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English Language Arts | Teaching Strategies | April 25, 2024

5 Active Ways to Encourage Word Study

It is important for students to know a wide variety of words to be successful in reading. Learning new words shouldn’t be about flash cards and rote memorization, though. We must consider ways to actively engage students to learn new words and manipulate language. Word study—which encompasses phonics, spelling, and vocabulary—supports students as readers and writers. This article explores ways to actively encourage word study and to connect it to reading and writing.

What is Word Study?

Word study provides tools for students to analyze words while reading and writing. Word study includes phonics, spelling, and vocabulary. Phonics, spelling, and vocabulary are interconnected and are best taught simultaneously. Providing instruction in these three areas while building word study skills simultaneously provides important learning opportunities for students in reading and writing.


Phonics entails the study of letter to sound correspondence. Learning phonics allows students to independently decode and encode words. Students are given tools to systematically examine new words and learn them fluently through phonics instruction. When planning phonics lessons, the teacher should make sure that the lessons include assessments of student knowledge. Teachers can use the assessment results to guide instructional planning. It should offer carefully sequenced lessons to build phonics understanding over time with differentiation opportunities and activities that offer students active participation in learning.


Spelling includes recognition of patterns in written words. Teachers should use a systematic approach to spelling, considering students’ individual needs when developing word lists. Teachers should be aware of their students’ understanding of English and of their level of phonics mastery when assigning activities and developing new lists. Using phonics to teach spelling allows teachers to help students gain interconnected benefits in literacy when learning new spelling words.


Vocabulary instruction typically highlights high frequency words that students need to learn to be fluent writers and expands students’ depth of knowledge of words. Vocabulary lessons also expand students’ knowledge of words, both in number and understanding. Explicitly taught words and rich discussions about words and their meanings through analysis are ways to ensure that students will retain and build vocabulary.

Word Study Activities

Word study activities are appropriate for students of all ages. Word studies should increase in complexity as grade levels progress. Successful word study activities must avoid rote memorization and engage students deeply in reading, writing, and speaking. These three areas offer a variety of ways to engage students as they advance in understanding and fluency. Here are five activities you can try right away in your classroom to support students.


Shades of Meaning

Select words that have similar meanings, such as huge and large; asked and questioned. Pass the word cards out to students and have them find their buddy with a similar meaning. Ask them to create sentences using the word pairs.

Plus or Minus Endings

Make word cards using words with -ing and -ed. Ask students to use scissors to cut the endings off. Does the base word need a letter (-e) or does it have an extra letter (a double consonant)? Talk about the changes for adding endings. Search for more examples in the books they are reading.

Syllable Sort

Make word cards using a set of selected words. (Consider science, social studies, or math words to double up on vocabulary development.) Find fun containers, such as beach pails, pumpkins, rain boots, or mixing bowls, and label them with numbers for the syllables in the words you select. Have students sort the word cards according to syllables.

Pair the Pears

On pear-shaped paper write homophones (e.g., tale/tail, here/hear, bear/bare). Shuffle the cards and distribute a card to each student. Have students walk around the room to find their matching homophone. Then have pairs create a sentence that uses both words, showing correct usage. (e.g., The bear scratched his back on the trunk of the bare tree.)

Hoop It Up

Draw two basketball hoops on two separate sheets of chart paper and put them up in two different places around the room. Choose two sounds for students to compare (long a/short a; hard g/soft g). On basketball shape paper write words that fit the sound patterns (bake/bag; goat/giant). Distribute a word to each student. Have students walk around the room to place their basketballs under the correct hoop.


The Relationship of Word Study, Reading, and Writing

How can we help students see the relationship among their word study, reading, and writing? In order for learning to be successful, students need to understand the value in studying all three areas. Here are four tips to help strengthen students’ knowledge and independence, as you introduce real-world reading and writing with word study.

Work Across the Curriculum

Perhaps students are working on a science unit about trees. Find a poem about trees and use it to discuss the content, genre, and rhyme families. Point out how words relate to each other. Have students discuss if they have previously heard the same words in other content. Students can begin to understand how vocabulary works across subjects, but also how language can change based on context. Highlight the important vocabulary the poet chose. Explain how words can evoke a specific response from the reader or create a picture to tell a story. Students will find that their reading knowledge expands along with their vocabulary work.

Make Word Study Count

Spelling or vocabulary lists should have high utility. Students should be learning words related to each other (for example, erupt, interrupt, abrupt, rupture, corrupt‚ all using -rupt, Latin meaning “to break”). It is much easier to remember words that have similarity than it is to learn ten words from a novel that have little carryover to written work. Giving students context increases the level of engagement they have with the word studies.

Use Glossaries

Put those glossaries to work! Content-area books (both textbooks and trade books) include a treasure trove of words to use in word study and writing. Students can be detectives and find glossary words that fit a pattern being studied (such as plural endings). Not only will this connect the words to your word study, but it will also teach a feature of nonfiction text.

Consider Genre

Change up the genre for reading instruction. Using a variety of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry texts for reading instruction means students learn how to read these genres under your guidance. It allows you to teach content while emphasizing comprehension.

Learning new words should not be about rote memorization, but should engage students. These are just a few ideas to get your students started with active word learning. These word study activities will offer meaningful reading and writing experiences for your students.


Author Bio:

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Mary Jo Fresch, Ph.D., Literacy Consultant and Author

Mary Jo Fresch, Ph.D., began as a third-grade teacher in Kent, Ohio. Throughout her career, she taught adult literacy at the University of Akron, reading methods at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), and teacher education at Deakin University and The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Mary Jo also taught at The Ohio State University for 20 years prior to retiring in 2015. She is now professor emeritus and an active literacy consultant and author. Mary Jo has authored and edited many...

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