Card sorts are exactly what they sound like, an activity where students sort cards with vocabulary or images into categories. But they can be so much more! After all the planning, printing, and cutting out, you will want to ensure that your card sort is not a unitasker. This post includes ways to make card sorts hard-working multitaskers in your classroom.
I want this post to take the humble card sort from egg cuber to an all-purpose kitchen knife. One of these is a novelty that comes out once or twice a year, while the other is a fixture in your daily work. If you only use a card sort once a year, find out how to get more bank for your buck. Seriously, printing and laminating can be expensive.
Check out this companion post if you want more information about how to make your own card sorts.
The Good Old-Fashioned Sort
I had to start with the original card sort! Ask students to put the category cards at the top of the desk or table. Then ask students to sort the rest of the terms, ideas, or images into categories.
Alternatively, only provide students with the cards to be sorted. Students can then determine their own categories or method for sorting the terms.
There are a variety of scenarios where students will benefit from being provided with the choice to do card sorts independently.
If you are doing a series of stations to teach a concept, project-based, or student-paced lessons, a card sort (with a key!) is a great addition. It is a concrete way for students to assess their own understanding, gauge their progress, and provide them with feedback.
Make sure to provide students with a key so that they can check their progress and instruct them to take a picture of the card sort completed correctly. Additionally, provide students with clear feedback and ideas for reviewing. If students mixed up certain terms or pictures, direct them to focus their time on a certain station in your line up or to seek out a supplementary activity or video.
Change up exit tickets and multiple choice formative assessments by doing card sorts instead.
- At the beginning of class, use a card sort to evaluate prior knowledge or student understanding based on the previous lesson to inform instruction.
- In the middle of a class, hand out cards to evaluate current understanding. After walking around to see their card sorts, you can immediately review misconceptions or provide small group intervention. Ask students to keep the card sorts on their desks and make corrections after the intervention.
- At the end of class, avoid handing out another exit ticket, and ask students to do a card sort instead. You can walk around to review their answers or have them submit pictures so that you can review them at a later time.
Modification or Accommodation
We often ask students to write evidence-based responses about concepts that can be categorized or ranked. Earth Science examples include…
- Types of Fronts: What is the difference between a warm and cold front? How do you know what type of front is present in this location?
- Seismic Waves: What is the difference between P-waves and S-waves? How can you use seismic waves to determine the location of an earthquake?
- Solar System Objects: What is the difference between planets and dwarf planets? Is Pluto a planet? How would we classify a comet?
Card sorts can serve as a multi-step writing support for students who are learning English or those with special needs related to writing, executive functioning, or processing speed. Evidence-based writing requires students to sift through information, decide what should be in the response, and then actually write the response.
A card sort can make the first two steps of this process more streamlined and concrete. I prefer card sorts to graphic organizers because they require less writing and mental fatigue while still requiring processing.
First, ask students to complete the card sort. Then review the question and ask students to pull out only the parts of the card sort required to answer the question. Students can then construct their response using the information they have collected in the card sort. If you are working with students who prefer oral responses, the card sort can also provide a great visual aid to drive that conversation as you assess their learning.
El Niño Modification Example
In the El Niño demonstration featured below, students make observations to collect information about El Niño, La Niña, and normal conditions in the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the activity, students are asked to make a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast these three scenarios. The included card sort supports students by providing the language to use for the Venn Diagram. Students still have to choose the where the information goes on the Venn Diagram, but allows them to focus on comparing and contrasting.
An interactive demonstration of normal conditions in the Pacific Ocean and El Niño and La Niña. This includes a card sort to help students compare and contrast normal conditions, El Niño, and La Niña using a Venn Diagram.
If you make each card sort within a unit a different color, you can mix the sets together and ask students to create a mind map or web of their learning from the unit. While the initial process of making a mind map is deciding what to put on the map, the beauty of it is that students make connections between ideas.
Using the card sort cuts down on the time students spend recalling low-level knowledge and allows them to focus on the connections between terms and ideas. If you are using desks with a light-colored surface, students can draw arrows or links between concepts with regular whiteboard markers. If you are in a science classroom with lab tables, I would recommend using Neon Expo markers. They show up well on the dark surface and wipe clean with wet paper towels.
Get Creative with Your Content
The ideas above can apply to any card sort in any content area. However, only you know how to take a card sort to a new level in your content area.
In science, I often think about card sorts when students are asked to sort samples or specimens. In the Mineral Properties Card and Sample Sort below, there are two parts to the sort. The first part is a more traditional card sort where students categorize mineral properties. For example, earthy, metal, and glossy are all examples of luster, the way light interacts with the mineral.
Students can also use the card sort to sort actual mineral samples. Most Earth Science teachers have mineral samples in their classroom and students need practice identifying properties of each mineral. In the images below, students sort minerals based on how they break. Quartz breaks through fracture, while calcite and pyrite have cleavage.
40 cards to engage students in practice and review mineral properties, terms used to identify mineral properties, and how to identify properties for actual mineral samples.
I’d like to hear your ideas about card sorts in the comments!
- What do you think about card sorts? Are they a passing fad or a solid instructional strategy?
- Do you use card sorts in your classroom? Share the card sorts you use (with links if possible) and how you use them!