Word Study: A New Approach to Teaching Spelling

"Word study" is an alternative to traditional spelling instruction. It is based on learning word patterns rather than memorizing unconnected words. This article describes the word study approach.

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.

Now 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 (Zutell, 1992).

What is word study?

Word study provides students with opportunities to investigate and understand the patterns in words. Knowledge of these patterns means that students needn't learn to spell one word at a time.

Take, for example, the difference between "hard c" (as in cat) and "soft c" (as in cell). After collecting many words containing the letter "c," students discover that "c" is usually hard when followed by consonants (as in clue and crayon) and the vowels "a," "o," and "u" (as in cat, cot, and cut). In contrast, "c" is usually soft when followed by "i", "e," and "y" (as in circus, celery, and cycle).

Of course, for every rule there are exceptions that threaten the rule. Students learn, though, that spelling patterns exist and that these patterns help to explain how to spell, read, and write words.

Word study is also designed to build word knowledge that can be applied to both reading and spelling (Henderson, 1992; Zutell, 1998). Because it is closely tied to reading instruction, it also develops students' abilities in phonics, word recognition, and vocabulary (Baker, 2000).

How is word study taught?

There are distinct stages in students' spelling development (Henderson, 1981). Students at different stages attend to and represent different features in their spelling (Templeton, 1991).

Word study is based on the notion that where a student is in his or her spelling development can serve as a guide for instruction. At the start of a word study program, teachers use a spelling inventory to determine which stage of spelling development each student is at and then groups students for instruction (Bear, et al., 2000). Once groups are created, teachers develop "differential instruction" based on the stage of development each group of students has achieved (Bear & Barone, 1989).

Instruction has to be deliberately sequenced by the teacher so students will get instruction that will propel their development. Teachers select a group of words that demonstrate a particular spelling pattern and sequence these patterns to match children's development (Templeton, 1991). Because the pace of children's progression through the stages varies, rarely would all the students in a class be studying the same list of words (Barnes, 1986).

To implement word study effectively, teachers and students alike must become word detectives, engaged in an ongoing attempt to make sense of word patterns and their relationships to one another. Spelling "rules" are not dictated by the teacher for students to memorize. Rather, spelling patterns and generalizations are discovered by students.

Teaching strategies

In word study, teachers encourage students to compare and contrast features in words. One common method for doing so is by having students sort words. When sorting, students use their word knowledge to separate examples that go together from those that don't.

In addition to sorting, students may hunt for words in their reading and writing that fit the pattern being studied, may construct a word wall illustrating examples of the different patterns studied, may keep a word study notebook to record the known patterns and their new understandings about words, or may play games and activities to apply their word knowledge (Bear et al., 2000).

A cycle of instruction for word study might include the following:

  • introduce the spelling pattern by choosing words for students to sort
  • encourage students to discover the pattern in their reading and writing
  • use reinforcement activities to help students relate this pattern to previously acquired word knowledge

Teachers then test students' pattern knowledge rather than their ability to memorize single words. For example, a teacher might have students work with twenty words during a word study cycle and then randomly test students on ten of those words. For students studying the -at family, a teacher might include the word "vat" on the spelling test even though it wasn't on the initial spelling list – this allows the teacher to see if students are able to transfer their knowledge of the "at" chunk to a new word they haven't seen before.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Baker, L. (2000). Building the word-level foundation for engaged reading. Engaging young readers: Promoting achievement and motivation. New York: Guilford Press.

Barnes, W. G. (1986). Word sorting: The cultivation of rules for spelling in English. Reading Psychology, 10, 293-307.

Bear, D. R., & Barone, D. (1989). Using children's spellings to group for word study and directed reading in the primary classroom. Reading Psychology, 10, 275-292.

