Word Study Kills Reading Comprehension, but here are 8 Ways to Change That! - Spiral WarmUps
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8 Ways to Use Word Study to Support Reading Comprehension

Word study kills reading comprehension. Plain and simple. But there are ways to use word study to save reading comprehension…and that’s what I’m going to show you in this post. Plus there are a few teaching bonuses along the way!

If you teach in upper elementary or middle school, you know you don’t have time for word study. You have to prepare for reading standards and standardized comprehension assessments!

But wait…why would I claim word study kills comprehension?

Many teachers know word study is important, but yeah, it’s “probably not that important”. If you think this is true. You’re wrong. Plain wrong.

And if that is too harsh, you definitely don’t want to read on because the data I’m about to present is very alarming!

Don’t forget to leave a comment at the bottom of this page!

After we look at this alarming data, I’m going to show you 8 ways to use word study from to save reading comprehension – other than in warm-ups!

BONUS: The Only 9 Comprehension Strategies You’ll Ever Need!

Here are some quick links to get you where you want to read in this article:

Word Study is Vital for Comprehension

There are decades of research behind the skills and subskills that lead to quality reading comprehension. We know word knowledge leads to fluency, which leads to comprehension.

But look at this recent data from the research of Kearns, et al (2016). What do you notice?

Decoding is the Word Study Link to fix Reading Comprehension

Do you see the leap?

I don’t know if there’s a name for this, but I’d like to call it the complexity leap.

Between 2nd grade and 5th grade students have an accelerated rate of exposure to multi-syllabic words.

You can read more about David Kearn’s word study research on his University of Connecticut webpage.

What else happens during this time period? Standardized testing. Instruction shifts drastically from learning to read to reading to comprehend.

What does this mean?

How Word Study Destroys Reading Comprehension

A lack of systematic and explicit word study instruction kills reading comprehension. It’s simple to understand. Let me give you a quick run down.

  • A good student has decent word study instruction in 1st grade.
  • The same student (let’s call him Joey) receives somewhat effective word study instruction in 2nd grade.
  • By 3rd grade Joey has gaps in his word knowledge. Maybe these gaps show up in spelling and again in his ability to quickly decode complex words. Usually the gaps show up in him getting stuck on a mid-2nd grade reading level.
  • By 4th grade instruction is solely focused on reading comprehension and writing. Joey’s gaps are never filled. Classes focus on standardized testing. He makes it by, but doesn’t reach his full potential.
  • He doesn’t excel in ELAR, and he struggles in content area reading in the middle school.
  • His high school course work is limited due to his reading gaps, and his future is limited. He graduates…just not like he could.

It really isn’t good enough to teach word knowledge in a inconsistent or incidental way. The complexity leap in upper elementary and middle school one reason why.

Increasing Complexity, Limited Word Knowledge

In grades 2-5, students come in contact with so many multi-syllabic words that a lack of word study will cause gaps. Gaps widen when the increasing text complexities outpace students’ word recognition, word building, and word meaning abilities.

Middle school teachers recognize this mostly when students struggle in complex novels, science texts, and social studies texts.

Research on Word Skills

Researchers Toste, Williams, and Capin (2016) assert a very specific charge for word study:

Poorly developed word recognition skills are the most pervasive and debilitating source of reading challenges

They go on to conclude that word reading instruction decreased in upper elementary and middle school, and the gaps the existed from earlier grades persist in later grades. 

Struggling students continue to struggle because the fundamental word knowledge gaps are not adequately addressed.

How does this get fixed?

It’s difficult, but there are a few things that can help.

Keep reading.

Ways to Use Word Study to Build Word Recognition

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Effectively Teach Decoding Words

Before we look at different ways to use word study in your classroom, let’s look at the research-based principle of effective word study instruction.

Phew, that was a mouth full.

Let’s look at what works.

