Introduction to Picture This Too! May 04 2009

by Shari Nielsen-Dunn, M.Ed.

Following is the author’s introduction to Picture This Too!, a Teaching Resource Center professional book. In the excerpt reproduced, Shari Nielson-Dunn, the author of Picture This and Picture This Too!, discusses the importance of picture sorting, her experiences using these methods in the classroom and provides a sample lesson plan.

Purchase the books Picture This! and Picture This Too! by Shari Nielson-Dunn.

Why Picture Sorting?

Picture and word sorting are an effective ways to teach phonics and develop phonological awareness. As a primary and intermediate classroom teacher, I refined a sequence of picture and word sorting activities to help my students correctly identify and use the sounds and word patterns in our language.

This year, my 6 year old daughter began first grade. What an exciting time for the two of us (probably more so for me than her!). In going over the assessment information with her classroom teacher at the beginning of the year, I noticed that the students in Kiera's reading group were all "using and confusing" the same spelling features in their writing. They would write their short vowel CVC words with extra vowels, and their single-syllable long vowel words with all combinations of letters and no consistency for any one pattern.

The group's teacher expressed frustration in knowing what exactly to do to help them cement their learning about spelling patterns in words. She was addressing word work with whole-class shared readings, interactive writing, and basic word work, but she wasn't noticing these concepts transferring into their writing. I suggested we try some sorting activities, and she agreed. We were off to a great, effective collaboration.

We chose sorting over the traditional spelling series for many reasons. First, the spelling series our school had available to us was not well designed. The students were introduced several spelling patterns at the same time and had very little exposure to these. There was little or no opportunity to work with one pattern for an extended period of time.

We felt that the students needed to work with both short vowel and long vowel patterns in a sequential, logical manner. Second, since this was a first grade classroom, the development of the children needed to be taken into account. These students were still feeling the sounds in their mouth in addition to hearing the sounds and seeing the pattern.

We needed to provide multiple opportunities for the students to really focus on the vowel sounds and word patterns they were encountering. Third, the time available in the classroom for direct instruction in word sounds and patterns in a small group setting was short. The spelling series took up most of that time explaining the directions for the worksheets rather than spending the time focusing on grasping the concepts on the page.

We felt that the short time we had could be more effectively spent on grasping the concepts of word sounds and patterns if the routines and procedures were consistent for the activities we would incorporate. Finally, the group of students consisted of 4 students from a variety of home environments. There were boys and girls, an English Language Learner, a student from a low-income background, and two teacher's children - a very diverse little group! We needed to accommodate all our learners in such a way to provide them with avenues of success.

Using Picture Sorts in the Classroom

Years back, my school, located near the University of Nevada, Reno, was chosen as a demonstration campus for professors Dr. Donald Bear and Dr. Shane Templeton's developing theories on word study. Dr. Donald Bear utilized my classroom for implementing 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 and word sorting in my classroom. Using Words Their Way for the informal assessment information and scope and sequence, and Picture This!: Picture Sorting for Alphabetics, Phonemes, and Phonics, for the pictures and vowel sequence, we began.

Trying it on Picture and word 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. When we moved from picture sorting, connecting it with word patterns, and eventually to word pattern study, my students moved further and faster through the stages of spelling development that they could have without it. This game-like, interactive phonics and spelling activity made sense not only to me, but to them.

Sorting pictures gave the students a stronger oral language foundation than looking at the letter sounds in isolation on a worksheet. They were now dealing with words at a visual level first, so they could analyze the speech sounds that went with the pictures before moving to the printed word. 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 first then move to the more abstract printed word.

The small group of students in my daughter's class began employing higher-level critical thinking skills to make their decisions while sorting both pictures and, later, words. They were determining the similarities and differences among the pictures and features of words. In addition, I now had the ability to provide multiple examples that the students could work with, discuss, and study. They were able to connect new information to what they already knew. They were able to provide a risk-taking environment for themselves by removing any pictures or words they were unsure of, allowing for success. I was able to use careful observation to decide whether to reuse a sort for re-teaching or move on to another sort for new skills.

Benefits of Using Picture Sorts

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 for picture and word sorting; only the pictures or words would change. The students were enjoying their learning experiences, and I was acquiring valuable assessment information by observing and listening to their discussions about words. Success!

As a literacy coordinator, I have had the opportunity to work with students at many levels. I wondered if picture sorting, moving to word study, would work with older students who were also using but confusing their short and long vowel sounds. I tried it with a small group of students in my own upper grade classroom.

First, I found that older students could use the pictures to help them learn, or relearn, the differences between short and long vowel sounds. Once we'd worked with the pictures, listening to the sounds, feeling for the sounds, and discussing the differences between the short and long vowels, we connected the word patterns to those sounds.

Having learned to hear and feel the difference in these sounds, the students began to pay attention to the differences in their own writing of words like plan and plain, and hoping and hopping. After cementing this knowledge with pictures and single syllable words, we were able to move on to multi-syllable word study. Both the students in my daughter's first grade class and the at-risk and Second Language Learners in my upper grade classroom benefited from using the picture and word sorts in this book.