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2000). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Henderson, E. H. (1992). The interface of lexical competence and knowledge of written words. In S. Templeton, & D. R. Bear (Eds.), Development of orthographic knowledge and foundations of literacy: A memorial festschrift for Edmund H. Henderson. (p. 1-30). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Henderson, E. H. (1981). Learning to read and spell: The child's knowledge of words. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press.

Templeton, S. (1991). Teaching and learning the English spelling system: Reconceptualizing method and purpose. Elementary School Journal, 92, 185-201.

Templeton, S., & Morris, D. (1999). Questions teachers ask about spelling. Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 102-112.

Zutell, J. (1998). Word sorting: A developmental spelling approach to word study for delayed readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 14, 219-238.

Zutell, J. (1992). An integrated view of word knowledge: Correlational studies of the relationships among spelling, reading, and conceptual development. In S. Templeton & D. Bear (Eds.), Development of orthographic knowledge and the foundations of literacy: A memorial festschrift for Edmund H. Henderson. (p. 213-230). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Adapted and excerpted from: Leipzig, D. H. (2000). Actions teach louder with words: How and what experienced teachers learn about embedded word study from classroom practice and an inquiry group. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation.) University of Maryland, College Park, MD.


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I have used this program with a class of Grades 3/4/5 and it was fabulous and so easy to implement. The kids would be split into their groups and would do the word study while reading groups took place. It was like having literacy centres, but each group had their own words to tackle.

How does grouping the children work? My concern would be placing a group of underachievers in a group, then they remain underachievers.

A response to AnonymousInstead of thinking of underacheivers, think of meeting the students at their developmental level. If they are developmentally at the within words stage but are placed in a group with a higher developmental group, they will become frustrated. They will most likely not be able to progress because they will not have the prerequisite skills in place.

Two reasons come to mind:
1) We are expecting greater mastery than in many traditional programs (90%). We also want the students to learn the generalizations that underlie the patterns for the words being studied. Students should be able to spell these and related words correctly.
2) In most classrooms, there are different levels of literacy development, and we adjust the lists accordingly. there are five stages of spelling development, and we adjust the lists and activities we use accordingly. I hope this helps.

My child has been participating in word study for four years. Every year the group she is placed in seems too easy. When she brings the list home on Monday she already knows how to spell them. How can this be?

I am looking for research info on Words Their Way from someone other than the publisher to use for evidence for selecting studens for special education eligibilty. Does anyone know of any research? Thanks!

Yes. Take a look at the What Works Clearinghouse for a series of studies. A chapter on word study is coming out soon in the 4th edition of the LA Handbook.

In my district, all students are given the Developmental Spelling Assessment, and then grouped accordingly. Exceptional ed students, just as regular students, can be tested and grouped accordingly. The level at which the student demonstrates <70% mastery (I believe this is the percentage) is the level at which they begin; for instance, within words. Special accomodations include picture cards instead of word cards. My exceptional angels are progressing as well as my regular education students are, thanks to Word Study. I hope this is helpful.

To those looking for research, you can try "Handbook of Language & Literacy; development and disorders" edited by C. Addison Stone, et al. (2004). It is published by The Guilford Press, NY. There are 3 articles in the "spelling" section of the book.

How are parents supposed to help their kids study for spelling tests without spelling lists. How is it better if we cannot help our kids? How are we supposed to guess the words the teacher is going to choose that have the "key letters or sounds"? Please someone help me understand. My son's teachers are starting to use this system & it is very confusing & frustrating for

Ask the teacher for a copy of the sort for the week. Your child should be able to explain to you how the words are sorted. For example, maybe she is sorting long a vs. short a patterns. Once the sort is explained, you can give her words that she hasn't seen to practice the concept. Ex: cap and cape, flat and fate, etc. Transfer of knowledge is the key to success.

How can I help my child at home when I don't know what the patterns are? For example, when to use hard c versus soft c. I don't know that this is what they are teaching.

