The How and Why of Teaching Categorization

Teaching Categorization

Wikipedia defines categorization as the process in which ideas and objects are recognized, differentiated, and understood. Categorization implies that objects are grouped into categories usually for some specific purpose. Ideally categories show the relationship between objects.

We use categorization to build a foundation for how we learn, relate, store, and retrieve information.  It assists us in making connections between words based on similarities and differences. It is necessary for vocabulary development, and is one of the primary building blocks in how we process language.  A deficit here affects all academics.

I did an evaluation on a student once who passed speech and language screenings but was failing in the classroom. I gave the standard language assessments which the child passed but I noticed on one of the subtests that they had great difficulty with word relationships.  I followed that up with specifically testing their language processing and BINGO we hit upon the deficit.  Even though this child was in upper elementary, we had to go all the way back and begin instruction at making associations before we could even begin with categories.  This student had no basic system for seeing how things relate.

And that is a classic example of why we teach categories. We need to give kids the foundational skills to see how things relate so they can understand, processing, store and retrieve things from our brain. 

Suggested Steps in learning to categorize:

  • The first step in learning how to categorize is being able to match objects and pictures. 
  • The next step is being able to sort objects in identical sets. (all cars, all crayons)
  • The third step is sorting by one feature. (red crayons)
  • The fourth is choosing an item to fit a category description or name. (give me some food)
  • The fifth step is to sort into 2 or 3 categories. (sort objects or pictures among food, toys, and furniture)
  • The sixth is to be able to name the category a group of things belong to. (a banana is a fruit)
  • The seventh would be to identify what doesn’t belong in that category. (apple, orange, banana, sock)
  • The eighth step is being able to know what goes together and why. (sock and shoe or hat and coat)
  • The ninth is to state multiple items within a given category. (clothing-shoe, sock, hat, coat)
  • And finally the tenth is to be able to tell how objects are alike and different. (banana and sun are both yellow but a banana is food and the sun is in the sky) 

Bear in mind that we learn from concrete to abstract so begin with tangible items and then move to more abstract like days of the week or seasons. When picking targets keep in mind a child’s life experiences. 

With young children begin with simple categories they are familiar with first.

Some examples:

Family members: mommy, daddy, brother, sister, baby

Animals: pets, farm, and zoo

Food: general things you eat no subcategories

Toys: car, doll, ball, train, 

Furniture: bed, chair, table, couch

Body parts: head, belly, toes, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, arms’ legs, etc.
Clothes: hat, coat, shirt, pants, shorts, sock, shoes



After this you will want to move on to subcategories of those broad categories.

Foods: fruits, vegetables, meats, desserts, snacks, etc.

Clothing by season.

Transportation and on and on. I think you get the idea.

If you can do this with you littlest students then you can teach it to your older ones using more appropriate vocabulary and categories or subcategories!

If you are looking for resources that target categorization, I have several fun things in my store. 

Find It Category Games 

Winter Categorizing with Attributes

Classifying Materials BUNDLE

Spring Categories with Attributes

Sort and Recycle (What’s it made of)

Classifying Activities Variety Pack

Boom Slap It- Adjectives

Slap It

Spring Language Activities



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