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Concept Sort

Concept sorts ask students to think about what they know as they compare and contrast it to new information. They are a lively, interactive way to introduce and review vocabulary and concepts across disciplines.

Key Information



When To Use This Strategy

Before reading
After reading

Appropriate Group Size

With small groups
Whole class setting

What is a concept sort?

Concept sorts introduce students to the vocabulary or ideas of a new topic or text. Students are presented a list of terms or concepts and have to determine how they are related by placing them into  different categories. When used before reading, concept sorts provide an opportunity for you see what your students already know about a given topic. After you’ve completed a reading or unit of study you can use them to assess your students’ understanding of the concepts presented. 

Why use concept sorts?

  • They allow you to introduce the new vocabulary that students will encounter in the assigned text.
  • They can quickly provide you with information about how much your students already know about a topic.
  • Concept sorts familiarize students with the vocabulary of a new topic or book.
  • They can be used across the content areas.
  • Concept sorts have been shown to be particularly beneficial for ELL students.
  • They are an easy way for students to review what they’ve learned and for you to informally assess their learning.

How to use a concept sort

1. Gather objects or words

If your goal is to teach a concept such as rough/smooth, gather 10-15 objects or pictures that have rough and smooth textures. Or, if your goal is to teach a concept or vocabulary that is presented in a book, choose 10-15 relevant, important words from the book or text and write them on cards.

2. Sort objects or word cards into groups

Working individually, in small groups or as a class, have the students sort the cards or objects into meaningful groups. The groups (or categories) can be pre-defined by the teacher (a closed sort) or by the students (an open sort).

3. Talk about the groupings

Discuss the categories used within the different groups. Describe why certain cards were placed within certain groups. With an open sort, the students choose the categories so they need to be ready to explain their choices to their classmates!

When used before reading, concept sorts provide an opportunity for a teacher to see what his or her students already know about the given content. When used after reading, teachers can assess their students’ understanding of the concepts presented.

Watch a lesson (small group, grade 2)

Go inside Cathy Doyle’s second grade classroom in Evanston, Illinois to see how she uses the concept sort strategy to introduce vocabulary from the class read-aloud, The Seed Is Sleepy. Cathy models the strategy and shows the kids her decision-making process by thinking out loud — before sending them off to work in small groups. Joanne Meier, our research director, introduces the strategy and highlights the important vocabulary and comprehension skills that a concept sort supports.

Differentiate instruction

For second language learners, students of varying reading skill, and younger learners

  • Teachers may wish to have students write the completed sorts to help solidify learning.
  • Have students work in pairs or in small groups.
  • Provide students with the category headers (a closed sort).
  • Provide extra blank blocks for students to fill in their own examples.
  • Use pictures along with the words. For example, a picture could be provided for each of the words in the Math example below.
  • Be aware of cognitive and cultural diversity as you evaluate how students sort the cards.
  • Words on the card should be printed clearly so they are easily readable by all students. Large letters and contrast between the letters and the background are helpful.

Use across the content areas


The following example introduces students to a book about discovering plants:

  1. Introduce and discuss the following pre-selected terms:

  2. Then, ask students to sort the terms according to the following categories OR ask the students to sort the cards in a way that is meaningful to them and follow up to check their understanding of the concepts.
    • Types of plants
    • Parts of a plant
    • Where plants grow
    • What plants need to grow

Social Studies

The following example introduces students to words about transportation:

ambulancehelicopterfire enginerocket


Concept sorts can be used to teach students words about geometric shapes or telling time.


See the research that supports this strategy

Baumann, J. & Kame’enui, E. (eds.). (2004). Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice. Guilford Press: New York.

Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2007). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (4th Edition). Prentice Hall: New Jersey.

Children’s books to use with this strategy

Topics this strategy is especially helpful for