Te4achers, I have a question. I have been using Word Study to teach spelling for about four years, but recently I was told by a couple of my colleagues that they still have their students define words and creates sentences as a part of their Word Study instuction. I thought Word Study was based on daily sorts and modeling of correct pronunciation of words to create an awareness of spelling patterns and exceptions to the rules called Oddballs. Am I wrong or should I have my students do the defintions that I hated as a child myself along with creating sentences?

A pilot study using this approach is rasing eyebrows in Mauritius. I would like to hear from all of you who strongly feel positive about using Words Their Way as an effective approach for teaching children with learning problems.

My children have been in Title I reading where Words Their Way is used as curriculm. My son has high functioning autism and my daughter dyslexia. The program is a great tool however for children that are needing to master decoding and symbol imagry before this type of spelling, it is a struggle. They spend only one week on a grouping and move on only to not be able to spell or read the words the next week in a sentence. Title I is to help students having dificulty not push past thier ability with a program they are not ready for. Testing each child to see exactly the area of weakness is extreemly important before just implementing a spelling program that jumps ahead of the phonemic awareness(not just phonics), decoding, and symbol imagry base they do not have mastered.

I have a child that reads above grade level and comprehends. Word usuage is sometime a struggle, but spelling is the struggle. I homeschool based on the local school district not being able to accomdate severe food allergies and they do not have a emergency action plan in place etc. Can a homeschool purchase this curriculum from somewhere? Thank you.

It seems that word study is good in small doses but is taking away from the real problem: Lack of reading. With the average child watching 32 hours of T.V per week its no wonder kids struggle with fluency, vocabulary, and comprehention. First we need to institute more reading then we can suppliment with word study.

I have used the spelling assessment that accompanies Words Their Way for many, many years. I typically assess with it at least three times per year to look for progress. During word study the groups of students at each level work on sorts. I systematically meet with the students while they are doing their sorts. This is only part of my word study program. My district also uses Spelling Connections which also asks students to sort words into at least three categories per week. I do give a pretest and posttest each week based on the Spelling Connections word lists. I send home the word list for the following week on Friday. This way the family has the words that the child will be tested on. I see this as a win win situation as the students have a list to study from, their are no surprises for parents, yet the children are also working at their developmental level during word study times. I might add that as I meet with students individually, I ask them to spell the words they have been working with without looking. I have them write the words on write boards or scrap paper. It is not stressful but it gives me good insight about the success the students are having with their specific words.

Isn't this just glorified phonics? Why not do this with the dolch sight words in early elementary grades?

Dolch sight words have no pattern to sort or recognize. They are sight words the student must memorize because while they are the most frequently seen words in print, there may be no rhyme or reason to their spelling. They most definitely don't work with this model.

You should supplement your program with digital word sorts - now they are available FREE. Hundreds already created online, or customise your students' learning by using their weekl spelling list. Individual student logons available and student monitoring built in. See

If I teach word study through Words Their Way, instead of the regular spelling lists, should I still teach a phonics lesson (Saxon Phonics is what my school uses)? AND should I even do Words Their Way if the rest of my school does traditional spelling lists?

I have been doing spelling groups with DSA for about 6 years and love it! I didn't think it would be possible to do spelling groups, but it can be done. Basically, the students may all have different words, but they are doing the same activities. Here is an example of our weekly schedule: Monday-introduce words and sort Tuesday- use each word in a sentence (I think it is important for students to know how to use the word in context) Wednesday- word hunt Thursday- Say, Write, Check (which is a brain research activity that activates 3 different parts of the brain- we modified this activity so students can work in partners regardless if they have the same words or not. Then on Friday- we do the assessment. Also, whatever the activity is that we did in class, the students have the same activities to do at home on the corresponding days.I love it because it reaches ALL students and I have 4 students this year in the adult range of spelling. How would it be fair to them to give them words with short vowels only? And for my low developmental students, how is it fair to give them words too hard? I can see that I would like to give more words and only assess some of them. To answer someone above who couldn't understand why their child wasn't given harder words there may be two reasons. 1. Teacher isn't seeing the child make connections with the words in reading or writing. Example, the child makes 100% on spelling tests, but when writing a story using the same word, they don't make a connection that word was a previous spelling word. or 2. the words the parents think are "easy" actually have non-phonetic patterns which are more difficult. So many times children come with only one strategy and that is "sound it out" which only gets you so far in the English language. Some words are just weird looking! For example....sound out the word "are". We ARE going to the store. The only sound you hear is R. I hope this helps!

