Sensational "Sorts"--Part One

Today I want to share a fabulous method for helping kids with (and without!) all types of disabilities to respond in their school work. The concept is called “sorts” by the team that wrote Words Their Way (4th ed., Bear et all, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008). When I stumbled across the third edition of this book at the library a few years ago, I felt like I’d just hit the gold miners’ Mother Lode! Here in my hands was a direct answer to the question "How do we know kids are reading when we can't hear them read out loud?" Finally, we had a way to glimpse into how their minds perceived the sounds they cannot make with their mouths.  Immediately it had my mind whirling over other applications for non-verbal learners with and without severe motor impairments, and yet I’ve learned as I applied the techniques in the classroom that it is also a great strategy for students with autism and a variety of learning disabilities.

In lay terms, “sorts” allow students to categorize information based on specific features. Kids have been doing this naturally for as long as anyone has kept track, and this system structures the sorting to let kids focus on the information we want them to learn. In Words Their Way, the sorts focus on phonics, spelling and vocabulary skills, but the applications to reading comprehension, science, social studies, social skills…most any subject!...are limitless.

Let’s back up to look at what goes on when children sort. We’ve all seen infant toys with holes for sorting shapes. The toy has several purposes, but the one we’re talking about today is its ability to focus the child’s attention on a key concept. The child looks at each block to evaluate its shape, decides which shaped hole it fits, and fits the block in the hole.

Photo courtesy of ethan j at Flickr’s Creative Commons

Academic sorts do the same thing as the infant’s shape sorter. The student looks at a bit of information, decides into which category it fits, and places it there. Benefits of this system are that the key element the child should focus on is taught and highlighted, the items are processed one at a time, and the method of “placing” the item in its category can be adapted to be fully accessible for a student. When you read these benefits, can you see why this system is so appealing for students with cognitive delay, autism, or verbal and motor impairments? But don’t be fooled; this simple process is just as valuable for typical learners in high school as it is in the Early Intervention unit!

I was asked step into a troubled primary classroom for students with autism to teach and correct some management issues. Several boys were capable of speech but found it highly aversive or perhaps involving too much processing. When they were asked to tell whether a word began with an /m/ or an /s/ sound, they avoided the task with all sorts of inappropriate behaviors. The only learning going on was the art of dodging the disagreeable! However, when we gave these students cards with pictures showing those same words and asked them to physically sort the cards under headings for the correct beginning sounds, they were compliant and their papers demonstrated how they had grasped this skill. Another totally non-speaking boy previously excluded from group instruction due to his non-compliance was able to perform the activity surprisingly well in group with some fine motor help and a little extra coaching. Best of all, his behavior settled into that of a pleasant group participant each time he was given a clear focus and a tangible way to respond to an activity. No rocket science there! We expanded sorts to math and social skills lessons and these same boys complied beautifully and demonstrated some good learning (well, most of the time).

In the Words Their Way program, word skills progress from general categorization (i.e.: living vs. non-living), to phonemic awareness (awareness of sounds in words), to letter/sound relationships, to simple spelling…all the way up to complex spellings based on Greek or Latin origin. The program begins at Pre-K and goes through 8th grade or above. I learned more about spelling rules (and exceptions) by reading this textbook than through any coursework I’ve taken. The key is that one skill focus at a time is taught and emphasized as students categorize. By sequencing these skills, typical kids can work their way from the most basic concepts to having stronger spelling skills and vocabularies than many adults. And our kids who aren’t typical learners may be able to progress farther than we expected. As students advance with the concepts, they are asked to make clever discoveries about the items and categories for themselves but, again, the focus of these discoveries is singular.

So, how do sorts work? First we choose a concept, such the sounds of the letter C (soft/hard),  plant life (vascular/nonvascular), quantity (10 or more, less than 10), social behavior (appropriate/inappropriate), suffixes –ible and –able and when to use each, branches of the American government (legislative, judicial, executive) …the list is endless. Obviously, some concepts can or must be broken down into more than just two categories but, for here, for now, let’s keep it simple.

