Using Word Sorts in the Primary Grade Classroom June 03 2009

Word Sort activities are a powerful classroom tool that help students better understand the relationships between words and build vocabulary skills!

Perhaps no other classroom activity is more effective in teaching emerging literacy students than using word sorts to emphasize students’ grasp of the meaning and relationships of words.

An alternative to more traditional phonics and whole-word exercises, word sorts use cards with printed words on them, which students ‘sort’ into groups.

A simple, meaningful activity for small groups or students working individually, word sorts teach students to identify the meaning and attributes of words by sorting them into collections of words with similar meanings, helping build vocabulary skills. A number of variations are possible with word sort activities.

Open and Closed Word Sorts

The two types of word sorts are open-ended and closed-ended, the difference being that the property in common between words is stated up front in closed word sorts, whereas in open word sorts, students must determine the relationships between words while completing the sorting activity.

Closed Word Sorts - Students are provided the categories and specific attributes of each and then try to match words to the correct categories.

Open Word Sorts - Students must discern the common attributes while sorting words, describing the categories into which they sort words and the features they have in common.

Conducting Word Sort Activities in the Classroom

Used as a strategy to introduce and reinforce vocabulary, word sorts help students learn to recognize common relationships between words, increase reading comprehension and retention, teach them to think critically about terms and concepts, and develop their ability to make deep, meaningful connections between words and concepts.

Word sort activities help teach conceptual thinking beyond reading literacy, helping develop students’ critical thinking and reasoning abilities and understanding of content in math, science, social studies and other subjects.

Basic Classroom Word Sort Activities

  • Pick words that encourage a greater understanding of the core objective in your lesson plan; key ideas, people, places, events, etc.
  • Write these concepts or vocabulary on index cards.
  • Working either together in small groups or individually, have your students sort words into specific themes, categories or topics.

How to Judge the Success of Word Sort Activities

  • Students should demonstrate they understand the specific characteristics of the words they are sorting and their conceptual relationships.
  • Students should demonstrate ability to recognize the common relationships between words and a holistic understanding of their content.

Things to Consider When Conducting Word Sort Activities

  • It is critical for teachers to model the activity so that students achieve greater success through the word sort activity.
  • Closed word sorts help provide a ‘framework’ for students when engaging in word sort activities.
  • Variations and enhancements to basic word sort activities can include:
  • Let students manipulate the words into other categories. For example, apples and pears are both ‘types of fruit’ and ‘things that grow on trees’.
  • Ask your students to explain the reasoning for their word classifications; often this can give you clues where students need additional help and support in conceptualizing the relationships between words.
  • Using ‘pre-identified sentence structures’, have your students form sentences using the words they have sorted to demonstrate they understand the correct usage of the words.

Creating a Simple Classroom Word Sort Activity

  1. On a white board or index cards, list 10 to 20 vocabulary words from a specific reading selection.
  2. You can either provide the categories to be used (closed word sort) or let them choose their own (more advanced, open word sort activity).
  3. Break the class into small groups of 4 to 5 students each and have them work together on the word sort activity, giving them 10 to 15 minutes to categorize the words.
  4. Conclude the activity by having each group present to the entire class their word list for one category. This enables each group to present the reasoning behind their categorization and enables you to summarize the concepts and relationships of each category.

Additional Word Sort References and Books

All Sorts of Sorts: Word Sorts That Reinforce Spelling and Phonetic Patterns
Author: Sheron Brown
Paperback: 190 pages
Publisher: Teaching Resource Center
Publication Date: August 08, 2008
The 155 Sorts in this book provide word study practice for students in large group, small group, individual, and learning center settings. They offer a multi-sensory experience in which students manipulate and categorize words by specific features or sound parts: initial and final consonants, short and long vowel patterns, high frequency phonograms, vowel digraphs and diphthongs, common blends and endings, and "sound-alikes" such as gn and kn. There are also some fun word meaning sorts such as "has wheels" and "does not have wheels." Instructions are provided for presenting open, closed, speed, "blind," and writing sorts. Blank word sort masters are also included so you and your students can design your own sorting activities.

All Sorts of Sorts 2: Word Sorts for Complex Spelling and Phonetic Pattern Reinforcement
Author: Sheron Brown
Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: Teaching Resource Center
Publication Date: August 17, 2008
Using the sorts in this book, your students will acquire word pattern knowledge, learn spelling rules, and formulate generalizations through compare-and-contrast activities. They'll learn to sort groups of words according to spelling rules, meanings, endings, sound patterns, prefixes, suffixes, spelling generalizations, syllables, and other shared properties.

All Sorts of Sorts 3: Word Sorts for Vocabulary Development in the Content Area
Author: Sheron Brown
Publisher: Teaching Resource Center
Publication Date: 2008
Word Sorts for Vocabulary Development in the Content Area; the most comprehensive books on word sorting available. Provides a wide range of sorts offered at all developmental levels. Great for on-grade level, remedial, ESL, Title I, and Reading First!

Words Their Way: Letter and Picture Sorts for Emergent Spellers
Author: Donald R. Bear
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Prentice Hall
Publication Date: January 28, 2005
This book provides teachers with concept sorting ideas followed by picture sorts for developing phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, letter recognition and concept of words in print.  This companion volume augments that content with numerous reproducible sorts that specifically address the needs of the syllables and affixes speller. Accompanying the sorts are step-by-step directions for guiding pupils through the sorting lessons, as well as follow-up activities and tips for using the sorts to their best advantage.  Designed for elementary educators' use as part of a reading curriculum where emergent spelling is covered.

Words Their Way: Word Sorts for Syllables and Affixes Spellers
Author: Francine Johnston
Paperback: 144 pages
Publisher: Prentice Hall
Publication Date: May 21, 2004
This book, intended for use with the core Words Their Way book, is the ideal supplement to any phonics, spelling and word study curriculum.  The Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction core book provides a practical, research-based and classroom-proven way to study words with pupils; this companion volume augments that content with numerous reproducible sorts that specifically address the needs of the syllables and affixes speller. Accompanying the sorts are step-by-step directions for guiding pupils through the sorting lessons, as well as follow-up activities and tips for using the sorts to their best advantage.  This book is designed to help all teachers address the needs of all readers and spellers, giving them confidence in the knowledge that their teaching is developmentally appropriate.