Vocab activities for your classroom

Sorting it Out: Word Sorts for Secondary School Students

Many secondary school teachers may be dismissive about using manipulatives in the classroom. They may think of word cards and word puzzles as belonging in the elementary school realm, along with crayons and counting cubes. However, when it comes to vocabulary learning, it can sometimes be a more engaging way to teach words as individual manipulative units rather than lists of tiny words printed out on 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper. After all, why do so many adults have fridge doors covered in magnetic poetry?

Common activities for reviewing words in the elementary school classroom are word sorts and concept sorts—where children work in small groups to literally sort a small stack of word cards into different categories according to phonemic similarities (e.g., all the "short vowel" words in one pile, all the "long vowel" words in another) or according to meaning (e.g., all the reptiles in one pile, all the mammals in another).

In Vocabulary Their Way: Word Study with Middle and Secondary Students, veteran literacy professors Templeton, Bear, Invernizzi and Johnston suggest that manipulative engagement with vocabulary need not end with graduation from fifth grade. Middle school and high school students can also benefit from grade-appropriate word sorts and concept sorts, and these activities can be used effectively across diverse content areas.

For example, one word sort outlined in Vocabulary Their Way (pp. 105-106) focuses on the Greek roots crat/cracy (meaning "rule/government") and arch/archy (meaning "rule"). Students can work in pairs or small groups to sort a shuffled stack of word cards of terms ending with this set of Greek roots (see below), and then discuss what each column of words shares in common in regard to part of speech or usage and how each word has a distinct meaning within that group. Students could use Visual Thesaurus or another dictionary to help them define each word in the sort and then make generalizations based on their research. Which words (or columns of words) represent individual people or rulers? Which words or columns of words represent forms of rule or government? What examples of rulers or governments that they have studied in class could be labeled with each term?

-cracy -crat -archy -arch
autocracy autocrat monarchy monarch
democracy democrat oligarchy oligarch
plutocracy plutocrat anarchy anarchist
aristocracy aristocrat hierarchy hierarchial
bureaucracy bureaucrat matriarchy matriarch
technocracy technocrat patriarchy patriarch

Vocabulary Their Way: Word Study with Middle and Secondary Students (p. 106)

As an example of a secondary school concept sort appropriate for an earth science class, Vocabulary Their Way references teacher Amy Harway's concept sort that asks students to analyze each word to decide if it belongs in the "Producers" category or in the "Consumers" category. Instead of looking at word structure as an initial means of sorting, students must consider meaning first (i.e., autotrophs and photosynthesis categorized as "producers" while heterotrophs and herbivores are categorized as "consumers").

Of course these same exercises could be completed with fill-in-the-blank worksheets with labeled columns and blank lines for the students to fill with words from a printed list, but using manipulative word cards lends itself to more interactive group collaboration and discussion. And besides, sometimes even older learners need to abandon their heavy textbooks for the more playful stuff of the elementary school classrooms they have left behind.

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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 16th 2010, 4:37 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Nice idea. We often forget that morphology is part of grammar and that it can be a good way of helping vocabulary extension.
Tuesday January 10th 2012, 2:08 PM
Comment by: PATRICIA K. (DERBY, KS)
Nice article, Georgia. I am getting ready to do a book study on Vocabulary Their Way with our middle and high school teachers. I was excited to see your article, and make the connection to Visual Thesaurus.

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