Activating prior knowledge is a vital part of any social studies instructional unit. A strategy called List / Group / Label can help you hook kids into a specific topic while giving your kids a way to trigger prior knowledge.

Step One:

Select a topic, idea, concept or even a difficult vocabulary word. An example might be the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case as an introduction to a civil rights unit.

Share the word or phrase with your students and tell them that they have three minutes to write down at least 10 words or phrases that come to mind when you the word. In our example, these words might include Linda Brown, Kansas, racism, civil rights movement and segregation. Once each student has completed their list, place your kids into groups of three.

Step Two:

Student groups should construct one list for their group, combining new ideas and eliminating redundant items.

Step Three:

Each group should now create multiple categories from their list. These categories might include such things as people, places and ideas. Ask students to also create labels / titles for each of their categories. Groups now share out their different categories and labels by posting them on large sticky notes or whiteboards. Encourage students to do a “gallery walk” around the room to view the thinking of others.

Step Four:

You now lead a conversation with the entire class to find similarities and differences in the lists and categories of the various groups. Develop a common classroom list of words and categories. It’s not important at this point for the content to be entirely accurate. Have students create their own individual graphical titles for each of the categories agreed to by the class. (Connecting images with content will help many of your students to remember the categories.)

Step Five:

Use the list and categories to guide future discussions throughout the unit, correcting the list as you and your students progress through the material. By the end of the unit, students will have had a chance to create a very detailed mental dataset.


The List / Group / Label strategy encourages student participation and allows additional learning as students acquire differing perspectives thus teaching others in their groups. It serves as a great way to pre-assess student content and vocabulary knowledge, activate prior knowledge and encourages high level classifying skills.

Have fun!