Math Sorting Activity Ideas for 1st, 2nd and 3rd Grade Teachers

You might think that math sorting activities are just for kindergarten students, but they are actually a very powerful instructional tool that can be used as a way to introduce, reinforce, or assess a grade level concept in grades 1-5 as well. A great way to implement a math sorting activity in your elementary classroom is through concept sorts, which lend themselves to all content areas, but this post will focus primarily on math. Concept sorts, a favorite math sorting activity of mine, are highly engaging math sorting activities for kids that are a student favorite year after year!

four students working together in class

In this blog post, you’ll get the answers to the following questions:

  • What is sorting?
  • Why is sorting in math important?
  • How do I teach sorting?
  • How can I use sorting activities in my classroom?
  • What are some things I should know before implementing a sorting activity?
  • What are concept sorts?
  • Are there different types of math sorts?
  • Why should I implement concept sorts in my classroom?
math sorting activities in a math center with scissors and glue

What is Sorting in Math?

Sorting in math is the concept of arranging items into groups in a systematic way. This process allows us to better understand and analyze the items. In math, we can sort items in many different ways (e.g. shape, length, number of sides, value or a digit, and much much more.)

What is the Importance of Sorting?

Sorting is important because it helps us make sense of the items we are using. For example, having a pile of colored tiles in front of you can feel overwhelming. It may be difficult to answer questions about the tiles if they are not organized. Sorting the tiles by color will help you answer questions like, “How many red tiles are there?” and “Which color tile has the most tiles?” Organizing the information in a systematic way helps with making sense of the data and answering questions about it.

math sorting activities in an elementary classroom

How do you Teach Sorting?

My favorite way to teach sorting is through a sorting activity called math concept sorts. Introduce these math sorts to the whole group by picking one sort and modeling how to complete it by thinking aloud. This ensures that all students get to see how it works and what the expectations are with regards to completing the sorting task. This experience will prepare them for when they work on sorting activities and sorting worksheets independently or with a partner during guided math workshops. You can learn more about concept sorts below!

elementary students doing math sorting on the computer

Ideas for Using Math Sorting Activities in Your Classroom

A math sorting activity (like a concept sort) can be used as an instructional tool to make predictions about a topic or concept, activate schema, connect ideas, and encourage discussion between students.  In addition, it can be used to practice, reinforce, and review a concept. Lastly, it can be used as a formative assessment tool to assess background knowledge and to check for understanding.

elementary math sorting activities

5 Tips for Using Sorting Activities in Math

When implementing a math sorting activity, consider doing the following:

  1. Encourage students to support their reasoning for categorizing and sorting. This blog post goes into depth about the importance of teaching reasoning at the elementary level.
  2. Have students collaborate either during or after the experience.
  3. Celebrate all of the different ways that students sorted and emphasize that there is no one right answer.
  4. Model and go through a gradual release so the students understand the routine.
  5. Circulate and support students by asking guiding questions.
elementary math resource collection button

What are Concept Sorts?

A concept sort is a sorting activity where students sort objects, pictures, and words into categories by an attribute they share.  The teacher can either provide the categories ahead of time (closed concept sort) or invite students to create their own (open concept sort).

The purpose of this activity is for students to build vocabulary skills, develop critical-thinking and communication skills, and understand the concept of sorting.

You can implement this activity through whole groups, small groups, with partners, or independently. You can even use it as a formative assessment to determine prior knowledge or to check for understanding.

Concept sorts are different from word sorts in reading because they are not limited to words and pictures organized by patterns and sounds.  Concept sorts can incorporate objects, too.

math sort activities in a math center with scissors and glue


1st grade math sorting activities worksheets for math centers2nd grade math sorting activities worksheets for math centers3rd grade math sorting activities worksheets for math centers
Click on Your Grade Level

Types of Sorts in Math

There are two types of math sorts: open and closed.  Both types of sorts are valuable tools for elementary teachers and provide different data points.

Open Sort

An open sort is when students create their own categories.  The teacher only gives students the objects, pictures, or words they need.

Closed Sort

A closed sort is when you give your students the categories.  The students need to decide which category the objects, pictures, or words go in.

1st 2nd and 3rd graders sorting math card games

What are the Benefits of Using Concept Sorts in Math?

There are many benefits to using math sorting activities for kids, including that they…

  • supply students with rich opportunities to practice and discuss vocabulary
  • contribute to stronger critical thinking skills among students
  • provide students the opportunity to strengthen communication skills
  • strengthen students’ sorting skills, which is a mathematical process
  • prepare students for related content by lessening the load of learning new vocabulary in tandem to new concepts and skills
  • give feedback to teachers about students’ prior knowledge and current level of understanding

Check out my math concept sort resources!

Concept sort activities make learning fun for students! Kids love math concept sorts! After reading the blog post, make sure you grab sorting products that are aligned to the math Common core state standards. They make a great math center! #sorting #sortingactivity #conceptualunderstanding #elementarymath

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