Using Word Sorts in the Classroom: Tips and Activities for K-2

March 13, 2022

These phonics word sort activities, ideas, and tips are great for kindergarten, first grade, and second-grade teachers to help their students make the most of their word study. In this post, I share 3 different tips for using word sorts during your phonics or literacy block. Before I begin, I wanted to let you know you can watch or listen to all this information in video format below:

To read this information instead, just keep scrolling!


Using words sorts in the classroom

Using word sorts in your classroom is a great phonics activity because students must use their phonics and/or phonemic awareness skills to analyze the words in front of them.  They must decode words in front of them and think about the similarities and differences between them. It can also open up their minds to things they didn’t notice before by looking at the words in a different way through the sort.

When doing word sorts with your students, you don’t want to use a brand new skill. Instead, you want to choose a skill that you are currently working on or reviewing. Students will read the words in the sort and group them into different categories.

For example, if you are working on short /a/ cvc words, you could give your students a whole bunch of short a words like cat, pan, hat, man, etc., and have them sort the words by their ending pattern – either -at or -an. 

These are the basics for using word sorts in your classroom, but now let me share some of my favorite tips for using this practice effectively.


Tip #1: Use an Open Sort

For an open sort, you will give your students a bunch of words and they will need to sort them. The “trick” here is you won’t be telling them what the categories are. They have to look at the words closely and figure out what the categories could be based on the patterns that they find.

You will want to model this activity for your students first, especially when you are first teaching word sorts. It will also be helpful for them to decode the words and say them out loud. That way they can figure out what two categories to make by using their words first. Here is an example of what that might look like:

In the open word sort above, there is a spot for students to label the two columns. Without telling them what the sort is, they will cut out and decode the words. Then, they must figure out what the categories are, and sort the words accordingly. Once students determine the categories, it’s important to discuss students’ thoughts and ask if others agree, disagree, and why. This can bring up a lot of great discussion around phonics and word study.

In Kindergarten and 1st-grade classrooms, I usually stick to just 2 categories for word sorts. As they get older, you can make it more challenging by adding more categories to the sort.



Tip #2: Use Images Instead of Words

I like using images to switch things up because it turns word sorts into a phonemic awareness activity instead of a word study. Here is an example of how you can do this with a little differentiation:

As you can see, this is the same word sort as tip 1, but it contains images instead of words. One way to do this sort with images is to have your students look at the pictures and say each word out loud. They will have to really listen to the sounds in order to find the differences between the words and figure out where to sort them.

I also like to leave a space above each of the images for students to practice encoding. Once they have solved the whole sort, they can go back in with a marker and write each word above the image!

You can find this word sort (and a whole bunch more) in my word sort unit that I made here:

This unit has tons of words sorts covering a bunch of different phonics skills. I also have all types of word sorts in this unit, including words only, images only, images to sort and encode, etc.


Tip #3: Throw in Oddball Words

Once your students have practiced word sorts a few times and have shown a solid understanding of this activity, you can spice it up a little by throwing in some oddball words!

One of the biggest mistakes we make as teachers is not reviewing old skills. Word sorts are a great way to throw in some previously-taught skills to review. For example, if you are doing a word sort for short /e/ words, you can throw in a few short /a/ words that you already taught. 

You should model this first so your students know what to do with the oddball words that don’t belong. Show them that you decoded the words and identified the two short /e/ categories. However, you found a short /a/ word in the sort that doesn’t belong in either category! You can see this below:

When students go ahead and do their sorts, they can put the oddball words to the side and explain to you why it doesn’t belong with the rest of the short /e/ words. This is a great way to review old sounds and skills, but also have students really look closely at the words/images and think about how they are alike and not alike.


There you have three simple ideas/tips to think about and try with your own students! I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you would like to see some other phonics-related posts, check these out:

Literacy Interventions for K-2

How to Teach Letter Names and Sounds

3 Mistakes Teachers Make when Teaching Phonics


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