The 4 Principles of Word Study

What is word study? Discover how word study assists students.

Why Teach Word Study?

We teach word study to teach students to read and write. Word study assists students in the fast, accurate recognition of words in texts, and fast accurate production of words in writing so that readers can focus their attention on making meaning (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton & Johnson, 2020). The word study programs based on this integrated and development approach are effective across tiers including literacy interventions (Eddy, Ruitman, Hankel, Matelski, & Schmalstig, 2011).

What is Word Study?

The Words Their Way Classroom author team’s approach to word study instruction is structured around 4 Principles. Word study instruction is:

1. Integrated.

Word study instruction is integrated. Word study = phonics + spelling + vocabulary instruction illustrates the integrated approach to instruction. There is a reciprocal relationship between reading and writing development and instruction (Perfetti, & Verhoeven, 2017; Templeton & Bear, 2018). In word study, when you teach spelling, you are also teaching phonics and vocabulary. A meta-analysis of spelling research indicates that spelling instruction impacts reading achievement (Graham & Santangelo, 2014), and that students may learn more about reading from spelling than they do about spelling from reading. Pedagogically, the implication is that spelling, phonics and vocabulary are taught together, and not as separate subjects. For many teachers, students and families, this way of thinking about word study reflects a change in why and how we teach spelling.

2. Developmental.

Word study is developmental. Five stages of spelling have been described as they fall in line with the three layers of English writing: the sound, pattern, and meaning layers that you see at the top of Figure 1. Word study lessons focus on particular layers depending on students’ development according to what stages students are in (Henderson, 1981). During the first two stages of spelling development, students begin with phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle and the spelling of beginning consonants, and in the upper two stages, students learn about English morphology, the study of affixes and word derivations (Templeton, Bear, Invernizzi, Johnston, Flanigan, Townsend, & Hayes, 2015).

What is word study? Discover how to teach word study to assists students.

As seen in Figure 1, spelling stages can be related to reading stages. There is a synchrony among reading, writing, and spelling development. Specific reading behaviors including word recognition, reading fluency, accuracy, and at the upper levels, comprehension can be viewed developmentally. For example, beginning readers who read between 40 and 80 words per minute (wpm) with good accuracy are likely in the second stage of spelling, the letter name – alphabetic stage when they examine short vowels. Transitional readers are in the next stage of reading and are within word pattern spellers. Their reading is more fluent, above 100 wpm with some phrasing, and in word study they focus on the patterns for long and complex vowels like vowel diphthongs such as the CVCe, CVVC and CVV patterns in line, team and pie, respectively).

3. Explicit.

Word study instruction is explicit. Specific focused contrasts are chosen to teach students explicitly about the features that match their development. Explicit instruction occurs when the teacher demonstrates how to examine these contrasts. The scope and sequence of the features students contrast is based on research of students’ development (Ehri, 1997; Ehri, 2014; Invernizzi, & Hayes, 2004). For example, students in the letter name – alphabetic stage contrast a variety of sounds and features within a range of categories: beginning consonants, then digraphs and blends, short vowel families, the CVC pattern for short vowels, and final consonant digraphs (Bear, et al., 2020). Explicit instruction is observed later in Ms. Kiernan’s lesson when she shows students that words with beginning consonant blends (dress) follow a CVC pattern with the blend (dr) as one unit. Interestingly, as we see in Sebastian’s reflection and quizzical expression, part of explicit instruction is to ask open-ended questions that are designed to teach students how to talk to each other about what they observe and learn. Ms. Kiernan asks: “What are you thinking? So, what do you think we should do with it? This ability to reflect is an essential part of word study instruction and assessment discussed below.

4. Experiential.

Word study instruction is experiential. The most important way for students to grow their word knowledge is to do a ton of reading and writing. Without this time, reading and writing explicit word study instruction will not stick. After the explicit instruction in the demonstration, students spend most of their word study time, approximately 20 minutes each day with partners and independently playing word study games, sorting, and writing sorts into their word study notebooks, all along, making decisions about the contrasts they are studying. Over several days, teachers continue to provide explicit instruction, but these sessions are four- or five-minute check-ins, which may be a part of guided reading time; students may quickly sort in front of the teacher or the teacher may clarify confusions after the initial demonstration.

Read Dr. Donald Bear’s full white paper to learn more about the elements of effective word study instruction

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About the Author

Donald Bear

Literacy Author, Professor at Iowa State University