Inclusive teaching strategies

The return of the card sort 

Ditch the card sort at your peril.

A card sort can be anything from cutting some information up and then piecing it back together to using cards with information and sorting into piles. 

Card sorts get a bad press. Often described as a remnant of the past where teachers spent hours laminating and cutting up pieces of paper. The technique was, in my opinion unfairly blamed as part of the heavy workload culture. Recording behaviour points on SIMs laugh in the face of card sorts knowing that they are currently out of favour. Quizzes for retrieval practice goad the puny card sort from their newly anointed throne describing it as a useless relic of the past to be sent to the dungeons of bad teaching ideas. Direct instruction strides past card sort lying forgotten on the floor sneering ‘just tell em’ before giving the lowly technique a sneaky kick up the arse. Card sorts have been burnt on the pyre of redundant teaching strategies alongside discovery learning. A few will be found in the museum of progressives down in the vaults, archived and collecting dust.

Like Buffy, my intention is to slay the vampires. I have my stake and will attempt to save the classroom from time consuming tech based management systems and literacy based technology quizzes. Let’s bring back the forgotten learning heroes.

Here is why:

When starting a new subject, revising a topic or wanting pupils to think about something more deeply, the card sort is the platinum activity of choice. It can be used in so many different ways and like a speculum, it opens up the closed cavern of the mind to delve around and find out what lies inside, sifting information, categorising, structuring thoughts and sequencing dates. This hard thinking makes learning stick and once the speculum is removed and the mind closed once more, information has been embedded into long term memory or at least given a chance to grow.

How to use 

As a starter activity 

Card sorts can align with new trends such as cognitive load theory. Rather than having to spend time memorising before the learning process begins, the cards can decrease cognitive load by providing dates, formulas and facts which then free up the working memories to think and ordering can begin immediately. It will help to remember details, possibly even speeding up the process as memorising without understanding makes forgetting easy.


A card sort can trigger memories and retrieve information lurking in the long term memory and then allow it to be manipulated. When the information goes back, the memory will be deepened through thinking and narrative making it easier to retrieve the next time. 


Take King Alfred. Create a card sort with key words, phrases, facts and dates. 879, swords, Edington, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Guthrum. Scatter the cards across a table (yes group work) and watch as conversation and thinking takes place. Hear the stories, ‘didn’t he fight the Vikings?’, ‘was it Wessex or Mercia which remained under his rule?’, ‘What’s Mercia?’ ‘You know, before England was formed…’. It can provide a rich source of discussion as well as allowing them to sequence a timeline.


Card sorts are a great way to differentiate. Everyone can access information and achieve using them. Think about keywords for history of black civil rights in America. Sort into positive and negative forces. Topeka case, Malcolm X, Jim Crow, segregation, Rosa Parkes, Martin Luther King, 1954. It’s a really useful task to find out how much your students remember and understand.

A note of caution – please don’t ask high attainers to cut up a poem into 12 strips and put them back in order and then ask the SEND learners to cut it in half and piece together. That’s not differentiation that’s low expectations. Better, if studying a sonnet for example, ask students to cut up the four stanzas and rhyming couplet and then put back in sequence. Or perhaps cut up every line and put back using the rhyme scheme, abab, cdcd, efef, gg. 

Assessing learner knowledge

As teacher you can wander round your group and listen, observe, ask questions and assess. When a class is engaged in card sorts it is a great way for a teacher to stand by and take in the behaviours in a class.


Students can make card sorts meaning a double whammy. Resources made for you to keep while they think about piecing your topic together – win win.


There are other ways which may help students with SEND.

Seeing small amounts of information can prevent feeling overwhelmed. 

It is active learning which can keep learners focused and paying attention. Far preferable to attempting to learn a list of words or dates passively. 

Students who struggle with organisation and sequencing will benefit from sorting. 
Categorisation is always a good way for learners who struggle to learn – it ensures they are linking the learning and remembering in the right place thus helping with transference. 

To quote Mary Myatt the exercise can be high challenge, low threat w as it won’t expose pupils or rush them.

I hope I have made my case to bring back the card sort. Knowledge organisers are popular now so the key pieces of information are there to be used already. I don’t believe it would take too long to prepare a card sort and with students helping you this can be a resource made relatively easily and keep year upon year. 

It is just one strategy however which doesn’t need to be used the whole time but certainly has its place in the classroom toolkit. 


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