So you want to start a word study program…

The first chapter of Words Their Way (Bear et. al.) sets the purpose for word study: Children need hands-on experience examining and categorizing words by sounds, spelling patterns, and meaning in order to develop their decoding skills, spelling, and vocabulary.

Effective word study is data-driven, differentiated, systematic, and well-organized. Below is some practical advice taken from chapters two and three of Words Their Way:

  • Before beginning instruction, teachers must determine their students’ instructional levels. This can be done through informal observations or via a spelling test that includes words from various stages of development. By examining data from each student, teachers can place them into “buckets” to differentiate instruction based on the various features they need to study (e.g. letters and sounds, spelling patterns, affixes).download
  • The Words Their Way method of word study centers on “sorts,” that task students with categorizing words by feature or meaning. There are four primary levels of sorting that vary based on student independence. The first two are best for novice sorters or introducing new features; the second two levels are geared towards experienced sorters or assessment.Teacher-directed closed sort: The teacher models sorting two or three words while explaining why each word fits into its particular category. Then, students work as a group to finish the sort.
    • Teacher-directed ‘guess my category:’ The teacher models sorting a few words without explaining the pattern. Next, students work together to determine the categories and finish the sort.
    • Student-centered closed sort: Students are given categories and work to sort a set of words independently.
    • Student-centered open sort: Students work independently to determine the categories and sort their words by pattern.
  • Words Their Way recommends focusing on one sort per week. A routine of consistent activities helps minimize time spent on planning or giving students directions. Here is a sample schedule for upper elementary:
    • Monday: Introduce sort and have students sort independently.
    • Tuesday: Have students resort words and write a list of their words organized by categories. Then, have them complete a “speed sort” by sorting their words as quickly as possible.
    • Wednesday: Have students complete a “blind sort” with a buddy. One partner reads words aloud without showing the card while the other picks the correct category. Then, partners swap roles.
    • Thursday: Have students complete a second speed sort. Then, have them go on a “word hunt.” Students look through texts to find words that are examples of the pattern they are studying. They add these words to their written sorts.
    • Friday: Assess students’ knowledge through an independent sort or a spelling test.

I use sorts as the primary word work activity in my kindergarten classroom. Here are a few tips from personal experience:

  • If you teach young students, precut their sorts and put the cards in baggies for each student. This is a total pain, but it’s less frustrating than watching them spend all of the first day cutting their own sorts.
  • Find opportunities to integrate the word patterns students are learning into other parts of the day. For example, I try to find guided reading books that match the features students are studying so they can apply their decoding skills in context. If your school has Reading A-Z, you can download books that are categorized by phonics patterns.
  • Give students opportunities to practice using their words in writing. This can be as simple as having them write sentences or a story that includes their words.
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