Word Study: Working and Playing with Words

Working and Playing with Words

Remember how we were taught to spell when we were students? Many of us were simply handed a list of words and told to write each word five times. We then had our Friday spelling test, after which we may have forgotten those very words.
Remember how we were taught to decipher new words we encountered when reading? I can still hear my teachers saying, “Just sound it out!”

Of course, we were also taught some reading and spelling rules such as, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” But did you know that this rule, like many others that we were taught, holds true less than fifty percent of the time? (Clymer, 1996) Not only do these precepts lack reliability, but the teaching of rules is not really the best way to help our students learn. We learn best by active involvement and practice with the task at hand, which allow us to see word and letter patterns for ourselves. Research suggests that the brain is a pattern detector, rather than an applier of rules (Cunningham, 2004). If our brains are indeed “pattern detectors,” then we should provide our students with plenty of opportunity to investigate and organize those patterns.

Fortunately, we are now seeing dramatic and exciting changes in the teaching of spelling and word recognition. The field of “word study” provides students an opportunity to manipulate words (and parts of words) in meaningful and enjoyable activities and games. Reading ability can develop dramatically as word study lessons develop experience with:

  • Letters and their corresponding sounds.
  • Components of words, such as roots, prefixes, and suffixe
  • Patterns of how words are spelled, such as word families.
  • How parts of words often will give hints to the meaning of a word, as well as its spelling or pronunciation.

Word study activities call for active problem solving. Students are encouraged to look for spelling patterns, form hypotheses, predict outcomes, and test them. These activities require students to continually ask themselves, “What do I know about this new word, and how is it similar to words that I already know?”

My students love working with words, and frequently ask for more “word games.” Fortunately, the Internet is a wonderful source of excellent activities that build skills in spelling, vocabulary, and word recognition.

See our Word Study Activities that will help your students have fun as they learn to read, write, and spell.

See our Articles on High-Frequency Sight Words

High-Frequency Sight Words: The Fry List, Instant Words, Dolch Words, and Word Wall Words
Practice with Abstract Sight Words
More on Practice with Sight Words
Betsy B. Lee on Teaching Dolch Words
Dolch’s List of Basic Sight Words
Fry’s 300 Instant Sight Words

See our Articles on Word Families

Introduction to Word Families
The 37 most common word families and how they can be used
For professionals: More thoughts on phonograms

Excellent Word Study References

I use and recommend all of these resources:

Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction
Donald R. Bear (Author), Marcia Invernizzi, Shane Templeton, Francine Johnston

Word Journeys
Kathy Ganske

Building Words: A Resource Manual for Teaching Word Analysis and Spelling Strategies
Thomas G. Gunning

Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom
Gay Su Pinnell, Irene C. Fountas, Mary Ellen Giacobbe, Arene C. Fountas

Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades: A Complete Sourcebook
Wiley Blevins

Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing and
Systematic Sequential Phonics They Use
Patricia M. Cunningham

Making Words: Multilevel, Hands-On Developmentally Appropriate Spelling and Phonics Activities

Making More Words: Multilevel, Hands-On Phonics and Spelling Activities

Making Big Words: Multilevel, Hands-On Spelling and Phonics Activities

Making More Big Words

For the Earliest and Most Challenged Readers
Patricia M. Cunningham and Dorothy P. Hall designed these popular activities that appeal to students of all ages. Your earliest and most challenged readers, however, may find them too difficult.

For those students, I recommend:

Easy Lessons for Teaching Word Families (Grades K-2) by Judy Lynch.
Month-By-Month Reading and Writing for Kindergarten
Month-By-Month Phonics for Upper Grades by Dorothy Hall and Patricia Cunningham


Clymer, T. (1996). The utility of phonic generalizations in the primary grades. The Reading Teacher, 50(3), pp.182-187.
Cunningham, P. (2004). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing. New York: Longman.