How to Approach Word Study in Balanced Literacy Classrooms

Phonics, spelling, vocabulary: effective word study addresses these three components of literacy in the context of developmentally based instruction that explores the connections between sounds and letters in and out of connected text. 

Determining where children fall along the continuum of literacy development will help answer some perplexing questions we often have about young students:

  • Why do some children struggle with phonemic awareness—the isolation and blending of sounds within words?
  • Why do some children struggle to learn sight words? Why do they seem to be able to read a word one day but can’t a day later?
  • Why do some children seem to identify words so easily in context yet struggle to spell those same words?
  • Given that so many of the high-frequency words children learn are irregular, how can I effectively teach them so that the children will learn and retain them?

Developmentally Based Word Study

Developmentally based instruction focuses on what children are attempting to do, not what they cannot do. It targets what they are "using but confusing" and building from there.

For example, many young children struggle with phonemic awareness, and learning the "basics" of the relationship between letters and sounds reveals that they have not yet acquired a concept of word in text. You may determine if a child has developed this concept by asking him or her to “finger-point read” a familiar text—it may be a poem, song lyrics, a classic text such as Mrs. Wishy-Washy.

  • Does the child consistently match up the printed word unit with the spoken phrase that is coming out of her mouth?
  • Or, in reading a sentence such as “‘Oh, lovely mud,” they said,” does she begin at Oh and then simply slide her finger along the line to the end?
  • Or tap on Oh but then get thrown off by the two-syllable word lovely?

If a child does not get thrown off by words of more than one syllable—if he has this concept of word in text—he will be able to benefit from word study that explores all of the sounds within syllables, vowels as well as consonants. Importantly, he will be able to develop a steadily expanding sight word vocabulary. If he does not have this concept, however, he will be challenged by phonics instruction that expects him to identify and manipulate all the sounds within a syllable, and he will have difficulty learning and remembering sight words. You will need to meet such children where they are, and not expect them to be able to blend letters and sounds and begin to learn many sight words—both of which require full phonemic awareness. Rather, you will:

  • point to words, drawing children’s attention to them during their print referencing activities including experience with authentic and decodable texts
  • teach the names of the alphabet letters and sing the alphabet song
  • teach beginning consonant sounds and letters first with pictures, then with letters, and encourage children to write—exercising this developing knowledge.

In other words, in the process of developing phonemic awareness it’s important not to confuse and possibly frustrate emergent readers by beginning with blending activities.

Once children understand what words are in print and are able to match them up with spoken word units, they are able to learn and retain sight words—the most frequently occurring words in the language—as well as others. These words in turn become the source of their learning about letter sounds, and eventually, letter patterns. Categorization and sorting activities—comparing and contrasting words according to specific sound and spelling features—are very effective for developing an understanding of word structure. This understanding applies not only to individual letter-sound relationships but also to larger patterns that represent consistent relationships between print and sound. When learners sort words according to different features, they truly are attending to similarities and differences and having to think about their criteria or evidence for sorting.

Children will also learn that those pesky, high-frequency irregular words are not so irregular after all—there is almost always something that is indeed regular inside such words. For example, the spelling and pronunciation of fr in the “irregular” word from is highly regular, being very consistent with the corresponding fr in the regularly spelled word frog. As children begin to understand how single-syllable short and long vowel words work, they will begin to read and write these words with greater accuracy and automaticity, allowing them to read and write with greater fluency and stamina, eventually reading and writing longer and more complex texts. Their fluency instruction in the beginning stage will focus on repeated readings, in both authentic and decodable texts, to build their word-recognition skills. Daily writing practice will help reinforce their reading development.

Importantly, the extent to which children develop word knowledge will depend on their talking about their developing understandings regarding words and how they work—just as they will be talking about their reading of texts. Beginning in kindergarten, speaking and listening standards emphasize using collaborative conversations in the construction of knowledge and understanding. Through such conversations and exploration, you provide opportunities for learners to develop their understandings about words deeply and productively—to the level of automaticity.

Integrating Word Study with Authentic and Decodable Texts

Just as you differentiate your reading instruction, you will be differentiating your word study instruction. Because of the very close relationship between reading and word knowledge, however, you will find that more often than not your differentiated reading groups are your differentiated word study groups as well. This allows you to integrate instruction across focused word study and reading in authentic and decodable texts. And your children will learn that, yes, words live their lives most fully in context, but understanding how they work will also involve explorations outside of textual context. That is where the patterns and consistency of phonics and spelling are discovered, exercised, and learned deeply. This deep learning in turn supports a more automatic decoding of words in reading and encoding of words in writing—as well as a more insightful and robust learning and use of words.

View my recent Lead the Way to Literacy webinar on this topic here.

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