Word sorts aren’t 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; they’re just not always phonetic patterns.  However, learning the ways that letters combine in our language can help with the spelling of many words.  For example, the wag that suggest that ghoti could reasonably spell fish (gh as in cough  and ti as in nation) was ignoring the fact that gh only produces a /f/ sound at the end of a word and ti only produces a /sh/ sound in combination with on or ous.  

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.

As part of the word sort, students are asked to analyze the pattern and create generalizations about how letters go together to form words. 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 meaning, 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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