The Game of Categories: Empowering Students and Enriching Lessons

Nancy P. Gallavan

The game, Categories, is an effective pedagogical strategy for promoting powerful social studies. This activity can be applied with any social studies concept, topic, or issue. It can also be used across the curriculum and as a tool for interdisciplinary study. Categories requires little or no teacher preparation and can be facilitated with any age, grade, or subject and at any time since it is based upon the studentsí own knowledge and experience. It also offers developmentally appropriate teaching/learning experiences for non-readers and students with limited English. It can be played at the beginning of a unit of study (to introduce a topic and reveal what students already know about a topic) or at the end of a unit.


How to Play Categories

Categories is best played with classes of 15 to 40 students and requires approximately 30-45 minutes for implementation. (The first time that Categories is played, additional time may be needed for students to learn the basic procedures.) If students are getting much from the activity, then Categories can be played over several successive class


Step 1. Identify the Pedagogical Purpose.

When planning the lesson, the teacher should identify the pedagogical purpose for using Categories. If the game is played to introduce a unit of study, the teacher can determine studentsí prior knowledge, experiences, and interests. If Categories is implemented during the unit of study, students can demonstrate their acquisition of new knowledge, which can guide the teacherís ongoing instructional planning. Categories can also be used as a culmination to a unit of study, allowing the teacher to assess the studentsí knowledge as a final outcome.


Step 2. Select and Announce the Topic or Issue.

The teacher should announce the topic to the class. The topic of Weather is the example used in this article. Any social studies topic can be the focus of this activity.


Step 3. Introduce Categories: Goals and Expectations.

The teacher should communicate clear behavioral expectations related to team work, roles, supplies, time, noise, movement, resources (dictionaries, textbooks, etc.), and outcomes. If the class has never played Categories, the teacher will need to read through procedures and expectations (Steps 4ó15) before starting. If the class is familiar with the activity, the teacher should review procedures and emphasize any changes.

In Categories, each team generates a list of words representing a multitude of things and ideas related to the topic. For instance, if the topic is Weather, a team might generate a list that would include words like rain, downpour, storm, sunny, wind, etc. Teams should list every idea that seems related to the topic, from common to less common terms that students may know (or have learned), like tempest, barometer, and cumulonimbus.

During the competition, each team will announce one word from its list, and acquire points if it is the only team to record the word or term. It benefits teams to list as many words as their members can generate; unique words may come to mind while students share the more common examples during the team brainstorming. The team with the biggest list of unique words remaining at the end of the game wins.


Step 4. Brainstorm Words Independently and Silently.

Prior to joining teams, students should brainstorm independently, writing related words on a piece of paper. Each student should contribute to the team list.


Step 5. Divide the Class into Teams.

Each team should consists of three to five students seated at the same table. Having an odd number of students facilitates quick decision-making; teams of more than five students tend to reduce participation by all students. The teacher should consider the grouping patterns carefully prior to announcing the members of each team (mixing up students of different abilities within each team). The teacher can ask each team to write down its membership, so that the teacher can change the composition for future sessions, if needed.

Each team will require large sheets of paper (butcher or construction paper) and colorful markers for recording their words.


Step 6. Select Team Names.

Assign the teams the task of selecting a team name. Team names should relate to the topic, such as (for the topic of Weather) Sun Devils, Twisting Sisters, and Snow Angels, and should be writen across the top of the board in the order that teams will participate. Order of competition can be determined by placing each team name in a basket and then drawing their positions.


Step 7. Announce Team Member Tasks.

Each team member is responsible for a specific task, as listed below. The teacher or the students can assign the team member tasks. When introducing the game, it is recommended that the teacher select specific students for each task and record this information, rotating the various tasks over the course of several days. These roles and responsibilities include:

Monitor maintains attention to task and equitable participation

Reporter speaks for the team

Scribe records all ideas

Supplier collects and returns necessary supplies

Time-Keeper maintains time of task


Step 8. Announce Time Allocated for Team Brainstorming.

Again, the teacher must decide in advance how much time to allow for team brainstorming. Teams usually are allocated 10 to 15 minutes, although older students and students who have participated in previous sessions of Categories may warrant more time.


Step 9. Brainstorm Ideas within Teams.

Students should be seated around a table with paper and markers delivered by the Supplier. The Scribe records all ideas as the Monitor ensures that every team member is given ample opportunities to share and the Time-Keeper watches the allocated time.


Step 10. Call Time.

The teacher should call time as predetermined. It may be helpful to announce a two-minute warning as the allocated time is ending. All teams may be given additional time at the teacherís discretion particularly if teams are either generating many good ideas or if most teams seemed to be challenged and slow to start. All talking and writing must stop when time is called.


