Sunday, August 21, 2011

Concept Sorts and Vocabulary Learning (Bear)

This post is courtesy of Dr. Donald R. Bear. Donald is a professor and the director of the E. L. Cord Foundation Center for Learning and Literacy in the Department of Educational Specialties at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is author of numerous articles and books, including Words Their Way, Words Their Way with English Learners, and Vocabulary Their Way. Donald began his career as a teacher and still enjoys working with schoolchildren of all ages. He is interested in literacy and language across a culturally diverse population.

Thanks, Susan, for your gracious invitation to share ideas. My post is about concept sorts, an activity in which students sort words or pictures into conceptual categories. Concept sorts are valued as a way to organize ideas, support interaction and discussion, document activity, and assess thinking and basic word and vocabulary knowledge (Neuman, & Dwyer, 2009; Templeton, et al., 2008).

In the following examples, I share three word study activities, and then I suggest fundamental steps in developing concept sorts. Vocabulogic already provides a tremendous collection of activities and resources that are concept sorts in their own ways! I am glad to contribute to the discussion.

The Osani Game, Figurative Expressions of Roundness
My students and I found this game in a greeting card with a photograph of 20 children sitting feet-to-feet in a circle (see Enchanting! According to the literature, Ehé children from central Africa play the Osani game by calling out a figurative expression of roundness. Two expressions of roundess given were the cycle of the moon, and the circle of family. One person is left in the circle when everyone else can no longer think of a figurative expression of roundness. In this game, the last child left was said to “live a long and prosperous life.” Ahh, the wonders of a winning vocabulary!
Click to enlarge / download.

In a class I taught, we brainstormed a few more examples and then split into small groups and reported back. I’m interested in what would happen with your students. Our brainstorming is documented in the chart to the right (click to enlarge or download).

The Osani Circle Game reminds me of the ways vocabulary and thinking intertwine. Concept sorts are all around us, as in the ways we put our groceries away, and they are integral to learning and thinking. We sort in our personal collections and we sort at our jobs. For good and bad, we are always sorting; for examples see Things Organized Neatly.

In our teaching, how can we ensure that there is sufficient intensity and frequency of exposure for concept and vocabulary learning? Concept sorts promote verbal expression and thinking. Teachers need myriad ways to promote frequent and engaging activities.

Picture and Object Concept Sorts
Emergent and beginning readers will need pictures or objects for their concept sorts. By design, picture concept sorts do not require reading or a common oral language; we find that the pictures support students as they talk about their sorts with their classmates (Helman, et al., 2012). Karen Carpenter (2010), a former student now at Coker College, studies how kindergarten students sort pictures conceptually for vocabulary learning. In a delayed recall task, students who sorted learned twice as many new words as students in the comparison group who only listened to stories on the topic (Carpenter, 2010). Tops and Bottoms was one of the read-aloud books that was followed with concept sorting (Stevens, 1995). The rich storybook language of this book provided the foundation for the students to contrast concepts such as harvest/plant and yank/toss as well as launch a scientific observation into how to classify the parts of a plant.

Carpenter, like Jamie Oliver who brought cooking to the classroom, found that students were unfamiliar with many of the vegetables or parts of plants. In Tops and Bottoms, a rabbit tricks a bear into thinking that he wants the tops of a vegetable when he should choose the bottoms (carrots), and the bottoms when he should choose tops (lettuce). Students were shown how to sort pictures by their parts (roots, flowers, stems, trees, branches). The sort included some of the same vocabulary as Tops and Bottoms; see the photo. Teachers demonstrated the sorts, and then students sorted and discussed their sorts with classmates on their own. Together, sorting and story sharing make for a richer experience than a read aloud alone.

Concept Sorts in the Content Areas
Concept sorts are an active way to examine key vocabulary in particular areas of study, and to introduce and organize concepts and examples. The initial sort is a base for adding other words to the sort. The sorts are created on a sorting template and students sort the words or pictures and discuss the categories. Concept sorts encourage hierarchical thinking with the most basic categories representing Power I level words (Flanigan, et al., 2011).

Here are the basic directions in creating a content, concept sort: a.) Choose the key concepts and vocabulary from the chapter. These words are often the bolded words. In textbooks, key concepts are often displayed hierarchically in webs, overviews, and maps. b) Think of two or three ways words can be sorted. The fundamental contrast is one of “those that fit and those that do not” (Bear, et al., 2012). c) Create a sorting grid; 8” x 3” sorts with 24 words are common, though the sort in Figure 3 has 12 rows. d) Prepare the sorting schedule.

Recently, I developed a concept sort for a diverse group of fifth graders, diverse in languages and special services. Students who at first could not read the words, were more comfortable saying and reading the words after sorting and talking about the key vocabulary. The fifth graders were beginning to study the Pre-Revolutionary War in American History. Some words were conceptually related to British/American distinction, so this presented three columns: words related to British, American, or Other. This Other column is for words that don’t fit or that are part of another concept.

When we sorted together students were able to hear the words, and they practiced the sort with a partner and discussed the sort in a small group. The table below shows how the words looked on a sorting template with the underlined words British and American, serving as Power Level I words, the words used as categories for sorting.

In this sort, the idea of representation comes up often. We talked about what represent means, and brainstormed related words. We also took representation apart. By taking off suffixes and prefixes, we made the meaning connections among word parts (re-, present). A beginning transitional reader with severe reading difficulties could not read this word, but was able to talk about the concept, and by the end of this lesson had made a strong start in recognizing represent and related words even though these words were quite difficult for him to read.

