Learn what works

According to Bear and colleagues (2007), the purpose of word study is “to examine words in order to reveal consistencies within our written language system and to help students master the recognition, spelling, and meaning of specific words”.

Word study identifies the unique characteristics of the English language while looking for meaningful patterns and connections to support students’ understandings of words. During word study, students are actively involved in manipulating letters, sounds, and words during classroom activities such as shared writing, shared reading, word gathering, and poetry study.

Word study activities take place in a variety of settings. These activities can take place during whole-group or small-group instruction. It may also occur during individual reading and writing as the teacher provides instruction needed to help the child be successful. Activities should be based on observations and assessments of students’ needs. Activities should also build on children’s interest in words as they generate charts of related words, create new additions to their word study notebooks, or read thematic collections of books looking for words about a particular topic. Word study activities use a variety of materials, including slates for writing, chart paper and markers for creating class charts, word cards for sorting words in a pocket chart, and sentence strips to create sentences to cut-up and reassemble.

Name Charts

A chart of all of the students’ names in alphabetical order can be used at the beginning of the year. This chart will be a good reference when talking about letters and sounds. Students can use the name chart as a reference when writing. They may also use it to study more complex phonics concepts such as blends or digraphs.

Word Families: Teaching Onsets and Rimes

After initial letters and sounds are introduced, students’ attention can be directed to how to construct the remainder of the word. Teaching children that many words contain easily identifiable “chunks” or rimes allows children to make an important discovery:  they can search for and locate these rimes on their own, which puts them on their way toward becoming proficient readers. Rimes are a productive approach to phonics instruction (Rasinski & Padak, 2001). Since rimes consist of several letters, decoding by rime enables the reader to dissect a word several letters at a time, or in “chunks”. This is often easier than analyzing individual letters one at a time. In addition, rimes are reliable and generalizable, which makes them an appealing approach for teaching vowel sounds and for word-solving as well (Blevins, 2006). Another benefit of onset/rime instruction is that a great number of words can be generated from a relatively short list of phonograms.

Letter and Word Sorts

Students are able to learn letters and words by manipulating them. Pocket charts or word and letter holders enable students to group and regroup letters, words, or even groups of words. Students can move magnetic letters on a cookie sheet to create many new words or place letters on the overhead projector so others can see their work. They can also use letters made of foam, plastic, or wood to manipulate, organize, and create new and related words. Students can record the words in their word study notebook or personal dictionary to keep as a resource.

During word sorting, students arrange and rearrange words as they think about connections between groups of words. Sorts can be teacher-directed or student-directed in large group, small group or individual learning. Students can sort words for different purposes:

  • Word features, including initial sounds, patterns, vowel sounds, and number of letters
  • Words connected by meaning
  • Words that are specific parts of speech (nouns, verbs, prepositions)

Sorts can be recorded in word study notebooks and shared in small or large groups.

Teachers may organize more focused sorts based on the needs of a particular group of students. For instance, teachers may need to use picture cards rather than word cards when sorting with a particular group. The pictures may represent words which begin with two different sounds. Sorts may also focus on words rather than beginning sounds.

Pocket charts can be helpful for sorting words and phrases into sentences. It encourages students to create new meanings with different combinations. Students can also sort messed up words and phrases from familiar nursery rhymes or poems to reassemble the poem and check their work with the chart poem nearby.

Word Building

Word Building supports decoding and word recognition by giving students opportunities to experience and discriminate the effects on a word of changing one letter. It requires students to focus attention on every letter that makes up a word.

Word Walls

Word walls are a helpful learning tool for organizing words students are learning to read and write. Each letter of the alphabet should be displayed on the wall, leaving room below to add words as the students are learning them. Students can use the word wall as a resource when reading and writing independently.

Another way for students to collect, sort, and refer to new and related words is through the use of student dictionaries. Words that are added to the word wall can also be recorded in the students’ dictionaries in order for students to have access to the words at all times. The student dictionary could be a notebook or sheets of paper stapled together. Spaces to write new words in alphabetical order are included.

See how it works

Most Common Rimes
Strategies to Develop Phonics Skills
Blending Activities
Word Wall Activities
Using Rimes to Decode by Analogy
White Board Word Families
Cut-up Sentences
Sample Planning Guide (1st grade, -am family)
Sample Planning Guide (1st grade: making words, sorting words)
Sample Planning Guide (2nd grade: word wall detective)

Check out this DVD, Every Child Reads Unit 6: Phonics, from the Central Rivers AEA lending library to see demonstrations of phonics lessons.

Do what works

Planning Template (Word Study)


  • Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Johnston, F., & Templeton, S. 2000. Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary and Spelling Instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
  • Beck, I. 2006. Making Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Whys. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Fountas, I. C. & Pinnell, G. S. 1998. Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Literacy Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Fountas, I. C. & Pinnell, G. S. 1999. Voices on Word Matters: Learning about Phonics and Spelling in the Literacy Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Ganske, K. 2000. Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford Publications.