10 Effective Word Sort Techniques

Hands-On Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Practice


10 Word Study Activities for Your K-5 Classroom

How many different ways can you word sort?

Word study is an effective, engaging way to build students’ phonics, spelling, and vocabulary skills. One of the most powerful word study techniques is the word sort, which actively engages students in exploring, comparing, and categorizing word patterns and relationships. Word sorts can be done as fun, hands-on activities using print resources or as interactive online practice using digital materials.

At the heart of every word sort is the same process:

  • First, students identify the meaning and properties of each word, sound, or picture.
  • Second, students sort the words (or sounds or pictures) into collections with similar features. Words may be sorted by meaning, sounds, spelling pattern, or other properties.

This process is key because it moves students beyond rote memorization: it turns them into word detectives who organize, analyze, and compare words and their features. Students are encouraged to think deeply about the sounds and letters that form each word, helping to strengthen their phonics and spelling skills.

In addition, the word sort process links students’ prior knowledge to the new vocabulary they learn and use as they sort words, building their word knowledge.

As a result, word study — and word sorts in particular — can be a great way to reinforce and extend phonics and vocabulary skills, two key elements of the Science of Reading.

Open Word Sorts and Closed Word Sorts

All word sorts can be organized into two broad categories: closed and open.

  • In a closed word sort, the categories (and the specific features of each) are provided at the start of the activity. Students then students match the words with the features to create the word collections.
  • In an open word sort, only the list of words is provided. Students then work together to discern the common features and describe the categories for collecting the word groups.

10 Ways to Word Sort

Ready to implement word sorts in your classroom? Here are 10 of our favorite word sorting activities to get you started!

1. Classic

Best for: All reading/spelling levels

Students must master the basics of word sorts before they can move on to more complex word sorting techniques. That’s why it’s best to start with the “classic” word sort. This teacher-directed, closed sort can be done as a hands-on activity with word cards or as an interactive, digital exercise with click-and-drag words. This word sort can also be done with picture cards, or a mix of picture and word cards.

Start by reading through the words. Be sure to explain the meaning of each, and provide examples if students are unfamiliar with any terms. Then, introduce each sorting category with a header and an example word that belongs in that category. Clearly describe the features students should look for, then demonstrate the sort and explain why each word belongs in a particular category.

In order to achieve automaticity in word recognition, students should do the sort many times. Once students are confident in their sorting abilities, they can move on to other types of word sorts.

Free Printable! Word Families -op, -ot, -og

Download this free printable PDF. Students can cut apart the word and picture cards, then sort them according to their word families. Want more? Download the full lesson here.

2. Speed

Best for: All reading/spelling levels

Speed sorts are a great way to build fluency and automaticity! In a speed sort, students are encouraged to complete the word sort as quickly as possible.

Some teachers do speed sorts as a quick, whole-class activity by displaying a timer or simply calling the seconds aloud from the classroom clock. Students set up their headers and then shuffle the rest of their word cards. When the teacher says “go,” everyone begins to sort using their own set of words. As they finish, students record their times.

Once all students have completed their sorts, the teacher can then go through the word sort to check for accuracy. The speed sort may be repeated immediately, as well as on other days, so students can attempt to beat their own times. (Remember to have students focus on improving on their own times, and not make this a competitive activity amongst the whole class, which can discourage some students.)

Another way to practice speed sorts is by pairing students together. One student sorts while the other student times, then the students swap roles.

3. Buddy

Best for: All reading/spelling levels

In a buddy sort, students work in pairs on a word sort. This is a great way to encourage students to talk about their thinking process and discuss different word features.

Buddy sorts can take place in tandem (side-by-side with two sets of word cards) or alternating turns (with a single set of word cards).

Students should complete the sort, then read the words or name the pictures in each column to check the sort. If there are questions or disagreements, students should take time to explain the reasoning behind their choices. They should also discuss the generalization covered by the sort and how different words and their features demonstrate that generalization.

Buddy sorts can also be done at home with a family member, which is a great way to extend learning beyond the classroom and engage families in their children’s learning.

4. Draw and Label

Best for: Emergent readers & spellers

Drawing and labeling pictures is particularly useful for teaching students who are in the early stages of learning to read and write, such as emergent readers, children who may have an incomplete knowledge of the alphabet, or students who spell words using only a single letter. This activity will direct them to think about and identify the sounds in a word, such as initial consonant sounds.

For an initial consonant sound draw-and-label sort, start by providing paper divided into columns headed by a key letter and/or picture, with each column divided into boxes. Students should then brainstorm other words that start with the same sounds. Have students illustrate the new word in a box under the appropriate key letter and/or picture, then label the picture. Encourage students to spell words as best they can, especially for longer or more complex words.

Free Printable! Draw and Label Rr and Ss

Download this free printable PDF. Students can draw words that start with the Rr and Ss sounds on this worksheet. Get the complete, step-by-step lesson plan here.

5. Cut and Paste

Best for: Emergent readers & spellers

The cut-and-paste sort is a variation of the draw-and-label sort. Think of it a bit like a word hunt using pictures instead of words!

In this activity, students look through print materials — such as old catalogs, magazines, and newspapers, or print-outs or photocopies of decodable readers or library books — for pictures beginning with a certain sound, and then cut out the pictures and paste them in the appropriate column. As a final step, students will label the pictures, spelling each word as best they can.

This activity is especially appropriate for students in early developmental spelling stages, who are still learning to identify initial, medial, and final sounds.

6. Blind

Best for: Students with intermediate to advanced phonics skills

The “blind” sort requires students to practice sorting words without seeing them in writing.

