Carla Steele is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.
Why do they get it on Friday and misspell it on Monday?
This is a question raised by parents, pondered by educators, and researched by literacy experts alike. It is a question that challenges us to deepen our knowledge and understanding of not only phonics and spelling, but of the various ideologies and pedagogical practices that factor into this phenomenon as well.
It means that we have to take a hard look at the teaching and learning happening—or not happening—in our classrooms. Are we are motivating students to be active and engaged participants, and have ownership in their learning? Is our instruction systematic and intentional? Are we affording students the opportunity to transfer what they learn into authentic reading and writing experiences?
If not, consider a shift to a developmental, systematic, and assessment-driven Word Study approach, which focuses on teaching for transference and is both a component of and immersed within a comprehensive, balanced literacy model—one that may look very different than the traditional instruction many of us received.
What Do I Need to Know?
There is not just one way to “do” Word Study, and navigating the possibilities can be overwhelming. However, there is one essential resource: the teacher. No one understands students’ needs better.
The following is not a “how-to” guide to Word Study. It is a brief overview of key factors to consider when developing, selecting, or refining an existing Word Study model.
What is Word Study?
Word Study is first and foremost developmental. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Students are active participants; have ownership in their journey to become successful, independent word-solvers as readers and writers; and is a key part of literacy instruction for all grades.
It is also:
- research- and inquiry-based
- socially constructed
- responsive to students' strengths and needs
- intentionally linked to authentic reading and writing
Spelling inventories are useful in discerning a child’s stage of spelling development, offering insight into the level of word knowledge the student controls. While the stages of spelling development are established, the rate of progress in and through each stage can vary significantly between children. Assessment informs decision-making that supports differentiated instruction and ensures that instruction is appropriate.
A multifaceted assessment plan should include daily and periodic assessments to provide data and information important for both instructional decision-making and progress monitoring. Other assessments, especially useful in interim progress monitoring include: classroom observations, running records/records of oral reading, and writing samples.
When taken together, the data from a combination of assessments make it possible to determine students’ progress in developing item knowledge as well as their use of word knowledge/word solving strategies in reading and writing continuous text. A Word Study approach relies on this type of sensitive, systematic, and intentional assessment.
Organizing for and Managing Word Study
Whole Group or Small Group Instruction: If one is not yet comfortable in facilitating small group Word Study, it may be better to begin with the whole group. However, the ultimate goal is to transition to small group, differentiated instruction to better meet the students’ diverse needs.
- Whole Group Instruction: The Word Study cycle begins with a teacher-led, whole group mini-lesson. On subsequent days, students engage in application activities designed to strengthen and expand their learning with each day ending in a group share.
- Differentiated Small Group Instruction: The first step is to group students who have similar strengths and needs for instruction based on assessment data. A staggered start is used to begin each group’s study cycle. It is important that groups remain fluid and flexible so that movement is possible between groups as students grow in their understandings and new learning needs arise.
Planning for Instruction: Begin by analyzing data from a spelling inventory used to determine students’ stage of spelling or word knowledge. When coupled with additional classroom data and information, a starting point for instruction can be determined. It is important not to focus only on what the student does not know. Look instead for what the student controls or is beginning to control.
Word Study in the Classroom: Classroom curriculum must provide time for explicit Word Study as well as time for embedded opportunities—across instructional contexts—in order for students to practice, extend, and deepen their understandings of how words work as they read and write continuous texts. It is not one or the other, it must be both. A comprehensive, balanced literacy framework makes this complex task achievable.
Teaching and Learning
Word Study is based on theoretical underpinnings that assert a child’s acquisition of word knowledge is a systematic, developmental process that grows and changes over time, at different rates for different children. Therefore, the teaching and learning that takes place within in our classrooms must go far beyond a one-size-fits-all approach.
Quality Word Study can do just that by affording students a myriad of opportunities to discover, extend, practice, and build understandings about how words work across instructional contexts and within a systematic, organized block of time.
It can also ignite the wow factor in students when they are encouraged to inquire and search for understanding; employ critical thinking/problem solving strategies; and become active participants in their own learning as they journey to become proficient readers, writers, and language learners.
The Joy of Writing: Living as Writers Within the Workshop by Wendy Sheets, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.
Let’s Rethink Second Grade: My Teaching and Coaching Experience with this Transitional Year by Shelly Schaub, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.
The Writer's Journey by Jenny McFerin, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.
For the Love of Guided Reading by Nikki Woodruff, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.
Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block by Lisa Pinkerton, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.
All photos via Scholastic