Humans may be able to remember thousands of words, but we definitely can’t always find the word we want when we want it! We may have unlimited storage for words and concepts, but we definitely have limited retrieval.
We can make word recall easier through organization and categorization. When we think of with a word, we search through a large lexicon, like an internal database of words and concepts that reflect our understanding of the world. We typically store words through hierarchical relationships with increasingly broad superordinate categories, e.g., a poodle is a dog, which is an animal. We also store concepts together by similarities across key features, such as animals with paws, like cat, dog, lion, tiger, bear, etc.
When we recall a word, we search through specific categories stored in our brains. Scientists at the University of California in Berkeley have even charted the semantic maps that cover the cerebral cortex use fMRI data. Children who have language disorders often have difficulties with retaining, storing, recalling, and organizing words. Categorization activities are designed to illustrate meaningful relationships. Clinicians help children sort items into groups, describe group members, and explain exclusionary (doesn’t belong) and inclusionary (does belong) criteria.
Sorting may use one or more criteria. Dual sorting is when you need an item that matches two different semantic criteria, e.g., “What is a food that is cold?” or semantic plus phonological/orthographic criteria, e.g., “What is a food that starts with the letter A?” Dual sorting requires cross-referencing. You may access your entire list of foods, and then find foods that start with A. You might think of things that start with A, and then reference that list with foods. We see both of these strategies when we practice these activities with children.
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Categorization games can be cooperative. Children work together as a team using the letters of each child’s names as one of criteria. We write the first child’s name vertically along the left hand side of the paper, leaving room to add words across the page. If the child’s name is Thomas, we start with the letter T and pick one of the category titles for the first letter, e.g., a food that starts with T is tomato.
Here are some sample categories:
• Things that smell
• Things that are cold
• Things in the water
• Things in the sky
• Things with wheels
We all contribute words that match the criteria for each letter of the child’s name, before moving to the next child’s name. We vary the game in different ways:
• Using one category for all the letters
• Using one letter for all of the categories
• Rolling dice to determine the number of matching words needed
• Making the words into silly sentences, e.g., Thomas’ pet turtle eats tomatoes
Children join together to complete each name. Cooperative and collaborative games help children create a personalized final product that reflect everyone’s contribution.