Word Study 101

Dear Parents,

This year many teachers in Noblesville Schools are piloting a research-based approach to phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction called "word study." Although word study is a new approach for Noblesville, I have been using word study for several years and have seen the benefits first hand. The goal of this newsletter is to communicate with you about this new approach. You will learn:
  • the word study approach in literacy instruction,
  • the five stages of spelling development,
  • how your child's spelling stage is assessed,
  • what word study routines look like in the classroom,
  • activities that you can do at home to support your child's learning,
  • and answers to common questions about word study.
Read on to find out everything you ever wanted to know about word study!

Word Study Approach

Developmental word study is a student-centered, assessment-driven approach to fostering word knowledge that includes the development of phonics, spelling, word recognition, and vocabulary. Using this approach means:

  • Recognizing that each student’s writing and spelling progresses along a predictable continuum of development.
  • Utilizing assessment to identify a student’s spelling stage.
  • Differentiating instruction to allow students to build word knowledge based on their own development.
  • Including word study as part of a balanced approach to reading, writing, and spelling instruction.

Research shows students’ spelling development falls into five developmental stages:

  • Emergent - Early Letter Name
  • Letter Name
  • Within Word Pattern
  • Syllables & Affixes
  • Derivational Relations
Each stage is also broken down in to early, middle, and late. Read on to gain a sense of what reading, writing, and spelling typically looks like in each of the five stages.

Developmental Spelling Stages

Emergent - Early Letter Name

The Emergent- Early Letter Name stage of literacy development is a period in which young children imitate and experiment with the forms and functions of print. Emergent and Early Letter Name readers are busy navigating their way to literacy, learning about directionality, the distinctive features of print, and how these correlate with oral language. The Emergent-Early Letter Name stage lies at the beginning of a lifetime of learning about written language.

Characteristics of Word Knowledge
  • Neglect to use any sound-symbol correspondence
  • Represent strongest sounds with a single letter
  • Have an incomplete knowledge of alphabet

Types of Sorts in Emergent-Early Litter Name

  • Concept Sorts
  • Rhyming Sorts
  • Beginning Sounds
  • Letter Recognition
  • Ending Sounds
  • Digraphs

Grade Range: PreK- Mid 1st grade

Guided Reading Range: Pre-A through C/D

Corresponding Reading and Writing Stage: Emergent

Letter Name

The Letter Name stage of literacy development is a period of beginnings. Students begin to read and write in a conventional way. That is, they begin to learn words and their writing becomes readable to themselves and others. However, this stage of literacy development needs careful scaffolding because students know how to read and write only a small number of words.

Characteristics of Word Knowledge

  • Apply the alphabet literally using the letter names to spell sounds
  • Spell phonetically; represent most strong sounds and beginning consonants
  • Omit most silent letters and preconsonantal nasals

Spelling Samples

  • B, BD, BAD for bed
  • S, SHP, SEP for ship
  • L, LP. LOP for lump
  • U for you
  • BAKR for baker
  • DADT for daddy
  • GRUM for drum

Types of Sorts in Letter Name

  • Beginning Consonants
  • Same Vowel Word Families
  • Digraphs and Blends
  • Mixed Vowel Word Families
  • Short Vowels
  • Preconsonantal Nasals
  • r-influenced Vowels
  • Contractions

Grade Range: K- Early 3rd Grade

Guided Reading Range: D through H

Corresponding Reading and Writing Stage: Beginning

Within Word Pattern

The Within Word Pattern stage of literacy development is a transitional period- a time between the beginning stage, when students’ reading and writing are quite labored, and the intermediate stage, when students can read nearly all texts they encounter. During the Within Word Pattern stage, students begin to decode and store words more readily, and their sight word vocabulary grows quickly. This enables them to read and write with increasing fluency and expression. Students in this stage become wordsmiths, collecting hundreds of words.

Characteristics of Word Knowledge

  • Correctly spell most single-syllable, short vowel words, beginning consonant diagraphs, and twoletter consonant blends
  • Attempt to use silent long-vowel markers
  • Use but confuse long-vowel patterns

Spelling Samples

  • SNAIK for snake
  • FELE for feel
  • FLOTE for fl oat
  • BRIET for bright
  • SPOLE for spoil
  • CHUED for chewed

Types of Sorts with Within Word Patterns

  • Short and Long Vowels
  • Other Long Vowel Patterns
  • r-Influenced Vowels
  • Dipthongs and Other Ambiguous Vowels
  • Complex Consonant Clusters
  • Homophones

Grade Range: 1st- mid 4th grade

Guided Reading Range: I through N

Corresponding Reading and Writing Stage: Transitional

Syllables & Affixes

The Syllables and Affixes stage of literacy development is a time of expanding reading interests and fine-tuning reading strategies. Students will be expected to read more informational text as classroom instruction shifts to a greater emphasis on content area subjects. It is also a time for students to make new and richer connections among the words they already know and words they will learn. The Syllable and Affixes stage represents a new point in word analysis because students will learn to look at words in a new way, not as single-syllable units, but as two or more syllabic or meaning units. Developing word knowledge allows students to read more fluently, which in turn allows them to exercise and expand their increasing level of cognitive and language sophistication.

