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Professional Talk: Differentiation in Word Study

I recall hearing about differentiated spelling words, for students in Word Study, the first time I visited the school I taught at in Rhode Island.  I was unsure of how it would be possible to differentiate for students.  Once I began teaching fourth grade in Rhode Island, I quickly learned the easiest way to find words for kids’ spelling lists was to pull misspelled words from their in-class assignments and their writer’s notebooks.  However, I realized that creating personal word lists from just misspelled words in their writing wasn’t cutting it when it came time to give my students high-frequency word tests and the Elementary Spelling Inventory.  Over time, I realized that a better method of selecting personal words for my students was by using the developmental categories, defined by Words Their Way, 4th Ed., was a better way for me to go.  In fact, I saw marked improvement on weekly personal word tests and on the final Elementary Spelling Inventory I gave in June once I spent the final quarter of the school year differentiating my students’ weekly Word Study Instruction based on the developmental categories presented in Words Their Way.

This past Monday, I attended an informative session at the TC Writing Institute, with Christine Cook-Robson, entitled “Assess and Plan for Differentiated Word Study.”  Cook-Robson spoke about the benefits of differentiating word study instruction in the primary classroom by assessing students, grouping them together by need, creating structures and activities that work for a variety of concepts you wnat to teach, and then creating a plan for each of the groups.  I think the greatest message of Cook-Robson’s session, which I wish I had heard when I dove head-first into differentiation two years ago, was this:

Think about your groups and the whole class teaching you want to do.  Then, make a plan to teach the activities.  Next, set up a management board and let these activities run as centers.

Cook-Robson’s bottom line: start small and make the differentiation you do in word study manageable so you are teaching effectively.

I know, from personal experience, how tiring it can be to pull lists of personal words for kids week-after-week.  However, using the stages from Words Their Way this past spring made a seemingly tedious task easier and much more productive for the children.  If you haven’t seen Words Their Way, then click here to find out more.  While I didn’t use the actual program in my classroom with my entire class, I used some of the assessment tools and found the stages to be exceedingly effective when it came to differentiation amongst my students.

Finally, I found some Spelling Assessments on the TCRWP that are accessible to the general public.  Click here to view those assessments.

Stacey Shubitz View All

I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.

I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).

10 thoughts on “Professional Talk: Differentiation in Word Study Leave a comment

  1. Stacey,

    I worked many years ago in a private school in the city that used WTW (maybe the 1st edition?!–man, I’m old…) and loved it back then. Word Study is a hot topic for me right now, so I was excited to see your post. You may also find Word Journeys by Kathy Ganske interesting as well–same stages of development and philosophy, but her assessment is one that I’ve grown to prefer. Her upper grades version is called Mindful of Words.


  2. I’ve been doing WTW for a long time (was lucky enough to take an entire graduate course in it at UVa) and still feel like I learn something new every year. I still use the activities in the original WTW book. My kids love Homonym Rummy, Red Light, Green Light, Scattergories, etc but Kathy Ganske’s materials are also excellent for K-3.. This year I’m going to use the word lists from the book Small Group Reading Instruction: A Differentiated Teaching Model for Intermediate Readers, Grades 3-8 by Beverly Tyner and Sharon E. Green There are suggested dictation sentences to go with the sorts. I use a template for the sorts– I’d be glad to send you the template when I get home from the beach. Thanks for your reflections from TC. Keep them coming- so sorry not to be there this year.


  3. Kelly,

    You seem to be right on-par with the activities.

    As for assessments: I did mid-week buddy tests, in which grades weren’t recorded, but where partnerships would test each other on their personal words. (Big test on Fridays.) For homework, I did some journal entries, but didn’t love the results, so I shifted to move of the sentence writing and “Look-Say-Name” kind of things.


  4. Stacey,
    I mean daily activities, small group and whole goup instruction. For example, on Mondays I would introduce the sort to three small groups. Tuesday through Thursday, I would work with one group for 10-15 mintues while the students worked independently on SAW sorting, rainbow words, glue the sort etc. On Fridays, I adminstered 10 words and a sentence to each small group for an assessment.

    Did TC recommend different activities? Any thoughts on word study homework and weekly assessments? These are areas my teaching partner and I are still trying to tweak.


  5. I was happy to discover your Two Writing Teachers blog today. I’ve developed an educational program for Windows called SpellQuizzer that helps students learn their spelling and vocabulary words. You set up the students’ spelling lists in the software and then students practice their words with SpellQuizzer. It really greatly helped my own children with their weekly spelling lists.

    I am hoping that either Ruth or Stacey would be interested in reviewing SpellQuizzer in Two Writing Teachers. You can learn more about the program at There’s a video demo you can watch at and a community site where SpellQuizzer users can share their spelling lists with one another ( I’d be happy to send you a complimentary license for the software. Please let me know if you are interested.

    I’m currently offering SpellQuizzer free to any educator who contacts me at so if you know of any other educators who might be interested please let them know. Feel free to post this offer in your blog. Educators who contact us will need to supply an email address affiliated with an educational institution to qualify.

    Thank you very much!

    Dan Hite
    TedCo Software


  6. WTW has been really effective for me as well. I was starting to write a response, but it was getting way too long, so I am going to write a post about it over on my blog in case you or any of the other readers are interested in more about implementing WTW and my current struggle to get word study going when I am in Spanish weeks.

    Thanks for the TCRWP link. It looks like it will be a great resource. I just emailed the link to myself so that I won’t forget it.


  7. Hi Stacey,
    I would have loved to attend this workshop!
    Our second grade level uses Words Their Way and we were differentiating with a level A, B and C according to the notebbok sorts. However, this year will be different. All the students completed the level A without differentiation. After I review the spellig assessment, I think some students will be a level A. Would it be okay to have these students work at the level A again? Was this addressed at your workshop?

    Also do you have a schedule or lesson plan format to address word study? My teaching partner and I had a schedule last year, but I am looking for something better. I am very lucky because our district bought the notebooks, the CD with games, the poem book, and the guided readers. Any help would be appreciated! Thanks.


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