centers · management · phonics · routines · word study

April is the perfect time to try something new: Word Study Stations

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right? My dog, Indie, is fourteen years old. He’s frail and shaky. He needs his food softened before he can chew it with his few remaining teeth. Also, he’s completely deaf.

So when we recently got a new couch, we were doubtful that we could teach our old dog not to jump up on it. He’s always been allowed everywhere – beds, couches, laps… but we didn’t want his toenails to scratch up our nice new couch.

Imagine our surprise when it only took a few stern looks and gestures for Indie to learn not to go on the new couch! We put one of his dog beds right next to the couch, and now he looks longingly at the couch, but settles for his bed.

By now, in mid-April, students have become so accustomed to the routines and expectations in your classroom that it may seem impossible that you could teach them any more “new tricks.” Many students (and teachers) are starting to think in terms of endings and wrapping up–certainly not trying out an entirely new routine. But I would like to submit that now is actually a GREAT time to try something new.

Your students are at the stage where they know you and your classroom and how things work inside and out. They know where the materials are, where to sit, how to transition from one activity to another–and you know THEM so much better. You know who will make great partners, and who might need a little extra time. All that beginning of the year stuff is finally clicking. With a smooth running classroom, spring is a great time to try something new with your students.

If you’ve been teaching phonics or words study in whole class lessons each day, perhaps you’d be willing to try word study stations.

For a breakdown of what I mean by word study, and for lots of ideas for stations, you might want to pause, go read this post, and then come back to read about launching stations if they are new to your classroom.


Step 1: REALLY Teach the routines of stations.

Start with one really simple activity that will stay the same at all the stations. I like to start with sorting little plastic objects – they can be sorted by shape, color, category, or initial or ending sounds, number of syllables, you name it. There are supply companies that sell little sets of these objects, but you could also ask your students and colleagues to donate things to sort – bottle caps, bread tags, tiles, buttons, little plastic animals or cars, erasers, leftover party favors… anything will do!

The goal of Day 1 of stations is to teach the routines, very explicitly. Start with kids at the meeting area and demonstrate exactly how to take the lid off the container of little objects. Then demonstrate and talk about how to pour the items out carefully onto a tray. (A baking tray is useful for defining the space being used for any activity — a placemat, or big piece of paper works too). Then, step-by-step, show the whole class how to take turns sorting objects with a partner or small group.

After you’ve demonstrated the activity to the whole class, you’re not done! You still need to teach them explicitly how to walk calmly and quietly from the rug to their station and get right straight to work, without stopping in between. Doing this slowly and consistently from Day 1 will establish nice smooth transitions from the rug to their stations.

Once students are at their stations, you’ll need to circulate and coach. Encourage kids to talk about the objects they are sorting, and to sort in different ways. Model the kinds of things they might say and do, and reinforce kids when they are doing great work.

After just a few minutes of successful time at their stations, use a signal to get their attention, and then model step-by-step exactly how to put all the items back in the containers, and how to put the lid back on, and where to put the container at the end of station time.

You’ve introduced your first word study station!

Step 2: Introduce another station.

After several successful days in a row with just one station going, you’ll be ready to introduce another station. Do the same thing you did on Day 1 only with a different activity that you can get a lot of use out of. I like to introduce word hunts (or phonogram/spelling pattern hunts) as a station because it can easily be made multi-level once kids know how the routine goes. Another activity I like to introduce early on is a multisensory handwriting or fine motor station, or a phonics card game or board game that involves partners like Go Fish or Concentration.

I try to do everything at stations with partners so that they can gently correct each other and hold each other accountable — it’s also more engaging and provides more opportunity for talk.

For your second station, choose something simple that you’ll be able to get a lot of mileage out of. Focus on teaching students to be able to do the activity with total independence – taking out the materials, setting up, working and talking with a partner, and putting away materials for the next group.

Step 3: Differentiate the stations.

Once you have two or three stations up and running and you’ve successfully taught independence, you can start to match the activities to the needs of your students. The wonderful thing about stations is that you can differentiate in many different ways. Here are just two ways to differentiation the stations:

  1. One way to differentiate is by simply sending different groups of kids to stations that are designed to help them practice something that is just right for them. Each station could be tailored to what one group needs. For example, you could design the sorting station to be just right for one group of students, and the handwriting station to be just right for another group. And the word hunt station and a phonics board game station could be just right for two other groups of kids. And another group of students could be working with you at the carpet while the others are working at their stations.
  2. Another way to differentiate is to have a few different options at each station. At the sorting station, for example, you might have a range of sorts set up in zip-lock baggies, labeled with partner’s names, so each partnership knows which sort to work on. Or, at the high frequency word hunt station, store an individual ring of high frequency words for each student to search for in their book baggies and around the room (with a partner).

It may sound complicated if you’ve never tried it, but if you spend plenty of time teaching just one station at a time, it is worth it — because if your students can spend time independently practicing the word study they need, it frees you up to meet with small groups – the holy grail of phonics instruction!

Step 4: Teach small groups while the others work at their stations.

With students working independently at stations, you can meet with small groups of students each day.

In many classrooms, there is a designated word study/phonics time, about twenty-five minutes long. It typically goes:

*Quick whole group lesson or practice (like an alphabet/phonogram drill, reading the word wall, or reviewing the steps to a familiar game at one of the stations)

*One group stays at the carpet, while the teacher sends one partnership at a time off to their stations. Often, teachers use a chart to visually represent where each partnership should go. Each station is about 5 minutes. Notice in the chart below how the kids will rotate to three different stations. The teacher station, of course, can stretch longer than the other stations if needed!

Once kids are settled at their stations, you can work with a small group. One common way that a small group might go is straight out of Words Their Way (Donald Bear, et al.).

I introduce the words in a new sort by reading and talking about each word, perhaps inviting the kids to use newer vocabulary in a sentence, or adding a small picture clue.

Next, I invite the kids to do an open sort. That simply means “sort in any way you can.” This allows me to to observe and assess the kids in the group to see what features they notice first, and how they think and talk about words. I can coach them to use content vocabulary like “beginning sound,” “ending sound,” “vowel,” “consonant,” or “syllable.”

Last, if the kids haven’t already figured it out, I model sorting the words using the feature or phonogram I planned to teach that day. I think aloud and read each word as I model, inviting the kids to join me, taking turns deciding where to place each word. Then we talk about the pattern, generalization, or “rule” and if kids are older, I ask them to write it down in their word study notebooks. For example “Single syllable words that end in f, l, s, or z are short vowel words. Double the last consonant in FLSZ words.”

Then each partner gets a copy of the sort in a zip-lock baggie with their names on it, to keep at the sorting station for when it’s their turn to be at that station.

When my timer goes off (usually after five to seven minutes or so), the kids rotate to a new station, and I either spend a little extra time with my small group, circulate the room to coach kids at stations, or pull a second small group.

I like to have independent reading as the final “station” so that we can transition right into reading workshop after word study, or as a way to simply sneak in some extra reading time.

There are endless resources you can look to for teaching foundational skills to small groups – professional books, websites, conferences, and courses you can take. Be wary of what you find on the internet — be sure you aren’t paying for or downloading materials that are infringing on copyright rules. Copyright infringement of educational resources is an unfortunate trend, particularly with word study materials because they are easily copied. Be sure the activities you select are based on sound research, are engaging, and can be made multilevel to meet kids needs.

You really can teach your kids “new tricks” at this time of the year! And, it’s a wonderful time to try something new that you might want to start right from the beginning of the year next year. Try it now, with kids you know well, who know you really well, in a classroom where you’ve already built a calm, supportive environment. What better way to learn a new routine?