Lesson: Word Sort Activities – Semantics

Explicit Support & Scaffolding for English Learners:

This simple strategy of allowing students to sort words into different categories is at the heart of word study. By engaging in comparing, contrasting, and categorizing words, students have to understand the vocabulary and draw connections between different words for different purposes. Students also have to identify patterns within the meaning and structure of words.


Research shows that multiple exposures to academic language increase retention and comprehension. Word Sort activities exposes students to language, invites them to interact with and think critically about terms and concepts, and develops their ability to make deep, meaningful connections. (Allen, J. (1999). Words, words, words: Teaching vocabulary in grades 4-12. US: Stenhouse Publishing.)


Students engage in Word Sort activities to compare, contrast, and classify words. Students can sort words into categories based on:

  • Semantics: The meaning of words and concepts

Common Core Standards


  1. The teacher must select the vocabulary words from one of the Word Bank  Lists of Words. These lists of words are found under Subjects in the sidebar to the right. (Link)
  2. Word Sort Cards:  These are found by clicking on a Subject (on the sidebar) and then a Topic. They are located under Other Materials: Word Sort Cards.
  3. Cognate chart(s) of the vocabulary words in English and the cognates listed in other dominant languages used in the classroom community.
  4. Student reference materials such as student dictionaries, thesauruses, and other curricular resource materials that list words, their definitions, morphology, syllabication, synonyms, and antonyms.

Brief Description:

Students engage in Word Sort activities to review and draw connections between words from a specific Unit of Study.

General Instructions

Teaching Tips

  • Word Sorts are usually most effectively done by putting students in groups. Students can either work with a partner or in small groups of 3 or 4. The best learning takes place when students are engaged in the Word Sort discussions. In this activity, students really need to bounce ideas off of each other.

Sorting Words according to Meaning (Semantics)

  1. The teacher must first select one of the Word Bank Lists of Words, print out this list as a Word Sort Card, and make multiple copies for students to study. (Link)
  2. Allow 15 to 20 minutes for the student teams (either pairs or small groups) to assign the words to the appropriate categories. Students must be prepared to defend their sorting of the words. They must know the common features of each category and how each word fits into the category.
  3. Conduct a class discussion with each group presenting their word list for one of the categories. Require the students to defend their sorting of vocabulary words by asking about the common features of the categories and how each specific word meets these criteria.
  4. Finally, make sure that each student copies the category titles and the Word Sort words onto the Word Sort Graphic Organizer.  Sometimes when there is a cross-over between words such as in the example involving angles and triangles, a Venn diagram works well. In this case, students can use the Word Sort Venn Diagram.

WORD SORT Explanations

1. First, the teacher must decide between the two types of Word Sorts: closed or open.

  • Closed Word Sort – The teacher provides the categories (and the specific features of each) to the students. The students then match the words with the features of each category to create the word collections.
  • Open Word Sort – The teacher provides only the list of words. Students work together to decide upon the common features and describe the categories.

2. In a Closed Word Sort, the teacher gives students a list of words that they have to sort into specifically defined categories. For example, the teacher could give students this list of 2 and 3 dimensional shape names.

Triangle, square, quadrilateral, pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, rectangle, circle, cube, pyramid, sphere, cylinder, prisms such as rectangular prism, triangular prism, cone, cuboid,

Teacher: These are words from our geometry unit. Some of these shapes are 2 dimensional polygons and some are 3 dimensional shapes. With your partner(s), define what the characteristics of each of these categories are and organize them into the correct categories on the graphic organizer.

3. In the usual Closed Word Sort, the teacher can give the students all the information about the categories. However, there is more opportunity for learning about the words if students are engaged, even minimally, in helping to define the attributes.

4. The graphic organizer that students make can look something like this.



3-D Shapes

Attributes:2 dimensional or flatStraight sidesClosed with no openings

Can be regular or irregular

Regular: lines all same length and all same angles

Irregular: lines different lengths and has different angles

Attributes:Solid shapeHas length, height and depthCan stand up, not flat

Has faces, vertices and edges


Rectangular prismCylinder

5. Since students will be working together, each group can get one set of Word Sort Cards. However, it is best for each student to have their own Word Sort Graphic Organizer so that they can write down the attributes and the words into the categories.

6. The teacher can select words according to the level of difficulty and have 2 lists:  one that is easier and the other one more difficult.

7. After students do the sorting, it is helpful to ask,

“What patterns do you see?”

Identifying the patterns requires critical thinking as well as an exploration of the connections between the words.  For example, students might notice that all the angles (except for the straight angle) are also triangles. However, the triangles are not all angles. What are their ideas about why this is true?

8. These cards can be easily turned into Flash Cards and used to play one of the Flash Card games.

9. When doing Semantic Word Sorts, when appropriate, the teacher can also use antonyms and synonyms of the words being studied. In a similar manner, when appropriate for the Unit of Study, the teacher can also use homographs and homophones

Homographs: Words that are spelled the same and have different meanings. Sometimes, they are pronounced differently. Examples include bow vs. bow and lead vs. lead.

Homophones: Words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings such as eight and ate or four and for.

10. For an Open Word Sort, the teacher provides only the list of words. Students work together to decide upon the common features and describe the categories.

For example: The teacher might want students to organize a list of words semantically. The teacher gives students the following words:

acute, isosceles, obtuse, right, scalene, straight, equilateral

Teacher: These are words from our geometry unit. You will use this graphic organizer to decide the categories that these words belong in, define the traits of the categories, and organize the words.

11. Students have to create the categories. By organizing the words semantically, students could classify the words by types of angles and types of triangles. Students compare and contrast them. They also have to decide which words belong in both categories. For instance, “right” can be a “right” angle or a “right” triangle. Furthermore, a right triangle always contains a right angle. In this example, students could use the Word Sort Venn Diagram.

Example of Semantic Word Sort Venn Diagram:



Both Angles & Triangles



Traits of angles: Traits of both angles & triangles: Traits of triangles:
straight acuterightobtuse equilateralisoscelesscalene


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