Standard Lesson

Word Sorts for Beginning and Struggling Readers

K - 2
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 20- to 30-minute sessions
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This lesson provides a framework for introducing students to short-vowel word families. Focusing first on the a family, students work together and individually to learn the word families –at, –an, –ap, and –ack. Teacher modeling is used to introduce the word sort, inviting students to compare, contrast, and reflect on these four word families. Students then work with a partner to practice sorting and reading words with increased speed and accuracy. As their skills and confidence improve, students are asked to sort, read, and write words individually. These lessons can also be adapted to teach other short-vowel word families.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • Word study for the beginning or struggling reader involves systematic study of short-vowel word families, beginning with the a family.

  • This phase of word study involves (a) sorting short-vowel words into rhyming categories, (b) committing a good number of these words to sight memory, and (c) developing competence in spelling these patterns.

  • Use of word sorts can develop automatic and fluent reading of word families with repeated practice. It also invites students to be reflective and metacognitive thinkers and learners.

  • Teaching word sorts within a guided-reading format at students' instructional levels enables the teacher to implement differentiated instruction.


Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • The Magic Hat by Mem Fox (Harcourt, 2002)

  • Computers with Internet access

  • One file folder and envelope for each student

  • Scissors and glue

  • Whiteboard with markers and eraser



1. Make one set of the Word Family Cards: Short A Family for each student on cardstock. For each set, cut the words apart and glue the header cards (i.e., the cards with the words underlined and starred) in columns across the top of an opened file folder. Place the remainder of the word cards in an envelope and tuck the envelope inside the file folder.

2. Review and bookmark the interactive Word Family Sort on your classroom or school computers. This online activity uses the same short a word families as on the word cards, and also includes word families for the other vowels. This activity will be used for additional student practice during Session 4.

3. Make one copy of the Student Evaluation Sheet for each student.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Demonstrate an ability to sort words into word families by identifying word patterns

  • Practice reading words in the word family sort accurately and fluently

  • Spell words in the word family sort correctly

Session 1: Teacher Modeling

1. Tell students that you will be reading them a book called The Magic Hat. This story is about a magic hat that appears one day in town and changes people into animals. As you read, ask your students to predict which animals the people will be turned into. Tell them that the rhyming words in the story can help them make predictions. While reading, model how to make these predictions by using the illustrations and the rhyming words.

2. After reading the book, invite one or two students to tell you what rhyming part they liked the best. You might share your favorite part with them first. For example, "Oh, the magic hat, the magic hat! It moved liked this, it moved like that." Tell students that they will be learning more rhyming words in this lesson.

3. Open the short a family file folder and show students the header cards you have glued in columns across the top of the inside of the folder. As you read the header cards to students, tell them the names of the families (–at, –an, –ap, and –ack).

4. Tell students that you have more word cards that go in these same word families. Explain that you are going to show them how to put the cards under the columns with the correct family names.

5. Begin the demonstration with the card mat. Tell students you will put this card under the header card cat, which is in the –at family. Point out the –at rime in both words. Then model how to blend the onset and rime together as you read the word to students. Continue this process demonstrating several word cards.

6. After you have demonstrated several cards, invite students to help you sort, blend, and read the rest of the cards. Do not expect students to read the cards independently before sorting.

7. After you have sorted all of the word cards with students, read the cards in each column together, continuously blending the onset and rime.

8. End Session 1 by reiterating that students have learned four word families: –at, –an, –ap, and –ack. Tell them that in Session 2 they will have an opportunity to sort these words again with a partner.

Session 2: Partner Word Sort

1. Open the short a family file folder from the previous session, and remind students that they have learned four word families: –at, –an, –ap, and –ack. Quickly sort three or four word cards together. Reinforce the blending of the onset and rime as you sort the cards, and then read the words aloud together.

2. Gather students into pairs. Distribute a short a family file folder to each pair of students (as prepared in advance of the lesson). Ask students to work together to sort the word cards in the envelope and place them under the correct header cards. Once students are finished sorting, they can practice reading the words aloud with their partners until the rest of their classmates are finished.

3. As students sort the words cards with their partners, you should be circulating and observing their progress. For students who are having difficulty, use the following approach:
  • Do not tell students where to place the word cards, but instead encourage them to look at the rime in each word and try to identify the pattern.

  • If you notice words that are incorrectly sorted say, "I see two words that don't belong in the –at family. Can you find them?" Do not directly tell students which words are placed incorrectly, but instead guide them in finding mistakes on their own.

  • Use the Student Evaluation Sheet to record your observations of students' abilities to sort and read the words. Note those students who are having difficulty with certain words or word families.
4. When all students are finished, invite individual students to read a column of words aloud. Try to involve and encourage all students so that you can see which students are having difficulty blending the onset and rime.