One way to do this is as a whole-class activity. First, establish categories using headers or key words to exemplify the generalization students will be practicing. Give each student a set of cards with the sorting categories (one card per category). Then read each word aloud one at a time. After each word, students should hold up the card with the corresponding sorting category. Check and correct student responses before moving on to the next word.

Another way is to do a blind buddy sort. Again, start by establishing categories using headers or key words.

Next, group students in pairs and give each pair a set of word cards. One partner should shuffle the word cards, then call each word aloud without showing it. The other partner should indicate the correct category by pointing at it or naming the header/key word. Their partner should immediately check their response by revealing the printed word and putting the word card in the correct place.

Partners can work together by taking turns either reading the words or indicating where they should go.

This can be a more challenging activity for students, so be sure to model how to do a blind sort as a group activity before expecting students to work together productively.

7. Writing

Best for: Students with intermediate to advanced phonics skills

Writing sorts are ideal for practicing handwriting and spelling!

There are several different ways to do a writing sort.

One option is similar to a classic word sort. First, start by establishing the sorting categories with key words or headers. Next, provide each student with a set of picture cards or word cards. Students should arrange the cards face-down. One at a time, students should turn over a card and write the word in the appropriate category.

Writing words into categories demands that students pay attention to the sounds or patterns of letters in each word, and then think deeply about how those characteristics correspond to the pattern established by the key word or header.

Another option is to provide a word bank and a list of fill-in-the-blank sentences. You can add an extra challenge to this activity by requiring students to transform words before writing them down, such as adding a -y, -ly, or -ily suffix to create an adjective or adverb.

Free Printable! Writing Word Sort with Suffixes

Download this free printable PDF. Students complete this fill-in-the-blank writing sort by turning nouns or adjectives into adjectives or adverbs by adding an -y, -ly, or -ily suffix. Want to give students a refresher on how these suffixes work? Download the complete lesson plan.

8. Blind Writing

Best for: Students with intermediate to advanced phonics skill

This is a more challenging version of the writing sort.

Start by establishing categories using key words or headers. Then read your list one word at a time. Have students write each word in the correct category before seeing the word.

This type of sort requires students to rely on the sound they hear in the word, as well as their memory for the letters associated with it as cued by the key word/header. This sort is important for students who may rely too heavily on visual patterns and would benefit from paying more attention to sounds.

Blind writing sorts can also help identify what words need more attention and can serve as a pretest for a final assessment. When done with a buddy or for homework, they’re a good way to help students prepare for a weekly test. They’re also an instructionally sound way to construct spelling tests, where key words or headers are provided and then students write and sort the words as they’re called.

9. Word Hunts

Best for: Students with intermediate to advanced phonics skills

Although this isn’t a true word sort, word hunts support word study similar to a word sort. This activity is best for students who have started to read independently.

Word hunts help students see the connection between the words they study for spelling and the words they see in their reading materials. In a word hunt, students hunt through books they’ve already read for words that are additional examples of the sound, pattern, or meaning unit they’re studying.

Before students are expected to do word hunts, model the activity. Word hunts can be conducted in small groups, with partners, or individually for seatwork or homework.

10. Brainstorming

Best for: Students with intermediate to advanced phonics skills

Brainstorming is like a word hunt through students’ own memory!

There are lots of different ways to do word brainstorming activities. For example, you could ask students for more words that rhyme with cat, words that describe people ending in -er, or words that have spir as a root.

Brainstorming can also be used to introduce a sort by asking students for words that have particular sounds, patterns, or roots, then writing them on the board. The words can be written in categories as they’re given, or categories can be determined by class discussion.

For example, you could ask students to think of as many words as possible that are spelled with oo, such as good, soon, cook, fool, hoop, root, foot, wood, too, zoo, moon, poor, and floor. Then students could organize these words into categories according to their pronunciation.

Free Printable! Word Sort with oo

Download this free printable PDF. Have students brainstorm words spelled with oo or use the provided word cards, then have students categorize the words according to their pronunciation. For ideas on how to differentiate or extend to meet students’ learning needs, download the full step-by-step lesson.

Ready-to-Use Word Sort Lessons, Games, & More!

Building your own word sorts can be a challenging, time-consuming activity, especially if you have students at very different skill levels in the same classroom.

With Words Their Way® Classroom, you’ll get hundreds of word sorts carefully aligned with students’ developmental spelling stages for personalized phonics, spelling, and vocabulary practice!

Developed by renowned authors Donald Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, Francine Johnston, Shane Templeton, and Lori Helman, Words Their Way Classroom is a K-5 supplemental literacy program that provides step-by-step lesson plans with all the materials needed to deliver fun, effective instruction in just 15-20 minutes per day. The program includes hands-on word sorts, interactive digital resources, fun games, and more to actively engage students in building word knowledge.

Best of all, you can now get free access to the online edition of Words Their Way Classroom!

Sign up today for 30 days of digital access to the full Implementation Guide, the Teacher Resource Guide, printable Word Study Notebooks, the digital edition of the Big Book of Rhymes, Classroom Library Books with built-in audio support, interactive word sorts, printable word games, and more.


Teaching Tools and Resources

The 4 Principles of Word Study

Learn why word study instruction is most effective when it’s integrated, developmental, explicit, and experiential.

50 Fun Phonics Activities

Forget boring and repetitive phonics practice! These 50 activities will get students excited and engaged as they practice essential phonics skills.

The Science of Reading & Vocabulary

Why is vocabulary essential to comprehension, and what does vocabulary instruction look like in action? Here’s what the Science of Reading says.