WORD SORTS:  Not just for primary grades!

Why use word sorts with upper elementary, middle and high school students?  

Word sorts take advantage of the brain’s propensity to seek patterns and cluster new information into categories. (Brain-Based Teaching With Adolescent Learning in Mind by Glenda Beamon Crawford, Corwin 2007)

Contrary to popular opinion, English actually is a language of patterns; in fact, Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf’s seminal 1966 study of over 17,000 English words, found that, with a knowledge of the main phoneme-grapheme spelling patterns, 96% of words have entirely predictable spellings and only 4% (or less) are “true oddities.”  Read Edward Fry’s succinct and simplified summary of the Hanna et al research, in which he identifies only 17 vowel categories (e.g., “long a”) and their most common spellings. Although this article falls under the Phonics umbrella, it has curricular implications for upper grades as well, especially for those students who struggle with spelling and decoding.

Also important, however, are patterns of meaning, or semantic patterns. For example, connecting to the word muscular makes the silent in muscle more logical.  Morphological chunks like prefixes, suffixes, and root words are part of these patterns, as are inflectional endings like ed and ing.  Of course, one of the problems with – and fascination of –  root words is that many of them come from Latin or Greek languages, another study of patterns.  You can read more about patterns of language in this interesting article:  Questions Teachers Ask About Spelling.

In a word sort, students are asked to look for patterns within words and create generalizations about those patterns. As well, they’re encouraged to identify “oddballs” and analyze why they do not follow the pattern. (Often there is a logical reason, usually related to meaning or word origin.) When students construct their own generalizations, they are more likely to remember and retain the information they’ve learned.


1. Give students a list of words (in context or in isolation) to sort by defined categories (a “closed” sort) or by the categories of their choice (an “open”) sort. Some teachers like to start with an open sort to encourage students to discover the focus pattern themselves.

2. Have students identify  and discuss the patterns they see, and then construct their own generalization about that pattern.

3. Ensure that there is immediate opportunity for transfer by inviting students to spell additional words that apply the same pattern.

4.  Invite students to look for “oddballs,” words that are exceptions to the “rule” and discuss why these words don’t follow the same pattern.








Words Their Way by Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton & Johnston, is the definitive source of information, research and student activities related to word sorts.

There are also a number of books in the All Sorts of Sorts series.

An internet search for word sorts for upper grades will generate many ready-to-use examples of word lists.

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