and expression. (Bear et al., 2000).

Careful observation of student work is important to good teaching. In my early years of teaching, I always looked at what the kids were missing in their reading, writing, and spelling to determine what to teach. Now I look at what the students know to determine their individual levels, what they are “using but confusing” to find their instructional levels (Invernizzi, 1992), and what is absent to determine their frustration levels. I’ll further discuss the developmental levels in each of the five sections in this book.

Based on careful observation and the information I get from informal assessments, I decide where to begin instruction with a group of children in my classroom. Then I begin picture sorting.

How do they know what to do?

The basic goal of all picture and word sorting tasks is to compare and contrast word elements, separating or categorizing the examples that go together from those that don’t (Bear et al., 2000). Begin by modeling a picture sort to a small group of students who share a similar word study need. The children say the names of the pictures and place them into groups under your direction. After doing this with your guidance a few times, students have learned the routines and procedures of picture sorting, and can then independently sort similar sets of pictures into similar categories.

What are the steps?

You’ll probably want to group students by their developmental levels. Choose a sort from the blacklines that meets the needs of your small group. Make a copy for each student in the group and have them cut out the key cards and the pictures they’re going to sort. They don’t need to cut them out carefully; that can be done later at their seats.

Once the pictures are cut, the students can look through the cards to make sure they know them all. You can have each student say aloud the pictures in one packet of cards or have each student look at the cards alone at their own pace.

Have the students set aside any of the picture cards they have trouble identifying. This way, the students will only be sorting pictures they know. Tell them that they’ll add the pictures that were set aside at a later time. In case you have any confusion in identifying the pictures, the pictures are listed in the appendix on page 200.

You can then choose to do an open sort or a closed sort. In an open sort, the students examine the cards and decide on the categories themselves. In a closed sort, the categories have already been determined, and the students organize the cards under the “key cards,” or example cards. The students then check their sorts for errors. Have them compare each card to the key card as they’re checking. If the key cards are pig and bus and the sort card is cup, the process might sound like this: “Cup, pig….Cup, bus. I think it goes under bus.” All of this sorting is done out loud. Carefully observe and listen for sticking points with individual students.

Next, each student can share a column of their sort with the group for discussion. Children internalize, or learn, concepts by participating in social interactions in which the tool of language is used to construct meaning with the help of a teacher or peer (Vygotsky, 1978). It is during this time that students need to  justify their thinking. For example, a student might have sorted the picture monster under the key card hat. Another student may challenge this sort, saying that monster doesn’t sound like hat in the beginning of the word. The child who did the sort might be able to justify it, saying, “I didn’t call it a monster, I called it Harry, like on Sesame Street. Harry sounds like hat.” If a student uses logical thinking and can justify the sort, then his or her sort is considered a good sort. Try to stay away from calling sorts “right” or “wrong."

Once a few students have shared, it is time for another sort. Try to have the students sort their pictures at least two different ways. This helps open them up to looking at different features and lays the foundation for word sorting in the later stages.

Now the students can look at the picture cards that were set aside, if there are any left. In a small group setting, often students who put cards aside will add them back in their sort as they hear the pictures identified by students who are sharing. If they haven’t included all the cards in their sorts, the teacher can now identify or clarify what the pictures are. The group can work on introducing new vocabulary by discussing the pictures.

The students can take the same pictures to their seats to recreate the sort that was done in the small group setting. They can then glue the sorts onto three-hole-punched paper and add them to their word study notebooks for future reference. The students can also take these notebooks home and teach their parents how to do picture sorts for various features. This independent work can be a great assessment tool. With your careful observation and the students’ independent practice in sorting, you can determine if they are able to reproduce independently what they did in a group and whether the group should repeat, revise, or review the sort before moving on.

For more information on the stages and practical applications for these sorting suggestions, see Words Their Way. If you’d like to see students doing all kinds of sorts, there is a Words Their Way video available as well.

I recommend that you begin with Section #1: Concept Sorts. This is a good starting point for demonstrating the process for all the sorts. No matter what your students’ developmental levels, it’s important to start with something easy so you can teach the routines and procedures. Then move on to the section that matches the level of your students.

-Shari Nielsen-Dunn

Order your copy of Picture This!: Picture Sorting for Alphabetics, Phonemes, & Phonics.