There are a few research-based principles that must be in place. Without these, students might be successful with comprehension. With these, all student can have a chance as developing strong reading comprehension. Effective word study is the basis for effective reading instruction – even in grades 3-5! 

I’ve covered these research-based principles in detail on this research-based post, so let’s just recap here.

Effective word study instruction needs to:

  • Explicitly teach how to decode
  • Explicitly teach students how to blend sounds.
  • Spiral instruction to use words that have previously taught graphemes (letters) and phonemes (sounds).
  • Model how to blend and decode.
  • Guide students in decoding practice that helps students move quickly and smoothly from left to right across words.
  • Move students from oral decoding fluency to silent decoding fluency.

That’s a lot, I know. I feel you. I’m with you.

So let’s break it down and make all this research stuff simple.

Ways to Use Word Study in Your Daily Routine is designed, so we – all of us – can address the problem of reading comprehension gaps in a simple and systematic way.

That’s why I’ve collaborated with over 200 teachers and authors to design the curriculum back in 2017, and now have the input of over 4,000 teachers who’ve used Spiral WarmUps.

Enough of that.

This is not a sales pitch. Why should it be? This is a free program!

Word study warm-ups are free and you can use them every day for the first 3-6 minutes. It’s as simple as you finding finding the skill that matches your curriculum or your students’ specific needs and pressing play.

You can also use the warm-ups by starting at video 1 in our warm-ups and move through the end of the year in sequence. There are plenty of spiraling reviews (and literacy sequences) to catch up earlier skills and fill important reading gaps!

Here’s my video that goes into detail about the warm-up video including a few more ways to use word study.

The warm-ups are video-based or task cards. The videos are interactive. This means the video will play an sequence activities:

  • explicit instruction,
  • modeling,
  • choral response,
  • timed fluency practice,
  • and assessment.

Not every video includes all of these activities. Some are simple instruction and practice. Others are just choral response and written tasks. There are a variety of activities in the warm-up videos. 

The key is, students are engaged for 3-6 minutes mastering fundamental literacy skills!

This frees you to rove the room and monitor students.

What do you do during the warm-up?

Here are some ideas:

  • Ensure active participation.
  • Affirm student efforts and support struggling students.
  • Review students’ written work and give corrective feedback.
  • Extend the warm-up into your reading and writing lessons as you encounter word patterns that you recently learned in the warm-up.

But there are more way to use word study warm-ups other than as warm-ups!

Ways to Use Word Study other than a warm-up to boost reading comprehension!

More than Warm-ups, 8 Ways to Use Word Study

1. Word Study in Stations

Do you know how engaged students are when they have the variety of technology in a work station? They just love it.

Place a computer, tablet, or any wifi device in a station rotation. A group of 3-5 students can watch one or two warm-up videos together.

After the video, have the students write 10-12 words from the video. They then will complete an open word sort.

Ask the students to choose how to categorize the words into two columns. After sorting the words, students must answer the questions:

How did you sort the words? Why did you choose those categories?

2. Word Sums

Word sums are an awesome way to break down and build words. We do this often in the spiral warm-up videos.  You can use word sums to extend the lesson.

Ask the students to choose three words from the spiral warm-up lesson.

Then ask students to break the words into morphological parts. The base word, prefix, inflectional endings, suffixes. It looks like this:

Pre + test = pretest

After breaking the word down, show the students that you can change the word by changing the affixes.

Pre + test + ing = pretesting

Pre + test + ed = pretested

Re + test = retest

You can see how this can continue on for quite some time. That’s why we asked them to only start with three words from the warm-up lesson.

Ask them to complete as many word sums as they can in the next three minutes from those three words.

3. Word Matrix

The word matrix is similar to word sums because it breaks words into morphological parts. Take three words from the warm-up lesson and draw a matrix. It looks like this:

Ways to Use Word Study such as Word Matrix

The matrix is a visual of the prefixes, base word, inflectional endings, and suffixes. You can use all of these word parts to recreate new words. 

