The importance of incorporating a daily word study routine into your teaching schedule cannot be overstated. In contrast to designing activities that require drill and memorization, word study encourages students to actively analyze spelling patterns and letter-sound relationships. During word study, students sort words and pictures according to similar speech sounds, spelling patterns, and meaning. Sharon Taberski’s On Solid Ground: Strategies for Teaching Reading K-3 (2000) advocates using word study groups to focus children’s attention to the phonetic, structural, and morphemic features of our language, contending that word study experiences allow students to learn about the rules and generalizations of our language through hands-on experiences (pg. 118). Instead of studying words individually, word study allows students to pay closer attention to spelling patterns, and the sounds associated with those patterns, to “unlock” numerous other words that contain similar spelling patterns. According to Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (2012), “Students need hands-on opportunities to manipulate word features in ways that allow them to generalize beyond isolated, individual examples to entire groups of words that are spelled the same way” (Bear et al., pg. 3). For example, if a student is able to separate the onset and rime of the word sat, then the student can also use his or her knowledge of consonant sounds to blend the onsets and rimes of the words pat, cat, hat, and so on (i.e., words associated with the at word family).
When completing sorting activities, students can sort by length, shared letters, common sounds, or similar spelling patterns; similarly, advanced readers can sort words by their syntactic or morphemic features. Looking at spelling patterns, for example, students can sort words into word families (cat, sat, pat versus tan, can, pan) or by vowel patterns (wait, mail, pain verses hear, near, year). Along with sorting activities, students can engage in activities that allow them to manipulate the sounds of words. When I was completing my field experience last semester at West Park Elementary in Ravenna, Ohio, I tutored a kindergarten student who was a struggling reader. Using Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction as a guide, I decided that this particular student would benefit from working with word families. He constantly struggled with segmenting the onsets and rimes of CVC words and needed extra help in isolating the middle vowel sound. To provide the support he needed, I constructed word family wheels (see photograph below), targeting the at, ot, ut, and it word families. As he turned the wheel, the initial consonant changed, presenting a new word to be blended. With each new word, he also practiced sounding out the middle vowel sound. These word wheels allow children to use what they know to read new words. As Sharon Taberski explains, “Children’s reading ‘takes off’ as they realize that they can use what they know to learn new things” (pg. 116). As educators, we have a responsibility to help students develop reading strategies that make sense and can be used to solve problems during independent reading.