Word Sort Tables – When you allow it, students will show you what is compelling.

The most difficult part of making the switch from a grammar syllabus based course to a comprehension based course is the discovery of what is compelling to students.  When teachers talk about concerns of burnout when teaching with comprehensible input, most of the time, I think they are talking about chasing the ever elusive compelling input for students.  The reality is that compelling is a moving target.  Sometimes we simply need to get out of the way of students and allow them to create something compelling.

Word sort tables allows students to do this and as a bonus, students will be working together to create something, which looks great to those administrators who pop in and look for your learning targets and ask students if they know what their goal of learning is today.  Here is how to do it.

  • Use a text or recent set of language structures and pull out isolated vocabulary.  I like this as a vocabulary activity early on in a sequence but it can also be used to review.
  • Put the isolated vocabulary words or phrases into a table.
  • Put students into groups
  • Pass out the Word Sort Tables
  • Instruct students to put the tables into a number of categories.  I like to give them some choice, say 4-8.  Just know that many groups will complete the lower number of categories.
  • You can give the students parameters for the categories or simply let them choose the categories.  You can learn some interesting formative information here.  If many are grouping words by nouns, verbs, etc… perhaps they have not acquired this set of words and structures?
  • Roam the room as groups create their lists and ask them questions, compare with other groups and guide as needed.

The following word sort table comes from a history unit centered around AP Latin vocabulary found in the Gallic Wars and the Aeneid.  I used this as a pre-reading prediction activity with Latin 2 students in the middle of their second semester.  Students had some exposure to most of these words but definitely hadn’t acquired even half of them.

word sort table
Typically, the less restrictions put onto a task such as the above the more compelling narrative students will create.  Consider adding guidance instead of requirements.

Recently, we had been reading text that switched time frames often.  Students have been exposed to all tenses throughout their studies but the future tense was coming up much more often at this point.  I try to be aware of grammar forms in upcoming readings and I adjust things like calendar talk to reinforce something like the future tense before we read, but I do not teach grammar explicitly except for pop questions connected to a message we are processing in an activity.  This pre-reading activity showed me that many students were approaching the acquisition of the future tense.  All groups noticed the mittam, petam, faciam, inveniam and capiam forms and asked me questions about why they were not mitto, peto, facio, invenio or capio.  As I roamed the room with quick 30-60 second pop up discussions we were able to explore those future forms and connect them to timebo, and ibunt.  Granted, students have not mastered that there are 2 sets of future endings in Latin, but they reached a comfortable spot when reading these forms.  Because students had seen these forms often in understandable messages and they were approaching acquisition of the forms, we accomplished as much with the future tense in 1 class period as I used to in weeks of instruction planned around the future tense.

My plan was to use the word sort as a pre-reading activity, but it became a formative measure for me as I saw students ready for the future tense.  I used the next calendar talks, class discussions and surveys to explore ideas in the future.  Secondly, students created some interesting categories.  I expected at least a war category but some groups connected war with family or with crowds of people.  I used the categories to drive discussions about how they interact with family and in crowds of people.  Some groups connected fear to items like war or cities which gave us another avenue to explore together in class discussions, surveys and language tasks.

The best part:  I didn’t spend way too much time attempting to come up with interesting discussions, sentences or story lines.  The students gave it to me in one 44 minute class period in which we explored the future tense and made connections to other Latin words.

As I reflect, the routine activities that are in place in my classroom helped me mine compelling input from the word sort table.  Once a week we have a class discussion centered around calendar talk.  I was able to offer more opportunities for students to process messages in the future by asking them about things to come in their week instead of what happened over the weekend.  We read for self directed reading twice a week and I experimented with book club discussion groups once a quarter.  Next semester I plan on implementing book club discussions once per week which allow me another chance to offer more opportunities for students to process messages in the future tense in this case.  Questions about predictions of what is next in story lines replace questions about what happened.

Compelling input is hard.  But sometimes it is right in front of us.  Let go and let the students drive the input.  Word sort tables are a great way to experiment with allowing students to drive the input in a controlled way.

Find more vocabulary type of activities here:  vocabulary activities

Find more pre-reading type of activities here:  pre-reading activities



  1. Thanks Lisa. We have a routine free voluntary reading program. Now that there are enough materials I plan to implement a book club as a part of free voluntary reading. Students will discuss the same book, create comics, comprehension questions and other activities to extend their interactions with what they chose to read.


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