Then we demonstrate how and why items in each category of our concept fit (Soft C words include cent, city, cymbal, cylinder, exception, celery…; Hard C words include cake, cube, cookie, Coke, account, acute, cabbage, cucumber…). We guide children to make discoveries about these categories (C is soft when followed by e, i, or y). We help them evaluate exceptions to the rules if any appear (why do some people pronounce “Celtic” as /kel-tik/?”). We give them practice with more items in the categories. We evaluate their learning by looking at how they categorize the old and new information. We send them off to apply their learning to the world around them.

How can you use this strategy at home and in the classroom? Let’s look at some examples to get you started:
            --basic skills: color recognition, number sense (i.e.: 4 legs-on-a-table, wheels-on-a-
              car, legs-on-a-goat vs. “non-4” wheels-on-a-bicycle, legs-on-a-boy, etc.), shapes…
            --mathematics:  more or less than a given number, odd/even, 
              prime/composites, processes needed to solve word problems
              (i.e.: add/subtract)...
             --reading comprehension: How is the main character like me/
               different from me? What things made Molly happy/sad?
            --science concepts:  Do items float/sink? Are leaves alternate/opposite?
            --social skills:  What things can I do by myself/need the help of others?  
               What behaviors are/aren’t appropriate in certain situations?

The sorts can be as informal as a discussion or separating toys into piles. They can become a bit more formal with the sorting of flashcards. In your word processor, you can make tables and cards for the child to cut apart and glue onto the tables if you want to get even more structured. Experiment this week and get your mind thinking along the line of “sorts.”

Capital and lower case letters

Kindergarten phonemic awareness activity for /m/.
Symbols courtesy of Mayer-Johnson

symbols from Mayer-Johnson

Now let's talk about physical access. This is where I get really excited!  Sorts make visible for adults on the outside of the child's head to see--with our very own eyes--the kinds of thinking that is going on inside. When we look at how a child is grouping, it tells us if he grasps the concepts or hears the sounds internally or whatever other focus we are emphasising, and it helps us pinpoint any gaps in learning.

There are two basic types of responses a child can make when sorting:     
     1) placing the individual items under category headings (involves handling many items)
     2) indicating the category headings an item falls under (involves only as many items as you have categories)

Ideally kids would get to touch and process every item. Manipulating each item helps direct their focus and makes the activity engaging. But we all know kids that can't handle lots of items. Maybe they are super-distractable or maybe they have very limited motor skills. It's much easier to switch-scan between 2-3 headings than 30 individual choices, after all! The type of response best suited to your learners should be considered when determining what kind of access best fits their needs, so that is where we begin our thinking.

Kids who can handle many items might be able to respond by:
      --putting items in labeled boxes
      --writing items under the headings 
      --cutting/pasting a sheet of items 
      --peeling pre-cut, pre-printed items off a backing and adhering under the headings (use commercial computer labels or double-stick tape and a sheet of freezer paper, plastic side up)
      --sliding index cards into vinyl pockets of pocket chart
      --Velcro-ing communication symbols under heading cards on a piece of indoor/outdoor carpet
      --drag-n-dropping items into columns/bins in a computer program*

Kids who need to limit the number of items they handle will indicate category headings where the individual items should be placed. Placement will have to be done by a "scribe," be it a peer, an adult or a computer. One of these methods may work for indicating category headings:
      --pointing (finger, eye gaze, nose, chin...)
      --activating single switches, one for each heading
      --touching a category on a touch screen*
      --2-switch scanning (one to indicate next option--"next", one to select that option--"that one"), which can either dictate to a partner or a computer* 
      --naming categories programmed on an AAC device (either simple or high-tech)
I hope your mind is racing with ways to make sorts a part of your child's or class's learning routine. It really DOES work well. Have fun learning with your kids this week!
*I had hoped to include some examples of software programs that can support sorts in this post, but it got far too lengthy. Be sure to tune in again next week, same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel.

1 comment:

Katy said...

Wow. I love this idea--I'm always looking for new ideas for working with my son--thanks!