Capitalize on Students’ Natural Sorting Abilities to Enhance Their Learning

Young students have a natural desire to create order and make sense of the world around them. They naturally notice similarities and differences. For example, if you get a new haircut or make a change to the arrangement in the classroom they will notice! They have a need to bring some sense of organization to their world, so why not use this innate sense of order to enhance their learning with sorting activities?

How to Capitalize on Students' Natural Sorting Abilities to Enhance Their Learning

The Many Benefits of Sorting Activities

Sorting is when students arrange 2 or more objects into groups by particular attributes.

Sorting is classified under the algebra strand of the math disciplines / standards and it helps students develop algebraic thinking and to understand math better. However, sorting is not only important to understanding math better, it is also an important skill to science (comparing & contrasting results of an experiment, analyzing, etc.), reading (noticing the differences in the letters and in words), and life skills (putting away their toys, organizing their desk, helping to empty the dishwasher at home).

Sorting objects into groups helps teach young children about relationships and attributes, that things can be categorized.

It helps them to compare and better recognize differences.

Sorting requires and develops logical thinking and problem-solving skills. When students understand and explain the relationships between the groups, they are also using and developing their analytical thinking.

It shows them how rules apply to sets and helps train their brains to create organized thoughts and ways of retrieving information.

Ways to Use Sorting to Enhance Learning

Children need practice in both sorting objects into groups AND looking at groups of objects that have already been sorted and figuring out how they are sorted.

There are a large number of ways to use sorting in the classroom. Students can sort any kind of manipulative by color, shape, size, etc. I am going to focus on the sorting activities I use to teach particular skills (colors, letters, letter sounds, shapes) but they can be applied to a number of other skills as well.

One of the first sorting activities we do is to sort by color (which also helps with learning the colors and the color words). I like to give students a visual to look at when we are first learning our colors and color words, so I use our color posters. I simply put out cut-up tissue squares or pom-poms and have students sort them onto the correct color poster. Using the posters helps students to connect the written word with the color and real-world objects. To add some fine-motor skill development, I place a clothespin in the pom-poms and have students use the clothespin to sort the pom-poms onto the correct poster.

color sorting activity using paper and color posters

If you do not have color posters, you can simply write color words in circles and have students sort the pom-poms to the correct circles.

color words sorting activity

Sorting trays are wonderful to use for practice! Here are a few examples of how I have used them – sorting by color and sorting flower parts (science).

parts of a flower activity - flower dissection

Sorting is a great activity to use when teaching shapes because it really helps students focus on the attributes of each shape and notice the differences between shapes.

I like to use pictures of real-world objects to help students relate shapes to the real world and help them make the connection between sorting and their environment.

First, we do a whole group pocket chart sorting activity where they sort between what is a particular shape and what is not a particular shape. In the example we are sorting between what objects are a square and what objects are not a square.

sorting activity using shapes

Then we move on to sorting objects between 2 particular shapes. For example, between square objects and rectangle objects.

shape sort activity

After whole group instruction, the students do individual sorting activities using sorting mats.

I also like to use digital sorting practice because it gives students the extra practice needed to master the skill, it’s self-checking so they get immediate feedback, and it’s engaging and fun (they love it!).

It is also important to let students sort objects or pictures on their own and let them define the attributes as long as they are able to logically explain how and why they sorted the objects in a certain way. This not only helps promote problem-solving and logical thinking skills, but also helps develop language and speaking skills as well. For example, a student might sort shape pictures by rounded shapes and straight edge shapes.

sorting activity

Sorting activities are very helpful when teaching letter recognition because students learn to recognize the differences between the letters and compare and contrast the letters.

There are a number of ways to use letter sorts. Students can sort letters into uppercase and lowercase, sort letters into vowels and consonants, sort them into tall (letters that touch both the top and bottom line), small (letters that touch the middle and bottom line), and fall (letters that fall below the line) or into straight, curved, and diagonal. Magnetic letters are great to use for sorting, alphabet blocks also work well, alphabet posters or cards can be used, or students can write the letters.

letter sorting activity with cards

I also like to use sorting activities when teaching letter sounds and beginning sounds because they really help students focus on, listen to, and distinguish between the different letter sounds.

I do them similar in nature to the shape sorts so that students are already familiar with them. We start with whole group instruction where we first sort pictures according to “starts with the sound” or “does not start with the sound” and then move on to distinguishing between two beginning sounds.

After whole group instruction, we do similar sorting activities individually and in small groups using sorting mats and self-checking digital practice.

letter sounds sort digital self-checking Boom Cards

Like I stated earlier, it is not only important that students are able to sort objects but also look at a group of objects that are already sorted and figure out how they are sorted. I will show students a group of sorted objects and either have them orally explain how they think they are sorted or put the correct heading card on each set.

sorting activity
sort activity

Click here to find a number of different sorting activities to use in your classroom.

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