Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction


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Words Their Way is program that teaches students to look for and remember word patterns that will help them with spelling, reading and writing. Some teachers at our campus use this program to help support phonics in the classroom, and all new ESL students from grades 1-4 receive Words Their Way training during their extra language support lessons. Even if teachers use their own spelling resources instead, all the students from Grade 1-4 receive the Words Their Way spelling assessment three times a year to track which features in spelling they need to learn and the progress they make in spelling.

Most of the Words Their Way activities are based on sorting words into categories. When students first sort words or pictures on their own, it teaches them to look for patterns in words and allows them to learn in a way that mirrors natural language learning, rather than just memorizing lists of words. The teachers controls the number and type of word features they are sorting (so that the activity is differentiated for the student's level). There are other games and activities students can do with the word cards to practice the features and sounds even more.

Different types of Word Sorting

Teacher Resources (word cards by feature to print and cut out)

The spelling assessment shows which students are in each "stage."

Stage 1: Emergent Spelling (Chapter 4 in the Words Their Way book)

For the most part, these are students who are not reading conventionally yet. For native English speakers, this usually means children from 0-5 years old. Most toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners are in this stage of spelling, but some first grade students may even be here at the beginning of their school year. Students are starting to experiment with writing- they may just write scribbles or lines and say what it means.

Stage 2: Letter Name-Alphabetic Stage (Chapter 5 in the book)

Students in this stage of development are being taught how to read, usually from kindergarten to the middle of second grade. For native speakers, this usually means from about 5-8 years old. A new ESL student usually starts in this stage no matter how old they are. So much progress is made in this stage that we can even split this stage into Early, Middle and Late periods. For example, an early letter name student might only spell the beginning and ending letters of a word, for example "FT" for the word "float." A middle to late letter name student uses vowels, but often confuses short vowels and leaves out any silent vowels, for example "HOP" for the word "hope." These students are also learning about double consonants: blends, such as "br" in "bread" and digraphs, such as "ch" in "much."

Stage 3: Within Word Pattern Spelling (Chapter 6 in the book)

The next stage covers learning throughout second, third and sometimes fourth grade and usually range from 7-10 years old. In this stage students begin learning long vowel patterns and might spell many common words correctly but sometimes makes mistakes such as "TEEM" for the word "team." After these patterns, student begin to master ambiguous vowels- sounds that are neither long nor short, such as "mouth" or "third."

Stage 4: Syllables and Affixes Spelling (Chapter 7 in the book)

Students in this stage are usually in the upper elementary and middle school grades and often need to spell words that are more than one syllable. They start learning patterns for prefixes and suffixes. For example, a student might misspell an inflected ending, such as "STOPED" for "stopped" or "HIKEING" for "hiking." Another example is syllable junctures, such as spelling "SUMER" for the words "summer." Unaccented final syllables also give these students trouble, such as "LITTEL" for "little."

Stage 5: Derivational Relations Spelling (Chapter 8 in the book)

This is the last stage in a student's spelling. Some students move into this stage as early as Grades 4 or 5, but most can be found in middle school, high school or university. These students examine how words share common bases and roots and often builds on vocabulary that is of Greek or Latin origin. A student in the early part of this stage might spell "FAVERITE" for the word "favorite," without showing the connection to the word "favor." Another example shows that if a student knows the word "compete," that student might correctly spell the word "competition" instead of spelling it as "COMPUHTITION."