Sorting with ELLs

Sorting with ELLs

A hands-on way to help ELLs learn new vocabulary is through sorts. This allows ELLs to show their knowledge even if they are not yet able to produce the vocabulary on their own. It is relatively simple to scaffold for students at different language proficiency levels. Students can sort pictures, words, phrases, or sentences. Here are some different ways to use sorting with ELLs.

Open Sort

Students are given words or pictures in an open sort and they then decide on the category. This activity helps develop critical thinking skills. You can use an open sort as an introduction at the beginning of a unit to see what students already know about the topic.

Sentence frames are one way to support ELLs as they are sorting.
I sorted these words together because they all _____________________. 

Closed Sort

In a closed sort, the teacher decides on the categories. Students then sort the words or pictures into the given categories. This method is helpful when first introducing the concept of sorting. Some students might not be familiar with sorting. You can also use a closed sort to introduce a particular focus or idea such as a phonics pattern.

Spelling Sorts

Word sorts are a hands-on way to help students learn spelling patterns. Instead of simply memorizing spelling rules sorts allow students to think about particular aspects of how a word is spelled and apply this knowledge to other words.

Picture sorts help develop phonemic awareness skills. For beginning ELLs, picture sorts have the added benefit of helping to expand their vocabulary as they are learning to spell English words. It is important to introduce new word study sorts to ELLs so that you can ensure that they know the vocabulary words shown.

Nonsense Words

Some teachers include nonsense words in their sorts. When working with ELLs I would caution against this. Students are focusing a great deal of attention on learning English vocabulary. At least with beginners they will have a difficult time identifying if a word is a real or nonsense word. There are plenty of examples of real English words that fit into different phonics patterns that nonsense words do not need to be used.

Concept Sorts

In content classes concept sorts can be used instead of longer writing assignments to assess a beginning ELLs knowledge of the topic. Concept sorts are also a great way to get students talking about new concepts. They can work together in a group to sort terms and explain to their partners why the word or phrase goes in that category. Consider using concept sorts can also be used to introduce reading material. Give students vocabulary words that they will see in the text to sort.

Animal picture sort

Introducing Main Idea through Sorts

You can teach main idea and supporting details to students using sorts. The categories are the main idea (or come up with an overall category.) The words/phrases/pictures are the details. Sorting allows even students that have low writing levels to show their knowledge of main idea and supporting details.

Sorting with ELLs Resources 

Math Sorts

Geometry Math Sorts– Sort 2D and 3D shapes

Word Sorts

Picture Word Sorts– Picture cards for students to sort along with writing pages to practice the spelling of a range of word patterns.

Vocabulary Sorts


School Routines Sorting– Students sort positive and negative school behaviors as a way to review routines.

Vocabulary Sorting pages– Students sort pictures in a closed sort. Topics include school vocabulary, home vocabulary, animals, around town.

Figurative Language Sorting-Students sort examples of figurative language into the correct type. Includes examples of alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, simile, and personification.

Word Study

Words Their Way for ELLs– An overview of using word sorts with ELLs along with specific strategies to support ELLs.

Words Their Way for Spanish Speakers– The books in this set give word sorts in a sequence that supports Spanish speakers learning English. The sorts are organized to utilize a student’s knowledge of Spanish. You will help students explore common challenges when learning English as a Spanish speaker. It includes additional vocabulary picture sorts compared to the original Words Their Way sorting books. This book is for students at the Within Word spelling stage. There are also books available for students spelling at the emergent and letter name stages.

Words Their Way Picture Sorts– This book has picture sorts to help emergent spellers. You can use the sorts with ELLs and native English speakers.

Words Their Way Word Sorts– Starting at the Letter Name level some of the sorts do not have pictures. As you introduce the sorts consider adding in the picture and/or explaining the meaning of new vocabulary words to ELLs.

Sorting with ELLs

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