Characteristics of Word Knowledge

  • Connect word knowledge with vocabulary growth
  • Correctly spell most single-syllable, short-vowel and long-vowel words and high-frequency words
  • Make errors at syllable juncture points and in unaccented syllables

Spelling Samples

  • SHOPING for shopping
  • KEPER for keeper
  • SELLER for cellar
  • AMAZZING for amazing
  • PERRAIDING for parading

Types of Sorts in Syllables and Affixes

  • Compound Words
  • Inflected Endings
  • Open and Closed Syllables
  • Accented Syllables
  • Unaccented Syllables
  • Consonants
  • Prefixes and Suffixes
  • Homophones and Homographs

Grade Range: 3rd- 5th grade

Guided Reading Range: O through T

Corresponding Reading and Writing Stage: Intermediate

Derivational Relations

The term derivational relations emphasizes how spelling and vocabulary at this stage grow primarily through derivation: from a single base word or word root, a number of related words are derived through the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Students at this stage are at a more advanced level of word knowledge, which means word study focuses as much on vocabulary development as it does on spelling development. Analyzing the spelling of words supports vocabulary growth and vocabulary growth in turn provides helpful support for higher-level spelling development.

Characteristics of Word Knowledge

  • Connect word knowledge with vocabulary growth
  • Spell most words correctly
  • Make errors on low-frequency multisyllabic words derived from Latin and Greek forms

Spelling Samples

  • OPPISITION for opposition
  • TERADACTIL for pterodactyl
  • PROHABITION for prohibition
  • EXHILERATE for exhilarate

Types of Sorts in Derivational Relations

  • Prefixes and Suffixes
  • Greek and Latin Roots
  • Advanced Spelling-Meaning Patterns
  • Prefix Assimilation

Grade Range: 5th +

Guided Reading Range: U through Z

Corresponding Reading and Writing Stage: Advanced

Assessing Word Knowledge

Each student's word knowledge is assessed at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year using spelling inventories or qualitative checklists. Spelling inventories are administered similar to traditional spelling tests and are approximately 25 words. Qualitative spelling checklists can also be used. This assessment involves the teacher reviewing a student's unedited writing sample. Both assessments are designed to show students’ knowledge of key spelling features that relate to the different spelling stages. Based of an analysis of students’ spelling, "just right" instruction can be planned.

Word Study Routines

Students in my class have Word Study each day for 15-20 minutes. We stay on each sort for a 6 day rotating schedule. This schedule allows me to instruct and support three different groups. Although the activities below are part of our word study routine, the activities for days 3 through 5 may occur in a different order.

Day 1: Teacher-Modeled Sort

Students meet with the teacher in a small group. The sort is introduced and modeled by the teacher. Students in the small group then work together to sort again under the teacher's guidance including checking their work afterward. After successfully sorting, students work together to create a generalization based on the sort. "These words all have the letter 'o,' but some are short 'o' and some are long 'o.'"

Day 2: Student Sorting

Learning is reinforced by students practicing lots of sorting on Day 2 and every day. This helps develop automaticity as well. There are many different ways to sort (see activities below for sorting ideas).

Day 3: Writing Sort

Writing is another opportunity to apply new knowledge and demonstrate the connection between reading, writing, and spelling. Students write down their words under headers. They explain how they sorted and what they learned about spelling from their sort.

Day 4: Word Hunt

Students keep a record of words they find in context while reading that match the pattern they are studying. Students are encouraged to read books from their book boxes or other reading materials as they continue to practice the skill taught.

Day 5: Sort Games

Students strengthen their skills with fun games that motivate and engage.

Day 6: Progress Monitoring

Students meet with the teacher to complete a spell check. This allows the teacher to monitor each student's word study progress and determines if the group is ready to move on to a new sort or needs additional instructional on the current sort.

Activities You Can Do At Home

Word Sort with Headers

For an extra challenge, set the headers aside and try to sort without them.

Blind Sort with Headers

For an extra challenge, set the headers aside and try to sort without them.

No Peeking Sort

For an extra challenge, set the headers aside and try to sort without them.

This type of sort is also known as a "blind" sort, but I prefer "no peeking" sort out of respect for the visually-impaired community.

Speed Sort

For an extra challenge, set the headers aside and try to sort without them.

Word Hunt


Ask students to think of other words that contain oo. Write their responses on index cards. When students have completed brainstorming, ask them to identify and sort all the words they named according to the vowel sound of oo.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is word study different from traditional spelling?

Many teachers taught and still teach spelling by giving all students the same word list on Monday and a test on Friday with practice in between. This type of drill, practice, and rote memorization has earned traditional spelling instruction a reputation for being "boring." As soon as one spelling list is tested, another list takes its place without consideration of whether or not mastery was achieved. In addition, students are given a "one size fits all" word list that may not be appropriate for their instructional needs. When children are frustrated or bored, it makes spelling all the more tedious.

