Making Meaning with Word Sorts

Type of Activity:



Subject Area and Grade Span:   Any Subject, Grades K-12 (History Social-Science Example)

What it is:

Sorting words is a strategy used to reinforce new vocabulary or concepts within or across a subject area. This strategy is most effective in introducing vocabulary, assessing student understanding of difficult concepts, and helping students to recognize common relationships between core concepts critical to the understanding of content in mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies. Research shows that multiple exposures to academic language increase retention and comprehension. Conducting word sorts in your classroom will expose students to language, invite them to interact with and think critically about terms and concepts, and develop their ability to make deep, meaningful connections.

What it looks like:

  • Choose words (core ideas, people, events, places, processes) from your lesson/unit that are critical to student understanding of your objective.
  • Write key concepts or vocabulary on index cards.
  • Have students work individually or in small groups to manipulate words under categories, themes, or topical headings.

History Social-Science example, high school:

Please note: Appropriate vocabulary should be selected depending on the grade level.









one-party rule

free enterprise

government ownership

How you know it’s working:

  • Students will be able to demonstrate understanding of difficult concepts by relating characteristics.
  • Students will be able to recognize common relationships between core concepts critical to the understanding of content.

Things to consider:

  • Teacher modeling of this strategy is appropriate to ensure student success with this learning activity.
  • To provide scaffolding, the teacher may wish to assign categories or conduct a “closed sort” to provide more direct instruction.
  • Extended learning opportunities from this activity include, but are not limited to…
    • allowing students to manipulate words into other categories
    • asking students to provide reasoning behind their classifications
    • having students practice using the language within their small groups
    • formulating sentences using pre-identified sentence frames
    • writing about a vocabulary word in detail or showing the connection between 2-3 concepts
    • using this strategy schoolwide to reveal unifying concepts and vocabulary across disciplines


Allen, J. (1999). Words, words, words: Teaching vocabulary in grades 4-12. US: Stenhouse Publishing.
A teacher’s best friend—this guide gives practical and easy to implement strategies for teaching vocabulary.

Billmeyer, R. (1996). Teaching reading in the content areas: If not me, then who? Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory.
The book highlights principles of vocabulary instruction and development and includes many strategies that are easy to implement in any classroom. 

Brown, S. (2001). All sorts of sorts 2:  Word sorts for complex spelling and phonetic pattern reinforcement. San Diego, CA: Teaching Resource Center.
Another great teacher resource rich with word sort variations to keep your class motivated and engaged about learning language at any grade level.

Marzano, R.J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement:  Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
This book provides information, research, and strategies on effective vocabulary instruction. Effective strategies are highlighted and explained using content rich examples. Appendix pages include academic vocabulary lists arranged by course content.

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