Using Picture Sorts with Upper Grade Students

Are these sorts really appropriate for upper grade students? Yes! Late Beginning and Early Transitional spellers are of all ages. Older students and Second Language Learners that come to us with various reading, writing, and spelling skills are among the many students who need to work with learning the relationship between letters, sounds, and word patterns.

We need to help them understand how words are related to each other in the way they sound, look, and mean so that we could help the students go beyond simplistic, rote knowledge of words to become discoverers of interesting connections between words (Fountas, et. al.).

Now that we know that picture and word sorting works with all types of students, how do we know where to begin with our own classroom? Let's start with looking at the children in the classroom. Take a look at what the students are doing in their spelling and writing. See if there are children who are writing the same type of word features correctly (short vowels - can, cayn) and who are using but confusing similar word features (long vowels - tran, traen). This would be the group of students that might benefit from working with, discussing, and studying the types of sorts in this book.

What Do They Know?

Educational research categorizes children's learning into stages to help with planning instruction for teachers. Students progress through a continuum of literacy learning, acquiring knowledge about spelling and writing from a variety of sources.

The picture sorts in Picture This! are particularly appropriate for students in the Emergent, Beginning and Early Transitional stages of spelling development. The pictures and word patterns contained in Picture This Too! are excellent instructional tools especially for students in the Beginning and Transitional stages of spelling development. This book provides the bridge from pictures to words.

To help identify where students are along the continuum, several informal assessments are 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.

These informal assessments help classroom teachers understand what students know (their independent level), what they're using and confusing (their instructional level), and what's absent in their writing and spelling (their frustration level).

Below is a brief overview of the stages for planning:

  • 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 wounds 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-ra-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 the key to good instruction. In my early years as a teacher, I always looked at what the kids were missing in their writing and spelling to determine what I should be teaching. That is not the most effective way to design instruction.
  • Now, I look at what the students know to determine their independent level, what they're trying on, or "using but confusing" (Invernizzi, 1992) to determine their instructional level, and what's absent from their spelling to determine their frustration level. I always try to work at the children's instructional level, providing them with the challenge to learn, and the opportunity for success without frustration.

Where Does the Group Begin?

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 and word sorting, and can then independently sort similar sets of pictures and words into categories.

After having several discussions with teachers about picture and word sorting, I felt that including a sample lesson of how I've introduced a concept to a small group of students would be helpful. The following sample lesson was used with my daughter's group of Early Transitional Readers and Early Within Word Pattern Spellers. My goal was to help them cement the concepts of short and long vowel sounds, and some of the common spelling patterns.

Sample Lesson: Introducing Long Vowel Sounds and Patterns

One of the most common questions that I'm asked when discussing picture sorting is how to effectively introduce word patterns to young children who are early transitional spellers. The comments usually reflect the fact that introducing and reviewing the short vowels goes well, with the students acquiring the symbol/sound relationship fairly easily. So, then, how do you help students listen and feel for the long vowel sounds so they represent them more accurately in their writing?

Once students become aware that the vowels have different sounds in their reading, they begin to play with their spellings in writing. My daughter was exactly at this place this year. She would spell words like train several different ways: tran, trane, traen. More often than not, she'd use the CVC pattern to represent the word, but read it as if it were a long vowel sound. I felt she needed some direct instruction in listening and feeling for long vowel sounds. She was accurate in her representations of all of the short vowel sounds (except confusing the short e and short i occasionally), so we'd begin there.

Here is the teaching sequence I've developed. In the past few years, I've modified the sequence, and feel that it allows children to work through each sound they encounter in depth. This in-depth exploration coupled with rich discussion allows children to "own" their learning, and incorporate it into their everyday reading and writing experiences. This is the sequence I used this year in working with the small group of students in my daughter's first grade class. I've also included many of the management tips that I've found work well in both picture sorting and word sorting. The days are not necessarily in succession.

Most of the time I’m able to do word sorting in a small group setting about two times a week, and alternate with guided reading groupings. In preparing to work with the small group of students in my daughter's first grade class, I administered the Developmental Spelling Inventory from Words Their Way (Bear, et al.) to the group. Then, I asked the classroom teacher for some current writing samples.

Looking at both of these confirmed that all the students in the small group of four were "using but confusing" (Invernizzi) the long vowel markers in their writing. I listened to the group read several times. All students were able to read several long vowel patterns, but were hesitant to identify them as a long or short vowel sound. Using this assessment information, we began our journey into long vowel land.

I tend to begin with the “a” sound. The long “a” has a nice group of representative samples of different patterns that tend to be fairly easily generalized to other vowels. So, if the students learn some of the more common patterns for long a, they can generalize to other vowels. In fact, once they begin "owning" the idea of long vowel patterns, they notice them in their reading and ask questions. Perfect teaching opportunity!