In the picture above, I could make the words: rewrite, prewrite, rewriting, prewriting, writes, writer, etc. It’s an application level activity for many different word study skills.

Then ask students to make three new words from the matrix.

Give the students one more word from the warm-up and ask them to create their own matrix.

After they create their own matrix, they can switch with a neighbor and create three words from their neighbor’s matrix.

Afterword, randomly call on a few students to share their words. Make a list on the board. It’s amazing how many words the students come up with from just one word!

Of all the 8 ways to use word study warm-ups, I like this the best because it 1) is an engaging puzzle-like activity, and 2) it is a visual for students.

4. Extend Guided Reading Lessons

This activity is set up just like the station discussed in #1. Finish the last few minutes of a guided reading lesson with focused word study instruction.

Then select the spiral warm-up video that best supplements or extends the word study skills students learned. The additional video-based practice will be perfect to give another exposure to the skill.

It gives struggling students a re-learning opportunity. And it provides a chance for successful students to deepen understandings.

5. Individualize Instruction

Spiral warm-ups can be used for several individualization needs:

  • Quick re-teaching after a student is absent.
  • Target a specific skill that a student needs to re-learn.
  • Provide additional practice for students who want to move forward.

6. Use in Tutoring Groups

Technology is great in tutoring groups because you can work with half of the students in a small group format. The other half can work on

The students working on the video will:

  1. Work through the video activity.
  2. Write 10-12 words from the video.
  3. Pair up and do a buddy study spelling test.
  4. After you finish working with your small group, you will let those students switch to the word study.

7. Word Study Wrap Up

The wrap-up is the opposite of the warm-up. Simply play the word study video at the end of class to wrap-up the day.

Some days…only some…you finish a little early. Instead of using the last 3-6 minutes of class as free time, use it for instructional time and get greater results!

You could use the same lesson from the morning if you feel the students need it again. Or you could move ahead into a different lesson.

Also, you can go back to a previous lesson that you know the students struggled with from the week before. And that leads us to the final way to use word study warm-ups.

8. Formative Assessment Data

In this last of the ways to use word study, you will use observational data (i.e. monitoring the students) to evaluate student engagement, successful participation, and written work.

Keep an index card on your board or near your desk, so you can keep track of data each day. Nothing complex here!

Simply place a five columns: M, T, W, Th, F. After each warm-up place a check or a star for the day of the week.

The checks mean you believe students can move on from that skill. The stars mean the students need you to reteach the skill. Simply note in your lesson plan which spiral warm-up it is you need to re-teach.

Then cycle the lessons with stars into your stations or your word study wrap-ups. That’s effective data-driven instruction!

So Many Ways to Use Word Study Activities

Even while writing this article I thought of four more activities and ways to use word study warm-ups.

Hopefully, you also have thought of ways to use word study to boost reading comprehension. I invite you to continue reading in these related articles:

Now, let’s dig deeper. If you read this far, thanks and hopefully, you found valuable tips or insights!

You are invited to participate in the free online professional learning course: Word Study 101. It provides you with:

  • 1 Hour CPE Credit
  • Tips to Reach Struggling Readers

Explore the free Word Study 101 course!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop them down below, share this post with a friend, or go ahead and explore the membership options and get started with Spiral WarmUps!



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4 responses to “8 Ways to Use Word Study to Support Reading Comprehension”

  1. Kelly Duran

    If I use the warm-ups in tutoring groups, does each student need to have an account?

    1. Matt

      No, you can log on and share the computer with them. But that comes with problems if the students decide to poke around in your account. That’s why we’re releasing student accounts for this school year.

  2. Tara Deserio

    I’m so glad you sent this email today…with COVID and all, I forgot about these warm-ups and they’re going to be perfect for distance learning!

    1. Matt

      Awesome, Tara! Watch your email for the new student courses that will help you personalize the warm-ups for each student!

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