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Word Study Instruction Using Words Their Way. How do you teach spelling words?. Many teachers teach spelling by giving students a list on Monday and a test on Friday with practice in between.

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how do you teach spelling words
How do you teach spelling words?

Many teachers teach spelling by giving students a list on Monday and a test on Friday with practice in between.

This type of drill and practice has earned traditional spelling instruction a reputation for being boring. That there is no big picture and no ultimate goal makes it all the more tedious – as soon as one spelling list is tested, another list takes its place.

Luckily, there is an alternative to traditional spelling instruction called "Word Study" which is not based on the random memorization of words. A word study program is a cohesive approach that addresses word recognition, vocabulary, and phonics as well as spelling.

getting to know words their way
Getting to Know Words Their Way
  • What is word study?
    • Purpose of Word Study
    • Basics of Word Study
    • Stages of Spelling Development
  • How to Assess and Group Students
  • Typical 5-Day Lesson Plan
purpose of word study
Purpose of Word Study

The authors of Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction determined that the purpose of word study is twofold.

First, students develop a general knowledge of English spelling. They learn how to examine words through active exploration using a hands-on, manipulative approach. Students also discover generalizations about spelling, instead of just spelling rules. They learn the regularities, patterns, and conventions of English orthography needed to read and spell.

Second, word study increases students’ specific knowledge of words. Specific knowledge relates to the spelling and meaning of individual words.

basics of word study
Basics of Word Study

Word study evolved from over three decades of research that explored the developmental aspects of spelling. These researchers examined the three layers of English orthography—alphabet, pattern, and meaning. In their research, they found that each layer builds on a previous layer.


The alphabet layer is based on the relationship between letters and sounds. For example, in the word cat, a single letter represents each sound. Students blend the sounds for /c/, /a/, and /t/ to read the word cat. In the word chip, students still hear three sounds even though there are four letters, because the first two function as one sound. These examples show how to create words by combining letters, either singly or in pairs, to form sounds from left to right.

basics of word study1
Basics of Word Study


The pattern layer overlies the alphabet layer because there’s not always a single sound for each letter. In the English language, single sounds are sometimes spelled with more than one letter or are affected by other letters. When students look beyond single letter and sound match-ups, they must search for patterns. For example, a final e will often make the preceding vowel stand for the long vowel sound, like in the word cape (cap vs. cape, gap vs. gape). It follows a pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e (CVCe Pattern).


The meaning layer focuses on groups of letters that represent meaning directly. Examples of these groups or letters include prefixes and suffixes. Here is a specific example of how meaning works in the spelling system. Take the prefix re–. Whether students pronounce it as ree like in rethink or ruh as in remove, its spelling stays the same because it directly represents meaning.

stages of spelling development
Stages of Spelling Development
  • When implementing word study in the classroom, it is important to understand the progression of the stages of spelling development. It will help teachers determine which word study activities are most appropriate for students. The methodology of Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction is based on the progression of these developmental stages.
  • The stages of spelling development are
    • Emergent
    • Letter Name-Alphabetic Spelling
    • Within Word Pattern
    • Syllables and Affixes
    • Derivational Relations
  • These stages describe students’ spelling behavior as they move from one level of word knowledge to the next.
Synchrony of Literacy Development

Alphabet Pattern Meaning


Pre-K to middle of 1st



K to middle of 2nd

Letter Name - Alphabetic


Grade 1 to middle of 4th

Within Word Pattern


Grades 3 to 8

Syllables & Affixes

Reading Stages


Grade Range

Grades 5 to 12

Spelling Stages

Derivational Relations

emergent stage
Emergent Stage

Emergent Stage (Pre-K to middle of 1st):

In the Emergent Spelling stage students are not yet reading conventionally. Spellers in the emergent stage may write with scribbles, letter like forms, or random letters and numbers. In most cases, they have not been exposed to formal reading instruction. During this stage, children learn to recognize and write the letters of the alphabet. They play with the sounds in letters and words.

By the end of the level, students understand the concept of words and begin to match picture cards to the words that represent their names.

Alphabet Sort for Different Forms of A and BPicture Sort for Initial F and T

letter name alphabetic stage
Letter Name-Alphabetic Stage

LNA Stage (K to middle of 2nd):

Students in the Letter-Name Alphabetic Spelling stage have been instructed formally in reading. Spellers in this stage use letter/sound matches to spell the most obvious sounds in words. Often, beginning and ending consonant sounds are in place before vowels begin to appear. At the beginning of this stage, students apply the alphabet principles to consonants.

By the end of the stage, they are able to correctly represent most short-vowel patterns, consonant digraphs, and consonant blends.

Picture Sort for ch, sh, and th DigraphsWord Sort for the it, ip and ill Families

within word pattern stage
Within Word Pattern Stage

WWP Stage (Grade 1 to middle of 4th):

At the beginning of the Within Word Pattern Spelling stage students spell most single-syllable, short vowel words correctly. Throughout this stage, they move away from the sound-by-sound approach of the letter name and begin to include patterns or chunks of letter sequences that relate to both sound and meaning. Spellers in the within-word pattern stage know a great deal about short vowels and the short vowel pattern, the consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) pattern. In this stage, students begin by exploring the common long vowel patterns.

Word Sort for Long-a Patterns, Compared to the Short Vowel PatternDiphthongs and Other Vowels

syllables and affixes stage
Syllables and Affixes Stage

SA Stage (Grade 3 to 8th):

By the Syllables and Affixes Spelling stage students can spell most one-syllable, short and long vowel words correctly. So, the focus for instruction in this stage is multisyllabic words and patterns. Students also learn to sort by specific vowel combinations, inflected endings, and vowel patterns in accented syllables.

In the Middle-Late and Affixes Spelling stage students begin with the study of how syllables divide in words with open syllables, such as cli/mate and re/act, and closed syllables like sup/ply and hun/dred. The level also includes a thorough study of patterns of unaccented syllables. It ends with the study of less common prefixes and suffixes such as fore– and –nessand two-syllable homophones like cellar and seller.

Word Sort for Doubling Before -edWord Sort for Prefixes

derivational relations stage
Derivational Relations Stage

DA Stage (Grade 5 to 12th):

At the beginning of the Derivational Relations Spelling stage students spell most words correctly. The focus in this stage is on the meaning connection. In this stage, they learn how to sort words by pattern and meaning with an emphasis on meaning and related word parts. They will discover how spelling preserves meaning even when there are changes in sound. Students will also learn common prefixes and suffixes, examine the meaning of bases and roots, and learn about the classical origin of polysyllabic words.

Prefix Sort for astro-, photo-, bio-, chlor-, eco-, hydro-, and hypo-Millennium Word Study and SortSupplementary Sort: -um, -ium

what spelling stage are your students in
What spelling stage are your students in?

The first step in implementing Words Their Way is a Developmental Spelling Analysis. This is an assessment of students’ knowledge of word features. Based on these results, students are grouped according to ability. Instruction begins at the students’ ability level, which falls into one of the five spelling stages.

Once students have been placed in their appropriate stage, instruction begins for the students at what is termed “using but confusing” which are the spelling features they are beginning to use but confuse.

developmental spelling analysis
Developmental Spelling Analysis

The Primary Spelling Inventory, or PSI, can be used in kindergarten through third grade.

The Upper-Level Spelling Inventory, or USI, can be used in upper elementary, middle school, high school, and postsecondary classrooms.

If a school system wants to use the same inventory across all elementary grades, they can use the Elementary Spelling Inventory, or ESI. This surveys a range of spelling features throughout the elementary grades, specifically first through sixth grade.

administering the spelling inventories
Administering the Spelling Inventories

These inventories are administered like traditional spelling tests, but there are some significant differences. Unlike traditional spelling tests, students should not study the words before the assessment. They should also be reassured that they are not graded on the activity.

To begin a spelling inventory, students are asked to number their paper. If students are in kindergarten or early first grade, teachers can prepare a numbered paper for students.

Each word is called aloud and repeated once. The words are spoken naturally, without emphasis on phonemes or syllables. If necessary, teachers can also use a sentence with the word in it to make sure the students know the exact word.

If students struggle with the inventory, teachers can administer a lower-level inventory. The inventory can be given to students as a whole group or in small groups. The results of the inventory can be used to get a general picture of each student’s spelling development.

scoring and analyzing results and forming groups
Scoring and Analyzing Results and Forming Groups

Scoring and Analyzing Results

Once the appropriate inventory has been administered, you need to set aside time to complete the feature guide for each student.

These guides are found in Appendix A of Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction. The feature guide helps analyze and classify student errors, confirm the developmental stages, and pinpoint specific areas for instruction.

Forming Groups

Students can be grouped for instruction according to the spelling developmental stages or by specific grade level. Student groups can be further differentiated by the three additional stages within each developmental stage or grade level. These stages are early, middle, and late.

word study in action
Word Study in Action

Word sorts are the heart of the program. Students use word sorts to group words into specific categories. As students complete the sorts, they compare and contrast word features, make discoveries, and form generalizations about the conventions of English orthography or spelling.

Video of Word Sort:


PowerPoint Presentations of Word Sorts:


typical week of word study
Typical Week of Word Study


Students receive words to cut out and write their initials.

Students will complete a written “open sort”

Teacher introduces words, demonstrates sort in a small group.

Students explain why words are being sorted that way.

Students take their own words back to their seats and independently replicate the sort.

They will then write the sort in their word study notebooks.


Students re-sort words. They will pick 6 words to draw and label.


Students will sort words with a partner. They will check each other’s work and discuss any difficulties.


Students sort words. They might have a speed sort against the teacher or with a classmate.

Students perform a word hunt using literature currently being read.


Review game or activity using words of the week.

Spelling Test and Word Sort Assessment.

words their way homework explanation
Words Their Way Homework Explanation


Sort the word cards into categories (this type of sort has been taught at school).  For example you might sort out all of the words that have “short a” in them or “long a.”  Ask your child to explain to you why the words are sorted in a particular way.  Sort the cards a second time as fast as possible (you may want to time them).


Do a blind sort with your child.  Lay down the category cards in a row.  For example you would lay down the cards that indicate “long a” or “short a.”  Then read a word card aloud, without showing it to your child.  Without seeing the word, your child should point to the category that it goes in.  Lay down the card.  Your child should move it to the correct category if it is wrong.


Do a word hunt.  Look for their words or words with the same sound pattern in books, magazines, or newspapers..


Have a practice test!

spelling city
Spelling City

Spelling city is a free online environment where students can practice and study spelling words.  Instead of handing out a paper spelling list at the beginning of each week, give your students a link to Spelling City where they can find the weeks spelling words.  

Sign up as a Spelling City teacher (free) and enter spelling lists.  Students can get onto Spelling City and find spelling lists by searching the teacher name.  Spelling city will teach your students the spelling words by saying the word and then using it in a sentence.  Students can practice their spelling words by playing games with the words, there are several games to choose from.  Spelling city will even give practice spelling tests to students.  

For a small fee, teachers can set up record books and give the final spelling test online.  Put an end to copies of spelling lists and send your kids online.  You will save trees and students will get great practice with their words.

Spelling City

cool sites
Cool Sites

Words Their Way Resources:

PowerPoint Presentations for Word Sorts


Companion Website for Words Their Way


Words Their Way Online Tutorials


Word Sorts


Vocabulary Ideas and Videos:


Spelling City: