Sorting into Categories

In this activity, students categorize the words/language chunks to be sorted according to a feature that is common to all the members of this group. Categorizing allows students to see the similarities and differences of the words being sorted. When students sort and classify words, they must attend to them carefully so they can put them in the correct categories. Each time a word is repeated in a different categorizing exercise, the students must attend to it again. 

There are two kinds of sorting tasks: Open Word Sort and Closed Word Sort. In Closed Word Sort the teacher provides the categories along with the words/language chunks to be sorted. In Open Word Sort the teacher provides the words/language chunks only and students work together to come up with the categories that make sense to them.


  1. List between 10 and 20 key vocabulary words/language chunks from an authentic source (text, video, etc.) on the board or on index cards.

  2. Group the students (optional--students can complete this individually as well) and distribute items to be sorted if using cards/pictures.

  3. For a Closed Word Sort, provide students with the categories into which they will sort the vocabulary words/language chunks. For an Open Word Sort, instruct the student teams to suggest categories for organizing the words/language chunks.

  4. Allow up to 10 minutes for the student teams to assign the words to the appropriate categories.

  5. The teacher should circulate around the room and move incorrect items out of a category and back (and can provide oral feedback/prompts as appropriate). 

Helpful Tips

  1. Use colors and images to help students make meaning of the sorting categories. 


  1. A teacher might decide to have students come up with items and then trade with a partner who sorts them. 


  1. Lists of words/language chunks to sort (optional, depending on goals of the activity)

  2. Cards on which to write vocabulary words (or printed cards with words and/or images)

Sample Materials

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