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). 

Adaptation for Online/Distance Learning

  1. This activity can be done using Google Slides.

  2. The teacher prepares a slide deck by creating a table or other graphic organizer structure with categories. The teacher may wish to edit the Master Slide to create the table so that students do not inadvertently alter the structure of the tables/categories during the activity and cause unnecessary delays. After creating the table using the Master Slide, the teacher adds a series of text boxes containing chunks of target language. Do not add the text boxes on the Master Slide. These text boxes are what students will click and drag into the various categories in the graphic organizer/table. The teacher needs to make enough copies of the slide for each group or each individual student to have one. There is an image below with an example of a slide used for this activity.

  3. The teacher shares their slide deck, giving editing access to all students in the class (‘anyone with link can edit’).

  4. Students work individually or in small groups on the same slide to sort the text boxes into the correct category. See image below.

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

Click a thumbnail to see a larger version.

Sample Slide
Sample Slide - categorized