Mounds of Paper or Organized Files? Finding a system for Word Study

Many teachers, schools and districts now use a hands-on interactive, word sorting approach to phonics and spelling instruction as part of a balanced literacy block. This method is engaging, grounded in years of research and is also developmentally based. Sample resources include Words their Way, Word Sorts and More and Word Journeys.


If not managed well, however, using word study can only add to the mounds of paper that come from daily life in the classroom. But by following these tips, teachers will know exactly where papers go and can find needed materials on a moment’s notice. 

Two years ago, I tried out this instructional approach firsthand when I took over for a teacher on maternity leave.  Coming in part-way through the year can be daunting enough. I continually felt like I was swimming upstream, treading water briefly to catch my breath and then sinking back under again. Bobbing up, sinking down. drawer in the closet.

The one positive though was her AMAZING word study organization system, which I am sharing with you now!

Tip #1: 

  • Create a manila file folder for each sort. (Ideally, this should be done prior to making copies. That way, papers can be put away immediately and in the right place).
  • Label the file with the sort number (e.g. Sort number 5, long a and short a).



Tip #2: Store the following items inside each folder.

  • several copies of the sort
  • a bag with a teacher sort/master to use during small group instruction, cut-up on card stock
  • a blank assessment
  • a list of the words and dictated sentence that you use to assess the students.


Tip #3: Store files in plastic crates or bins, for easy access. (Ideally, in number order).

After implementing this approach for approximately two years, Kate had amassed two file bins full of sorts. I don’t think I had to break out my word sorting book once to make copies during my time in her classroom! Instead, I just flipped through the bin as I decided where to go next with my instruction.


Assessment sheet and extra bag of words in bin.

Now, I’m in a new classroom again. But this time, I’ve learned. Each week after I teach a sort, I create the same file system that Kate shared with me. Instead of a mass of mixed-up papers in a cavernous drawer, I now have almost an entire bin filled with organized sorts.

Unlike Kate’s, my folders are not in number order, placed neatly in hanging files divided by developmental stage (Letter Name, Within Word, Syllable Juncture, etc.). That’s a project for another day. Maybe in the summer. (Or never). We’ll see…

Alas, I might never be as thoroughly organized as Kate. (A girl can dream though, right?)

But what I do have is a system that works for me. In the blink of an eye, I can find the resources that I need and use them to support my students.That’s always the goal, isn’t it??

Taking just a few extra minutes each week to put word study papers away has dramatically improved my effectiveness, efficiency and confidence as a literacy teacher.

Now if only I could find that stack of math papers…


Do you teach phonics and spelling using a word sorting approach? If so, what kind of organizational system do you use? Please share your ideas here!

Happy sorting,






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