5. Ask students how they decided where to place the words. Also ask them to explain how the words in one family differ from the words in another family. These questions are important for you to see the students' thought process and will help you determine why certain students may be having difficulty.

Session 3: Individual Word Sort

1. Give each student a short a family file folder (as prepared in advance of the lesson). Remind students of the four word families they have been learning.

2. Tell students that, in this session, they are going to practice sorting their words with increased speed and accuracy. It is important for you to model sorting and reading with increased speed, confidence, and accuracy. Contrast this with a slower and more labored sort so students can see and hear the difference.

3. Have students sort the word cards individually and then practice reading the words aloud. You should be observing and helping those students who are struggling as in the previous session. It is again important to record your observations on the Student Evaluation Sheet.

4. When students are finished sorting, invite individuals to read the words in each column aloud. Again, it is important to ask students to explain their thought process for placing the words in the four columns.

5. Challenge students to mix up their word cards and try to sort them even quicker. Students love this aspect of sorting and are usually motivated to try to "beat their time." Observe and assist students who may be having difficulty.

6. Have individual students again read the words in each column aloud with speed and accuracy.

Session 4: Computer Word Sort Practice

1. Gather students in the computer lab. Tell students that, in this session, they will be using the computer to sort their words into word families.

2. Have students open the interactive Word Family Sort. Before having students begin, model how to use the online activity by clicking the letter a on the screen where the vowels are listed and sorting several words into the correct word family columns. After sorting, read the words aloud.

3. Have students begin sorting the short a words, while you observe and continue to take notes on the Student Evaluation Sheet.

4. When students finish sorting, have them print their word sorts, and invite individuals to read the words aloud quickly and accurately.

Session 5: Word Sort Assessment

Choose one of the following assessment options depending on the skill level and abilities of your students.

Option 1

This assessment is for students who are struggling or need a modified assessment.

1. Distribute a Spell Check Sheet to each student.

2. Tell students that you will dictate five words for them to spell, one at a time. Use words from the four word families that students have been sorting during the previous sessions.

3. Dictate the first word, and encourage students to say the word aloud and listen for the sounds in the word as they write it on their papers.

4. After students write the first word, ask for a volunteer to help you spell the word on the white board. Give students immediate feedback. If they have incorrectly spelled the word, model how to correct the spelling by blending the onset and rime.

5. Ask students to circle the word after correcting it on their own sheets. (This indicates to you that the student had difficulty spelling the word.) Encourage students to read the word aloud just as they did after sorting and also to correct their own spelling errors.

6. Continue with the remaining four words using the same procedure.

7. Collect the spell check sheets and use them to identify areas where student need additional practice. The sheets can also be used to document students' progress as you dictate other words in later sessions.

Option 2

This assessment is for students who have accomplished the objectives and are ready for sentence dictation.

1. Pass out lined paper and instruct students to write their names at the top.

2. Choose one of the following sentences for dictation:
  • The man has a black hat.

  • The cat sat on my lap.

  • My dad has a tan van.

  • I plan to pack a snack.
Dictation sentences should include words from the word families that students have been sorting in the previous sessions.

3. Ask students to write the dictated sentence on their papers. Repeat the sentence as many times as needed for students to be able to write it.

4. When finished, invite volunteers to help you write the sentence together on the white board. Have students circle and correct any spelling or punctuation errors they made on their own papers.

5. Collect the students' papers and use them to identify areas where students are having difficulty. You can also use them as documentation of students' progress as you dictate other sentences in later sessions.


  • While reading from books, magazines, and other instructional level texts, ask students to be on the lookout for words from the four word families and to add them to their word journals.

  • Make copies of reproducible decodable books for students to read. Have students circle the word families they know. ReadingA– has several free samples of reproducible books containing words in the short a family, including Nap in a Pan and The Rats. The story Zac the Rat on may also be used, in addition to the online activities for the –an and –at word families.

  • Copy a blank Bingo game worksheet and create a word family game for students to play together or with you. Develop several Bingo cards by randomly placing 12 words from the word families students have been sorting. As you call out the words, students can mark their cards. The winner can be asked to read the words aloud.

  • Adapt and repeat this lesson to introduce students to other short-vowel word families. The online Word Family Sort includes sorting exercises for all five vowels.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Use the Student Evaluation Sheet to keep notes of students' progress during each of the sessions.

  • Use the Word Sort Rubric to assess student's ability to sort and read the words independently in Session 4.

  • Assess student's ability to spell the dictated words or sentences during Session 5. Pay special attention to whether they can correctly write the words in the word families they have been learning.