Meet the Word Families

Creating a word family chart with the whole class or a small group builds phonemic awareness, a key to success in reading. Students will see how words look alike at the end if they sound alike at the end — a valuable discovery about our alphabetic writing system. They'll also see that one little chunk (in this case "-an") can unlock lots of words!


Large chart paper (at least 2' x 3')

Key Skill



  • Begin with a key word. In this case we've used the word can.
  • Help children think of words that rhyme. They can raise their hands to take turns or just call out their ideas if the group is small and quiet enough.
  • It's okay to give clues to help students begin or to keep them going. Try a guessing game: "I'm thinking of a word that starts with ffffff and ends with -an." Or "I'm thinking of something that starts with /p/ and you use it when you cook bacon and eggs."
  • Ask children to think of words that end in -an (pan, fan, ran, man, tan, van, plan, scan, bran, began). Check to be sure they understand word meanings. For example, ask, "What does van mean?" You can also ask volunteers to use the word in a sentence.
  • It helps to say the sounds (not the letter names) clearly as you write each word, one under another. See if children can tell you which letters make some of the sounds you are recording.
  • If children are engaged and excited, continue by adding words in the "extended word family": words that contain -an + t or -an + d. If you do this, be sure to pronounce the last sound clearly, as it may be difficult for students to hear. Some good words to add (in columns) are: and, band, hand, land, sand, stand, ant, can't, pant, plant, rant, grant, slant, chant, ranch, branch, dance, chance.
  • You can expand the list to include two- and three-syllable words (planet, candy, dandy, panda, bandit, banjo, fancy, chance, piano, enchanted) and compound words (landscape, sandpaper, handcuff, cranberry, landlord, handwriting).
  • If children suggest a word that isn't part of the word family, keep a separate list handy labeled "Other Good Words" and write them there.
  • Once you've created your Word Family Chart, try these extensions:
    • Play a phonemic awareness game:
      • Say handbag and ask children to repeat it without the hand.
      • Say candy and ask children to repeat it without the /dee/.
      • Say plant and have children repeat it without the /l/.
    • Have children write (or dictate) a sentence or a story with some of the -an words and then illustrate it.
    • Ask students to pick two to four words from the list, copy them on paper, and then draw pictures to illustrate them.
    • Sing a variation of the BETWEEN THE LIONS song "If You Can Read at". Begin with "If You Can Read a-n, an, then you can read _____," and decide which words from your list to include. Make the song into a big book illustrated by the students.
    • Make a Word Family Flower:
      • Make a flower stem with a round shape on top and print -an inside the circle
      • Cut out petal shapes to be added to the flower. Students take a blank "petal," write an -an word, and, if possible, illustrate it. Each -an word gets added around the center to make a Word Family Flower.

Word Family Flower illustration

Used with permission of Between the Lions (R).(c) 2007 WGBH/Sirius Thinking. Between the Lions and related marks are trademarks of WGBH.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.


As children encounter and learn the sounds in their reading working with word families reinforces reading and spelling. Care should be given to use a balanced approach.

I respectfully disagree with the anonymous posting. Word families ARE an effective way to increase a student's ability to spell and decode many new words, which is why it is a cornerstone of phonics instruction. Yes, there are words that break the "rules" and won't fit the patterns taught, but if you teach children to sound out properly, they will recognize when a word doesn't "sound" right and correct themselves. A child who is reading a sentence like "The president will veto that bill" and says vet-o, should have been instructed to have enough awareness to self-check and see if that makes sense in context. Good teachers will teach their students these skills in addition to phonics rules.

Contrary to popular belief this is not a great activity. Word families are an inefficient way to teach phonics. The phonemic awareness component alone is a good activity, however as a phonics activity it is terrible. What happens when kids need to learn open syllables? If they are taught to look for chunks and build around them they will never have the tools to adequately decode. For example, they see the word 'veto' and read 'vet/o' because they see 'et' like pet, net, and jet. Please remove it from this website.

This is excellent. I am going to print it and send it home with my students.

Excellent stuff. Am creatively challenged and was wondering what to teach kids in word family.

This article mentions several great teaching strategies that will help the students discover the alphabetic writing system. Using group strategies, non-linguistic representations, phonemic awareness games, and projects, etc. are enough to instruct reading lessons for a whole week if pacing is measured appropriately.

Escellent lesson...I will teach it to my first graders tomorrow during the Skills Block session...thank you...I give it an A+.

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"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald