Why is word study important? What are the components of word study? What does high-quality word study instruction look like in elementary and middle school levels?
These are important questions, because everything – absolutely everything – we do in schools requires comprehension of words. PE instruction, math problems, and even art class all require comprehension of words – both written and spoken words. So yes, word study is important!
Let start with a brief description of word study.
Word study provides students with opportunities understand how words work – their meanings, their patterns, and how they combine in sentences. Word study instruction is both investigative and explicit. It requires ample practice and spiral review over time. Knowledge of patterns in words means that students needn’t master endless lists of words or learn to spell one word at a time. Instead, we study words as a way to learn the patterns that can apply to many, many more specific word spellings and meanings. Patterns aren’t rules. Patterns help us understand how to read, write, spell, and speak in conventional ways.
Why is Word Study Important and Other Word Study Questions
A student’s academic career, professional career, and personal life relies on communication skills. Words are the foundation of communication, and word study provides opportunities for students master patterns that empower students to read, write, spell, and speak in conventional ways.
In a balanced literacy classroom, word study includes phonics, spelling, vocabulary addressed in the context of developmentally based instruction that helps students make connections between sounds, letters, meaning, with and without connected tex.
Word study is what students do to learn word patterns, and word study instruction is what the teacher does to create opportunities to explore, discover, and receive explicit, direct instruction on word patterns – this includes ample spiral review to allow students to master word patterns and word knowledge.
When students possess strong backgrounds in phonics, word meaning, and spelling, they are able to translate written text into spoken words quickly, accurately, and with meaning.
“The term phonics instruction refers to teaching students about the relationship between sounds and written letters (known as the alphabetic principle) so that the students learn how to decode and read words. … The combination of phonics and word study helps students with word recognition, reading, and spelling.”
Quote From Vanderbilt University
Phonics helps students distinguish the sounds and letters within words, spelling helps students find the letter patterns that build words, and word study is the time dedicated to studying phonics, spelling, word meanings, and syntax.
Student need time and opportunity to gain word knowledge. There are many ways to teach word knowledge and provide opportunities for word study. At times, word knowledge teaching strategies should be explicit and direct – both in whole class settings, small group, and individual. Other times, word study should be explorative and discover based, such as in a word sort where students discover the differences between word patterns.
And then there are teaching strategies that allow students to review, master, and deepen their understanding of words. These strategies include spiral review and re-teaching opportunities.
Here is a list of general word study teaching strategies:
- Introduce a spelling pattern (i.e. using the suffix -able) and give students a group of words to sort based on this pattern.
- Ask students to complete a T chart sorting a few words from their reading based on a given word pattern (i.e. -tch or inflected endings like -ed).
- Use games to reinforce skills and patterns that you’ve already taught.
- In a small group, directly teach patterns (spelling patterns, Latin/Greek roots, etc) and give a few minutes for students to quiz each other, write, and practice the patterns.
Word Study in K-2 Classrooms
In the K-2 classroom, word study takes a large role in helping students to build basic literacy skills, and it is 4 of the 5 components of effective literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Word Study in 3-5 Classrooms
In the grades 3-5 classroom, students will need opportunities to re-learn word knowledge that was previously taught (or not taught) but was not full mastered. And this is not a failure of the earlier years of schooling, word knowledge grows over time and increases with students’ overall literacy development.
New word knowledge will include increased understanding of complex orthographic patterns, syntax, and root words that create meaning in words.
Word Study in Middle School
Middle school is not often thought of as the place for word study, but we know that students with higher levels of word knowledge perform stronger in middle school and secondary school. Intervention and re-teaching should help struggling readers gain missing word knowledge, and all students should build a larger base of syntax skills and vocabulary skills during middle school.