Word study is an alternative to traditional spelling instruction, 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.

Word study provides students with hands-on opportunities to investigate and understand the patterns in words in a social way. Knowledge of spelling patterns means that students need not learn to spell one word at a time.

Let's look at 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 incat, cot, and cut). In contrast, "c" is usually soft when followed by "i", "e," and "y" (as incircus, celery, and cycle). This knowledge helps them spell many words going forward instead of one memorized word in isolation.

Of course, for every generalization there are exceptions that threaten the generalization. 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. Because it is closely tied to reading instruction, it also develops students' abilities in phonics, word recognition, and vocabulary.

What's the developmentally appropriate spelling stage for second grade?

Most second graders start the school year ready to begin the Within Word Pattern stage of spelling; however, each child's development is unique.

What are the end of year spelling expectations for second grade?

At the end of the school year, we will complete the Words Their Way spelling inventory to determine how much students have grown. My goal is for all the students in my class to be in the latter part of the Within Word Pattern stage of spelling or beyond.

Why are you giving my child pictures / words that are “too easy?"

There is often a belief that spelling words should be “hard.” Spelling is more than just memorization – through word study, children are not just memorizing isolated words, but learning spelling patterns that will help them understand, learn, and spell hundreds of other vocabulary words. In order to learn these spelling patterns, students should be able to 1) read the spelling words and 2) be able to spell at least half of the words in the sort correctly (as determined by a pretest). This means your child is working at his or her spelling instructional level. If on a pretest a student misspells most or all of the spelling words, then these words are probably at the student’s spelling frustration level.

Are the sorts intended to be used purely on a weekly basis, or is it acceptable to take two weeks for a particular sort?

It is very important that students are not “locked in” to doing a new sort every week as was done in the past with traditional spelling lists. For some children, some sorts may require two weeks. This flexibility is what allows teachers to meet students at their level and progress at the instructional pace students need.

How do I meet the needs of my students who are at different developmental levels?

Recognizing that students in my classroom are at different developmental stages of word study as well as at different levels within a particular stage helps me differentiate instruction for them. In addition to having them work with sorts at their developmental level, I can meet individual differences by adjusting the pace of instruction, making sorts easier, and making sorts harder

Adjusting Pacing

The pacing of the sorts is designed for typical growth. However, because all students do not work at the same speed, teachers can adjust pacing in these ways:

  • If students catch on quickly, I move at a faster pace. I spend fewer days on series of sorts or skip some sorts altogether
  • If students are not keeping up, I slow down the pace. I do this by spending more time on the sorts. I can also create additional sorts using other pictures and words.

Making Sorts Easier

I can make sorts easier for those students who need more help with word study.

  • When beginning a new unit of study, I provide students with a sort that has fewer categories. As students become adept at sorting, I increase the number of categories in a sort.
  • If an example word is unfamiliar to students, I use one that is easier and familiar to students.
  • I provide additional example words for a category.
  • If there are unfamiliar words in the sort, I put them at the end so that known words are the first to be sorted
  • I eliminate “oddballs”, the words that do not fit the targeted letter-sound or pattern feature, from the sort
  • At the first three developmental levels, I do not include the Bonus Words.
  • I have the students review past sorts when necessary.

Making Sorts Harder

I can more sorts harder for those students who need a more challenging word study routine.

  • I add more difficult words to the sort. For example, adding words with blends and digraphs (black, chest, truck) to a short vowel sort is more challenging than simple words such as tap and set.
  • I have students suggest additional words that fit the targeted spelling feature.
  • I do fewer follow-up activities.
  • I skip sorts that review.

How do you balance teaching state grade level standards linked to word study/phonics (i.e. short and long vowels) to students who are in a lower level stage (i.e., emergent)?

Our “whole class” instruction addresses grade-level features, and while I do not expect below-level children to take as much from that instruction as those who are on-level, I like to think of it as “planting a seed” for below-level children about how words work – knowing that I will not assess or expect those children to internalize and apply that information until they are ready later on. In the meantime, of course, I am meeting their developmental needs right where they are, usually in small group instruction.

Can you skip sorts in the scope and sequence?

For students who are above-level and coming along quite well, we will skip sorts from time to time. For on-level and below-level students, it is against best practices to skip sorts. The reason is word study is not just about spelling – the more students interact with, think about, talk about the words and the patterns the words represent, the more deeply they are processing these words and features – which in turn supports their reading more efficiently.

Can spelling difficulty point to a more serious language-based disability?

Yes, but first I always want to determine if there is any other reason a student might have a spelling difficulty. If a student is trying to master the spelling of words that are at the student's spelling “frustration” level, this is not usually a sign of a more serious disability. If on the other hand the student is properly placed for spelling instruction, is doing well in reading, yet still is spelling poorly, then we may need to consider if the difficulty could be caused by a language-based disability.

Miss Kelly Burton

I hope this newsletter helped you feel more informed about your child's word study instruction. This approach is probably new for everyone so please don't hesitate to ask me questions. I am happy to help!


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


Reading Rockets