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T.51 Three-Pile Sorting

Three-Pile Sorting is a participatory activity using pictures to stimulate discussion and to explore attitudes, practices and local knowledge concerning hygiene practices.

Three-Pile Sorting is done with small groups of people (6-10), using picture cards related to hygiene practices and relevant to the context (a minimum of 20 is effective). There are generic pictures available but photos or drawings by a local artist can also be used. It needs a trained facilitator. The aim is not to test knowledge but to promote discussion and enable the facilitator to understand the context and how people perceive hygiene practices. The facilitator observes and listens to the discussion as the group goes through the cards, learning about the group’s behaviours and beliefs. They can then facilitate a discussion, questioning any misconceptions about hygiene behaviour and motivating people to take action. The activity is explained to the group and they are given a set of cards to assign to a specific pile. The three piles are usually good, bad and in-between but could be sorted into different categories e.g. men, women, children. It is useful to listen to the discussion without intervening but the facilitator should be aware that their presence could inhibit discussion. Once the cards have been sorted, the facilitator leads a discussion, asking why a card has been placed in a particular pile. For example, if the group considers handwashing with soap a good practice, the facilitator can ask if there is anything stopping them from washing their hands or what can be done to encourage that practice. The process helps to establish a dialogue on local knowledge and practices, potential problems and context-specific solutions. The discussion should be documented and notes should be made on key practices, beliefs, issues and solutions.


Three-Pile Sorting can be used in all response phases, in a variety of contexts and with different groups of people for an assessment or, used repeatedly, for Monitoring M.2. It is a useful tool for discussing sensitive topics, such as latrine use, gender issues or vulnerabilities to violence.


  • Check that participants understand the pictures by showing them examples 

  • Ensure that people understand it is not a test of knowledge, but a way of promoting a discussion (there are no right or wrong piles of cards)

  • Allow group members to challenge each other and discuss among themselves


  • Do not interfere with the discussion to direct the sorting of cards or embarrass group members who have different views 

  • Do not invite an unmanageably large group 

  • Do not use photographs of the local context that reveal the identity of specific individuals

Practical Example

During the planning of a WASH response in a refugee camp in Uganda, Three-Pile Sorting was done with different groups of people (men, women, adolescents and different ethnic groups). The discussion highlighted points that had not been considered, e.g. women not wanting to use the same latrine as their father-in-law. It also revealed that they knew about the benefits of handwashing, but the water supply was frequently inadequate. In conjunction with other participatory methods, e.g. Focus Group Discussions T.14, the programme’s hygiene behaviour objectives were agreed. The key discussion points were documented for use by new staff.

Key Decision Critria

Response Phase
Acute Response
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Protracted Crisis
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HP Component
Preconditions and Enabling Environment
Community Engagement and Participation
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Assessment, Analysis and Planning
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Social and Behaviour Change
Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL)
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Target Group
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Older People
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Persons with Disabilities
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Local Leaders
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Society as a whole
Application Level
Individual / Household
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Community / Municipality
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Explanation card and picture cards, divided by continents

Ferron, S., Morgan, J. et al. (2007): Hygiene Promotion. A Practical Manual for Relief and Development, Practical Action Publishing. ISBN: 978-1853396410

Detail description of Three-Pile Sorting and how it can be used

IFRC (2018): Three-Pile Sorting (Good and Bad Behaviours) Instructions. IFRC Standard HP-Box Tools

CAWST (2009): Three Pile Sorting Instructions. WASH Education and Training Resources

Adapting Three-Pile Sorting to discuss reducing vulnerabilities to violence

House, S., Ferron, S. et al. (2014): Violence, Gender and WASH. A Practitioner’s Toolkit. Toolset 4-G Methodologies for Working With Communities. Three-Pile Sorting, SHARE

Session plan for training community mobilisers (incl. for Three-Pile Sorting)

GWC (2009): Hygiene Promotion Training Package. Training for Community Mobilisers