What I’ve Learned about Word Study

I recently had the good fortune of watching the wonderful Natalie Louis deliver a word study lesson at a school in Harlem. It was so cool.

For a mostly upper grade person like me, word study has always been a bit shrouded in mystery. What exactly is the difference between phonemic and phonological awareness? What is a grapheme? A digraph?

So now, I’m an editor at Heinemann Publishing working with Lucy Calkins and her team at the TCRWP on their upcoming phonics series (I know! More on this later.) and as part of educating myself on what great phonics work looks like in the classroom, I went to watch Natalie.

Here’s a snippet of what I saw:

Natalie showed the class a few different ways to study a name, such as counting the letters, noticing shapes of the letters, clapping the number of parts, cheering the name of each letter.

Then she taught the class: we can use names to learn other words. She showed them how to find words and word parts hiding in a name. For example, in the name Christina, the words “is” and “in” are hiding, words that also happened to be two of the students’ snap words, Natalie pointed out.

Then, Natalie separated the class into small groups, suggested one students’ name for each group to work with, and let them have at it using a white board.

One group, working with the name Sharkeed, made the following words:  shark, shake (“Shake Shack!” they yelled.), shed, red. They talked about how the ending of the name, -ed, could be used to make a lot of other words, like bed, fed, and led. They did their best with spelling. When one student wrote “shack” as “shak,” Natalie gently corrected, saying, “Yes, k does make the sound you hear at the end of that word. Usually when it’s at the end of word, that sound is spelled “ck,” as in the word shack, which is spelled s-h-a-c-k.”

Certainly, a lesson like this would be just one part of a comprehensive word study curriculum. Children benefit from direct instruction in individual phonemes and spelling patterns, rhyming, and high frequency words, just to name a few concepts. But this kind of lesson is an important one. Too often, students are shepherded lock step through a series of isolated, disconnected lessons during word work time, without enough opportunity for the kind of play and independent practice that promotes transfer and ownership.

Now, about that upcoming series.

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project is currently at work on what promises to be a highly-engaging, comprehensive word study curriculum. It will be deeply connected to the Units of Study in both reading and writing. It will form a bridge of sorts between the reading and writing units, and will emphasize transfer directly and explicitly. Many of the components of the curriculum will be familiar and time-tested, such as:

  • grade-specific units with clear, session-by-session trajectories;
  • detailed session descriptions for each part of a word study lesson;
  • varied teaching techniques and plenty of help understanding how to deliver each one;
  • tons of rich content that serves as lesson planning tips and professional development;
  • help with assessment and setting expectations and examples of student work.

What I’m learning about word work instruction, from watching experts like Natalie and from helping to edit this series, is that it can be simultaneously engaging and comprehensive, quick and impactful, fun and rigorous. Word study time does not need to take copious time away from other parts of the school day, nor does it need to involve armloads of special materials or hours of preparation in order to work. I’m learning it can be messy at times, and I’m learning what approximation looks like and how to celebrate that.

The next time I’m faced with evaluating a word study lesson (or an entire program) for its merit, I’ll consider whether it would be time well spent. Does it celebrate process and approximation? Does it encourage children to use what they know to solve problems? Does it support transfer to reading and writing? If not, I’ll suggest a different way.