WORD SORTS:  Not just for primary grades!

Why do so many kids (and adults) persist in using apostrophes to make words plural? Or forget when to drop the silent e before adding a suffix? It’s not like we haven’t taught them the “rules” – again and again and again!  But maybe that’s just the problem!

Why use word sorts with older kids?

WORD SORTS are routines in which students group words into categories and use those categories to construct generalizations about how language works.

Word sorts take advantage of the brain’s propensity to seek patterns and cluster new information into categories, according to Brain-Based Teaching With Adolescent Learning in Mind by Glenda Beamon Crawford).  Word Sorts also apply the principles of constructivist learning – that individuals understand and remember better when they “construct” knowledge themselves – by creating experiences that enable students to build their own understandings about patterns in our language.

Patterns in our language 

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  96% of English 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.

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 article: Questions Teachers Ask About Spelling by Shane Templeton and Darrell Morris.


1. Provide students with a list of words to sort or have them brainstorm (e.g., musical instruments) or hunt for words in a passage (e.g., ing verbs).

2. Have students sort the words into groups, according to defined or free choice criteria. Two groups make comparisons easier, but there could be several groups, depending on the purpose of the sort. In fact, one category might even be words that don’t fit into the other two.

  • “Open” sort:  students determine what groups to form. (Rule of thumb:  you can create as many groups as you need as long as there are at least two words in each group.)
  • “Closed” sort:  the teacher defines the sorting criteria, such as plurals and possessives.

3.  Students create generalizations about patterns that they observe. Sometimes more or less teacher intervention is needed to guide their thinking.  The key here is for students to construct their own understandings. It’s important to remind students that these are not rules, but guidelines about patterns in English. There will always be words that don’t follow the guidelines, which is why we also examine the “oddballs.”

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

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



DUMP out a list of words

CLUMP the words into categories.  Construct generalizations about each of the categories.

PLUMP up the groups by adding more words.

Don’t get STUMPED by oddball words! Try to figure out why they don’t fit the pattern.

Here's an Example







1   All the words on the left end in the sound /k/.  Some end with ck and others end with just k.  How do you know which to use?

2  Sort the words into two groups:  words ending in ck and words ending in just k. What do you notice about the groups? (Clue: Look at the letter that comes just before the /k/sound.) 

3. Guide students to construct a generalization such as:  If there’s a vowel before the final /k/ sound, use ck; if there’s a consonant before the /k/ sound, use k.

4. Together, brainstorm more words to add to the lists, such as Jack, trick, pink or plank.

5. Consider “oddball” words such as music or fantastic. What generalization could we construct about them?  (e.g., When /ik/ is a separate syllable, it’s usually spelled ic, such as panic, comic and traffic.)


  • SEMANTIC SORTS:  Words are sorted by meaning rather than letter features.  In the FREE HIP DOWNLOADABLE “Snakes in Socks and Other Smuggling Stories,” students are asked to separate vocabulary words that pertain to Animals from words that refer to Crime.
  • SOUND SORTS:  Words are categorized by sound rather than meaning or appearance. For example, students might be asked to listen for words in which ed is a separate syllable and words in which ed  is part of the syllable. This type of exercise is particularly useful for students who are learning English.
  • SPELLING/LETTER PATTERN SORTS:  Probably the most common kind of sort, looking for letter patterns helps students see spelling as problem-solving rather than memory work.  For example, students might be asked to group words by whether the final consonant is doubled before adding a suffix.
  • GRAMMAR/PUNCTUATION SORTS:  Another good tool for teaching the conventions of English grammar, punctuation sorts might be used to reinforce apostrophe use, such as in this example of PRONOUN POSSESSIVES.
  • CONTENT AREA SORTS:  Use Word Sorts to reinforce or review concepts in any subject, such as sorting names of orchestra instruments by Strings or Reeds.


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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