Students need numerous opportunities to sort and discuss the categories of the sorts. Sorting repeatedly and with support increases the intensity of exposure to new words and concepts. Predictably, student engagement can increase when there are disagreements in sorting. In this sort, there was some disagreement whether or not loyalists is a British or American term.

Pre-Revolutionary War Concept Sort
Three ways to sort the concepts below:
1) places, people, concepts; 2) British contrasted to Americans; 3) open sort
no taxes without representation
against revolution
Governed by king
for revolution
Prime minister
King George III
elected officials
New York
no representation
“Join or die”
13 colonies
pro taxation
ruled by king
against taxation
against being ruled by king
Patrick Henry

(Editorial note: For more on developing an understanding of abstract concepts, including concepts pertaining to Pre-Revolutionary War, see post by Kathleen Lord.)

Sorting and Assessment
Sorts provide formative assessments of reading, vocabulary, and concept knowledge. In order to assess students’ ability to read the words, you may begin by having students read the words aloud when they sort. Students also identify difficult words to read or understand. If students have difficulty reading more than half of the words then consider other ways to support the concept sort- with pictures, and partner sorting.

The ways students sort and describe their sorting is a way to learn what students know about a topic. Do they get the sort? In open sorts, do they develop sorts that are on target? Can they contribute other examples? In what ways do they reflect on the rationale for their sorts? How do these reflections change over the course of the unit of study?

Procedures for Concept Sorts
These principles of sorting are central to establishing sorting routines in the classroom.
  1. Demonstrate sorts; establish sorting categories, model the sort, and have students practice. On another day, repeat the demonstration and have students sort and check with you to observe.
  2. Model the process of sorting repeatedly until you are confident that students know how to sort, talk about their sorts, and have a repertoire of a few basic word study routines and activities, like how to record sorts in a vocabulary or word study notebook, and then to look for examples in word hunts.
  3. Develop a 4- or 5-day routine for sorting and schedule independent and small group activities for the week.
  4. Move to e-sorts whenever possible. Students do enjoy interactive white board speed sorts.
  5. Extend sorts with vocabulary activities that include charting, and looking deeply at a few words. Etymological references online can be an important resource. We list several (Bear, et al., 2012).
  6. Vocabulary notebooks have areas tabbed for content areas in science, social studies, readings in English, and mathematics with symbols, terms, and equations. These areas can become electronic areas and include games like Concentration or board games.
  7. Have students write reflections in which they answer the question: Why did you sort the way you did?
This is where I log off and wish you a month of sorting and thinking with your students. Maybe you will play the Osani game and brainstorm examples of roundness with your students.

With best regards,

Selected References
  • Bear, D. R., Helman, L., & Woessner, L. (2009). Word study assessment and instruction with English learners in a second grade classroom: Bending with students’ growth. In J. Coppola and E. V. Primas (Eds.) One classroom, many learners: Best literacy practices for today’s multilingual classrooms (pp. 11-40). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., & Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction, 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Bear, D. R., Smith, R. (2009). The literacy development of English learners: What do we know about each student’s literacy development? In Helman, L. A. (Ed.) Literacy development and instruction of English learners (pp. 87 - 116). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Capenter, K. (November, 2010). The Relationships among Concept Sorts, Storybook Reading, Language-Based Print Awareness, and Language Proficiency in the Vocabulary Learning of Diverse Kindergarten Children. Doctoral dissertation, University of Nevada, Reno.
  • Caravolas, M. (2006). Learning to spell in different languages: How orthographic variables might affect early literacy. In R. M. Joshi & P. G. Aaron (Eds.), Handbook of orthography and literacy (pp. 497-511). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Flanigan, K., Hayes, T., Templeton, S., Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Johnston, F. (2011). Words their way with struggling readers, 4 – 12. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Helman, L. A. (2005). Using literacy assessment results to improve teaching for English-language learners. The Reading Teacher, 58, 668-677.
  • Helman, L. A., Bear, D. R., Templeton, S., Invernizzi, M. & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way with English learners: Word study for phonics, vocabulary and spelling instruction, 2nd edition. Boston; Allyn & Bacon.
  • Henderson, E. H. (1981). Learning to read and spell: The child’s knowledge of words. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press.
  • Invernizzi, M. & Hayes, L. (2004). Developmental-spelling research: A systematic imperative. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 216-228.
  • Neuman, S. B., & Dwyer, J. (2009). Missing in action: Vocabulary instruction in pre-k. The Reading Teacher, 62(5), 384-392.
  • Stevens, J. (1995). Tops and bottoms. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.
  • Templeton, S., Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Johnston, F. (2009). Vocabulary their way. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


  1. Love the Osani Circle! I appreciate the broad applications these ideas have, and plan to try a picture sort in kindergarten. Thank you!

  2. Concept sorts are one of my favorite things to do - they're really fun! They also provide many opportunities for many students to use language (and we can label the pictures for a little reading bonus). But I especially like what Dr. Bear points out about the student who can't decode "representation" on his own, but develops rich understanding of the concept and even improves his recognition of the word through sorts. A great way to access advanced vocabulary that may not be readable.

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas with concrete directions.

  3. Anonymous4/16/2012

    I also love the Osani Circle (the picture is worth a thousand words!) It allows the student to internalize a deeper understanding of abstract terms. Thanks so much!

  4. Love the Osani Circle!
    The concepts are great. The another method to improve one's vocabulary is by using the online portals available on net such as

  5. Kristen Parker9/16/2017

    I love the idea of concept sorts. I've just begun using spelling sorts in my second grade classroom. This would be a great way to transfer sorting to vocabulary and concept instruction.

    1. Thanks, Kristen. So many ways to sort vocabulary...


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