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Tip of the Week – Open and Closed Word Sorts

A language arts friend of mine shared this strategy with me several years ago and I’ve been using it ever since. It is incredibly simple to use in the classroom but it can have a huge impact on your kids.

The English teacher was using it to help kids learn vocabulary words from novels and mentioned it while we were discussing the problem of both vocabulary words and geographic locations in Social Studies. And as I begin to use it, I realized how versatile the strategy can be.

One teacher compared open and closed word sorts to doing laundry:

It all starts with the piles. If you haven’t had time to do the laundry for a week or more, it can feel as if those mile-high baskets of dirty socks and T-shirts are planning to topple your house. Sort that small mountain of laundry into a few piles, and you’ll restore the order of your laundry baskets.

Betty’s Book of Laundry Secrets

Basically this strategy asks students to organize words or phrases into piles that make sense to them.

The strategy is useful in both elementary and secondary classrooms as both a pre-and-post reading strategy. During pre-reading, kids use their prior knowledge to organize words and establish a purpose for reading. As an after-reading strategy, students reflect on what they read and process the ideas presented in the text.

I’ve also discovered that it works great for geographic terms, people, events, places – just about any type of list that seems unconnected to other stuff.

There are two types of sorts:

  • Closed word sorts are when the teacher defines the process for categorizing the words. This requires students to think critically as they look for specific concepts, word structures and definitions.
  • In an open word sort, students determine for themselves how to categorize the words. This forces them to become more involved in manipulating the list. While closed sorts reinforce and extend students’ ability to classify words and concepts, open sorts can prompt divergent and inductive reasoning.

A basic outline of the strategy:

  1. Select 15-20 words that are important to the understanding of the lesson. At this time, the teacher should determine if it will be an open or closed sort.
  2. Copy words onto index cards or print them on slips of paper. Provide enough words for each group of 3-5 students. (An alternative would be to first model for a whole group using a whiteboard or overhead transparency.)
  3. Pass out words to groups. Based on if this is a pre-reading strategy or after-reading strategy, the teacher should decide how much support to provide.
  4. If the activity is a closed sort, remind students they will need to use the categories provided to them. If it is an open sort, suggest to students that they categorize the words into groups that make sense to them. Remind them that they will need to be able to explain their rationale for the groups they created.
  5. Give students approximately 10 minutes to create their sorts. Next, give students a short amount of time to rotate to other groups to examine other sorts from their classmates’ groups.
  6. As students read the text or discuss it in more detail, allow them to reclassify their words.
  7. Have students to reflect on their sorts and how it increased their understanding before and/or after the reading of the text. Did they make changes? Why or why not?
  8. Upon completion of a word sort, students can also write a summary or reflection on why they chose words for a particular category.
    (Johns & Berglund, 1998 and Florida Online Reading)

A simple example for a 7th grade geography class would be to ask kids to do an open sort of 20 geographic terms.

  • canal, cape, plain, delta, fjord, lagoon, marsh, oasis, peninsula, plateau, strait, bay, mesa, savanna, steppe, isthmus, bog, tributary, swamp, tundra

Have small groups organize their slips of paper anyway they want. Have each group share their categories. Do another open sort but tell students they cannot use any category that has already been used. Share out again.

Now do a closed sort and ask them to arrange their words by things that can be found in Kansas and things that cannot be found in Kansas. Both the open and closed sort provide a great way for you to assess prior knowledge and lead into good discussions.

You can also use this strategy online using a free tool called Word Magnets. Same idea but drag and drop capability. This site works great with SMART boards!

Whatever you use, adapt it to fit you own situation. And be sure to have fun!


Johns, J. & Berglund, R. (2002). Strategies for content area learning. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Vacca, R.T. & Vacca, J.L. (1999). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum. New York: Addison-Wesley.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Glen,

    I use a strategy like this for teaching about Ancient Civilizations. I explain to my students that every civilization must have a few common qualities to be considered a civilization:

    Social Structure

    As you can see, this forms the acronym GRAPES. While my students are taking notes, they determine which column (or columns) the word fits in to, and label their notes accordingly. On the test, I’ll ask them to justify why a certain word goes into a certain column, or something along those lines.

    I got this idea from a poster set I bought from a Social Studies magazine. Unfortunately it doesn’t really have an online link, but this definitely was not all my idea 🙂

    January 8, 2010
    • glennw #

      I like how you’ve tied the strategy into your lectures and discussion! Also how that then connects to the assessment, forces kids to make and justify decisions.

      Thanks for sharing!


      January 8, 2010

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