How Word Sorts Mimic the Development of Tacit Knowledge


When teachers administer a spelling inventory to a class of students, they often find some who are spelling well in advance of grade level. How do students learn spelling without instruction? Good spellers are typically good readers who have encountered thousands of words and seen many of the same spelling patterns repeat. From these scattered encounters they have developed tacit knowledge of the system; that is, they have knowledge they use to read and spell, but they may be unable to state rules or generalizations.

We all have some of this tacit knowledge. It is unlikely that you were ever taught the gn pattern at the beginning of a word pronounced as /n/ (it’s rare), but having seen and remembered gnaw and gnat you can figure out how to pronounce gnarled and Gnostic.

Children vary however, in how well they develop tacit word knowledge, and that is why explicit and supplemental instruction is important. But what should that instruction look like?

Build Tacit Knowledge With Interactive Word Sorts

We use this approach in the Words Their Way Classroom program. At the heart of the program is the hands-on or interactive word sort. Word sorts consists of words that share a common pattern, thereby condensing into a short time the number of encounters a student has with that pattern. For example, a sort might include words that start with gn, kn and wr that draw attention to the initial silent letters.

After sorting and talking about how the words are alike, students are then asked to explicitly state generalizations. When sorting lies at the heart of a word study program, students approach them as puzzles and develop a sense of themselves as problem solvers. They also learn that there is logic to the system. This is in contrast to spelling programs with random words or instruction that begins by stating the rules or generalizations, leaving only rote memorization. Word sorts are a more interactive way to teach as they mimic the development of tacit knowledge without leaving it to chance.

Words Their Way Classroom is available on the award-winning Savvas Realize™ digital platform – great for distance and hybrid learning. Download a free demo >

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About the Author

Francine Johnston

Words Their Way Author