Step 11. Select Governing Board.

This is one of the more exciting aspects of Categories. Categories is a learning experience that can be governed by the students themselves, and it is essential for the teacher to let the students take responsibility for governing themselves. Select the Governing Board at this point so that every student has the chance to participate in the brainstorming steps. Five students should be selected to serve as the Governing Board. One selection method is to write each team memberís name on cards and place them in a basket, then the teacher can select one name from each team for the Governing Board (repeat this process for each team).

The Governing Board consists of five roles:

ï The Moderatoróassumes the traditional role of teacher or facilitator

ï Score-Keeperórecords scores on the board, overhead, or large sheet of paper

ï 3 Judgesódecision-makers who resolve challenges.

The Governing Board should turn their brainstormed list of words face down so no other teams have access to their ideas. The Governing Board members assume their new duties with the Moderator standing at the front of the class, the Score-Keeper standing at the board or overhead, and the three Judges sitting in chairs at the front of the class facing everyone. The teacher remains available to the Governing Board.


Step 12. Start the Competition with Round 1.

The Moderator asks the first team to confer quietly for one minute or less to select their first word. Teams should suggest the most original or obscure word on their list, in hopes of attaining the most points. The teamís Reporter announces the word to the entire class. The Score-Keeper writes the word under their teamís name. The Moderator asks if any other team has the same or a similar word; team reporters should raise their hand to indicate they have that or a similar word. At this point one of three interactions may occur:

a) If no other team claims to have the same or a similar word, the participating team is awarded one point.


b) If another team claims to have the same word, then that teamís reporter must respond and show the Moderator the same word on their list. In this case, neither team is awarded a point.

c) Anyone (including the teacher) can claim that a word is not related directly enough to the topic. (For example, the word ìtreeî is not clearly related to the topic ìWeather.î) In this case the team Reporter is given the chance to show the Judges how it is related to the topic. Use of a dictionary or textbook is permitted. The Judges are given three minutes to confer and announce their decision. The Judges may ask for additional clarification. They may open their decision-making to the entire class (deciding the issue by popular vote). However, the Moderator, not the teacher, should facilitate the class discussion. Again, the Judges make the final decision, and the Score-Keeper follows their decision. It is suggested that the Judges take turns announcing their decisions so no one Judge dominates the panel of Judges.


Step 13. Continue the Competition with Further Rounds.

Each team participates in the same manner with the teams conferring quietly for one minute or less to select their word, the team Reporter announcing their selection, the other teams accepting or challenging their selections, and the Judges and Score-Keeper performing their roles respectively. One round consists of each team presenting one word or term.

The teacher should decide how many Rounds the class will play. Frequently, the number of Rounds is determined by the amount of time in the class period.


Step 14. Conduct Playoffs and Determine Winners.

At times, two or three teams will earn equal points, which requires one or two playoff rounds to determine the winner. It is important to keep all students engaged in the learning when this occurs. Also it is vital to award all of the students for their participation and productivity when the competition ends.


Step 15. Post the Lists for Creative Extensions.

This last step is critical for reinforcing and integrating the learning. The teacher should collect each teamís list of words and post them in a clearly visible location. These student-generated lists provide the foundation for the next lessons, perhaps the entire unit of study. The lists may
provide vocabulary, concepts, relationships, processes, and/or applications relevant to the topic for future social studies lessons and for integration across the curriculum.

One social studies activity that could follow the Categories activity consists of organizing the listed words to into related groups. For the topic of Weather, the words can be organized by types of weather, seasons, geography, severity, etc. These groups could be selected by the teacher or by the students.



Categories offers teachers an effective way to apply constructive approaches to teaching that engages every student. Students take responsibility for the leadership, content, and higher-order thinking expressed through both cooperation and competition. Applications and modifications are many.

As one fifth-grade teacher reflected after introducing Categories to her class, ìI never realized how much my students already knew about the Civil War. Categories jump-started the unit with excitement and anticipation. I implemented Categories several times throughout the unit to broaden the learning and re-ignite student interest. They took charge of their learning individually and as a class.”




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Drake, Susan M. Creating Integrated Curriculum: Proven Ways to Increase Student Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press,1998, 1-175.

Kottler, Ellen and Jeffry A. Kottler. Children With Limited English: Teaching Strategies for the Regular Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2002, 1-24.

National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994. (

óó-. National Standards for Social Studies Teachers. Washington, DC: NCSS, 1997. (

Sunal, Cynthia Szymanski and Mary Elizabeth Haas. Social Studies for the Elementary and Middle Grades: A Constructivist Approach. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2002, 23-25.


Nancy P. Gallavan is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.