Category Formation


What is it?

Category Formation is the ability to organize information, concepts and skills into categories, and forms the cognitive basis for higher-level abilities like applying, analyzing, and evaluating those concepts and skills. Categories are the basis of language and organization of the world.

Names of things, nouns, represent categories of things. Using categories in organizing incoming information improves processing and memory of information; it facilitates abstract thought. There is a clear association in many scientific studies between use of categories to organize material and the facilitation of thinking about the material. Some children spontaneously use categories much less than others. ACTIVATE has games specifically designed to enhance a child’s category formation and flexibility.

When it’s a problem:

What makes a number a number, and not a letter? What makes an apple a fruit, or a lever a simple machine? Category formation is a function of the brain closely associated with concept formation. Students who have difficulty organizing and classifying information will naturally have trouble understanding that information. This can slow down or muddle their ability to process and use new concepts or skills being taught – and frustrate parents and teachers who can’t understand why their kids don’t just “get it”.


1) When teaching new concepts or skills, try to represent the content in more than one way, and use repetition. For example, use puns and riddles when teaching new words that show different contexts and meanings; or in math, use numberlines, charts, manipulables and real world problems in addition to abstract written calculation strategies (like long division). If students have difficulty forming concepts, taking a slower, more thorough approach is the way to go – but only when done in a way that avoids drilling or rote work that only disengages the learner.

2) Check for understanding. Just because these students nod their heads does not mean they are understanding new material as quickly as their peers. Check in early and often. Employ individual conferences as much as possible, and pay close attention to data from formative assessments.

3) Review and reinforce. Provide additional time to these students to review concepts previously covered. They will benefit from extra time to process and complete their understanding – so give them access.

4) Continue using ACTIVATE. Pirate Pete’s Packing Panic is a game specifically designed to enhance a child’s category formation and flexibility – challenging students to quickly sort and categorize many pieces of visual information over a prolonged period of time.  Some levels of Ducks! also require that students recognize and apply categories under time constraints to solve each problem.  These games adjust to each student’s level of ability, providing a rigorous workout of just the right amount of challenge.


When it’s a strength:

Students who excel at category formation will likely excel at handling the analysis and application of abstract concepts. While other students struggle to understand a category like simple machines, these students might intuitively grasp the organizing concept behind the category and be ready to move forward to applying that understanding.


1) Challenge these students with tasks that make greater demands of depth and complexity. If these students are capable of quickly mastering new concepts, move them to applying these concepts in projects and enrichment activities that provide additional challenge. Document those concepts for which these students have shown mastery and what activities you can devise to provide extension and enrichment.