Reply to Bailey's Question;Words their Way is a good spelling program. I use it. However, it's incomplete as a reading program. It can teach kids both word attack skills, which is the ability to use spelling patterns to figure out an unknown word, and also spelling. But, it is missing comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. These are the other parts of a reading curriculum. I can't speak to Saxon phonics because I haven't used it. However, you may be able to find a review of it at Florida Center for Reading research. Even if you can't find a review, check out their resources for teachers in the teacher resource section. They have fantastic activities and ideas for all 5 components of reading instruction, and they are already done for you! I have personally used SPIRE reading+ and although I found the stories that go with it to be a little dry, it was a good, complete program and it worked. I fixed the "dry" stories" problem by making up my own stories on the computer using Power Point. Alternatively, you could have your kids make up their own stories on Power Point using the target skill- say ee words. Then, they could read each other's stories. research seems to suggest that phonics and phonetic awareness lessons stick better when the skill is reinforced with readings that focus on that skill.So, in other words, unless you add a lot of your own stuff to it, it's not a complete reading program. Next time you need a continuing education credit, take a Principles of reading Instruction class from PBS teacher line. I learned more in the two classes I took by PBS then I did in all of my teaching courses when I was in college.

Has anybody used this technique with adults? I would be interested in your feedback as am looking for new methods for my mixed-level adult learners.

I have used it with an English Language Learner that lived with us. We started with letter name and concentrated on the American pronunciation of letters. The advantage is that it is systematic and you can cherry-pick the features that you need. It quickly improved his pronunciation and writing.

I love word study over spelling lists. I do however prefer to use a direct instruction approach to my below grade level students. Spelling Mastery helps fill in the gaps. My below grade level students get the spelling mastery in addition to the word study approach.

Word study should be used in a small group setting in conjunction with the traditional spelling test. I have been teaching word study for 5 years now without traditional spelling instruction and year after year, my students still can't spell! It's frustrating to watch.

My son has used this method since kindergarten and cannot spell simple words even though he has always passed spelling tests and received good grades in this area. He clearly understands the word groups and patterns but can't impliment the technique in his writing. Now I have a soon to be 5th grader who can't spell daddy, or bubble correctly. I was directed to this site while looking for another approach for teaching him spelling since this method has not worked for him.

Leipzig, D. H. (2000). The Knowledge Base for Word Study: What Teachers Need to Know. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11(2), 105-131.

Help I'm trying to find the original source for this article. I can't find it in the journal. Is the source correct?

Have used Words Their Way and do not see the word patterns transferring into other words and writing throughout the year. There seems to be rote memory and not retention of the skill.

my son has used the method since kindergarten and cannot spell simple words even though he has always passed spelling tests and received good grades in this area. he clearly understands the word groups and patterns but can't impliment the techique in his writing now i have a soon to be 5th grader who can't spell daddy or bubble correctly. i wad directed to this site while looking for another approach for teaching him spelling since this method has not worked for him.

Is remembering a list of spelling words the same as knowing a list of spelling words? They are completely different and we must look at it that way. Eliminate spelling tests and teach spelling. In a world of spell-check and auto-correct, is memorization the best method? I think not.

How is this new? I was taught spelling this way, with a dedicated textbook from third grade into junior high. Starting in 1977,

Now I have a fourth grade daughter who getting zero instruction in spelling, and cannot spell anything beyond a simple three letter word.

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