Best Practices: How a Systematic, Differentiated Approach to Word Study Can Enhance Reading Fluency

Why Weekly Spelling Tests Don’t Work

In the past, word work often consisted of a weekly spelling test and pointless drills from workbooks.  I can remember, as a child, learning my spelling list each week and attempting to ace the test every Friday.  When Monday rolled around, I often forgot the spelling words from the week before.  These words had no meaning for me. I simply memorized the order of the letters and was able to regurgitate this on paper.  As Invernizzi and Hayes write in their article “Developmental-Spelling Research: A Systematic Imperative”:

Short of this general understanding, students have no recourse but to use rote memorization for the text on Friday, and the words are easily forgotten on Monday (Invernizzi, 2010, p.46).

Over the past twenty years, there has been a major shift in the way researchers and educators are viewing best practices for the way in which students approach and spell words.  The ability of a student to decode a word directly corresponds with his or her reading fluency and comprehension (Invernizzi, 2010, p. 43).  I will highlight and summarize two approaches to word study that I find to be exciting and engaging to students, and explain how these methods can enhance fluency amongst student readers. I will also explore some of the activities and tools I use in my classroom to promote effective word study instruction.

The Importance of Differentiation Within Word Study Programs

Before diving into best practices for word study, it is important to understand the importance of differentiation for word study activities.  The Whole-Group instruction approach to teaching word work has been proven ineffective for learners in the classroom.  Researchers have found that  students who received the same instruction without any differentiation often performed poorly at the end of the year when trying to spell curriculum based words (Invernizzi, 2010, p. 47).  Even though some of the students achieved at grade level, a large amount of students could not spell these words correctly.  Spelling research made it clear that teachers first need to have a “Qualitative spelling assessments and feature analyses” (Invernizzi , 2010, p.48) to give the teacher an idea of where their students fall on a “developmental continuum of systematic instruction” (Invernizzi, 2010, p. 48).  The teachers then take this information and are able to create lessons that cater to a students phonics and spelling needs during small group instruction.



A major approach to word study is the practice of using word sorts.  These sorts can range from organizing picture cards based on their beginning sounds, to sorting words based on the digraphs heard at the end of the sound (such as /sh/ /ch/ and /th).  Word sorts have proven to be an effective way for students to “examine the orthographic relationship among words by sorting them into categories based on sound and spelling patterns” (Zucker, 2008, p. 654).  With the advances of technology and the ways teachers utilize them in the classroom, programs have emerged that are exciting and motivating for the students.  One such program is the E-Sort, developed by researchers Tricia A. Zucker and Marcia Invernizzi.  E-Sorts can be an effective word study approach:

(1) for students with a poor attitude toward reading, eSorts might promote a positive attitude toward literacy, and (2) for students who had already been taught spelling patterns but were having trouble mastering them, eSorts provided a new context for additional reading and spelling practice (Zucker, 2008, p. 654).

E-Sorts are a systematic way to introduce and reinforce spelling patterns, and consist both of small group instruction and individual work on the computer.  There is an assessment at the end of the week, where a teacher is able to see how a student was able to grasp the spelling pattern that he or she was working on all week.  An E-Sort also includes a personalized story from the student, which helps with motivation and reading fluency.  A typical E-Sort will last five days.  The first day begins with a digital experience story (the student is guided by a tutor).  The second day consists of reviewing a previous E-Sort (an example would be a student sorting the long A verses the short A sound) and a rough draft of the new e-sort (again, the student is assisted by a tutor).  On the third day, the student and the tutor finalize the E-Sort and also create word hunts from the personal experience story.  The fourth day reinforces the word sort by having the student practice sorting the words multiple times until it becomes automatic, and on the fifth day, a student can share his or her personal experience story, and invite other students to “play” his or her word sort (Zucker, 2008, p. 655).  Not only is this approach systematic and reinforces patterns in words, it also allows the students to add their own personal experiences and have a sense of ownership over the word sort.  When the students practice the word sort over and over again on the fourth day, this directly corresponds to reading fluency and being able to automatically know a word based on the sound pattern.

Word Family Instruction   


As a kindergarten teacher, I know the importance of word families and how they can directly relate to a student’s understanding of spelling patterns.  A word family is a series of words that has the same ending (such as cat, rat, sat, and bat). ]  Rhyming and poetry are excellent ways to introduce word families to student, because hearing the rhyming words allows students to later recognize and quickly decode words from the word families. Some students are able to decode word family words simply by seeing them on a word wall, while other students might need a more teacher guided approach to learning and understanding word families (Rasinki, 2008, p. 258).  Researchers Timothy Rasinski, William H. Rupley,  and William Dee Nichols, from their article  “Two Essential Ingredients: Phonics and Fluency Getting to Know Each Other”, have suggested a wonderful, teacher led approach to teaching word families, which incorporate poetry and rhyming to help create meaning for the students.  They believe that the simple act of reading and repeating oral texts that have rhyming patterns can greatly enhance fluency amongst early readers.

repeated oral readings, students read text several times until they can read with a degree of automat- icity and expression. An abundance of evidence has shown that students engaged in repeated readings are more accurate in their word recognition, read more rapidly with expression and comprehension, and are more confident as readers (Rasinki, 2008, p. 258).

In addition to oral reading and repetition, Rasinki, Ruply, and Nichols suggest a systematic approach to teaching a word family that consists of student generated words and poetry.  They define this in three steps:

Step 1- After a teacher introduces and models how to make words from a new word family, the students will generate a list of words from the word family.  The teacher will record these words, and the students and teacher will revisit and add to the list throughout the week (Rasinksi, 2008, p. 258).

Step 2-The teacher will begin to use the word family words in context.  After reviewing the word family words (let’s say the words are from the -at family), a teacher can create a little poem and write it on chart paper.  (The cat sat on the hat, and then a bat and a rat sat on the mat!)  Students can practice reading this poem, and, if they are ready, can actually create their own poems using words from the -at word family (Raskinski, 2008, p. 259).

Step 3-After the students and teacher have generated the word family list and the poem, the teacher will display the word family in the classroom where students can see it and practice it repeatedly.  The word family work will coincide with word sorts, where the students can begin to sort the words based on different characteristics.

Each time students sort the words, they are practicing the words again, but with each sort, they are examining the words from a different perspective that requires a deep analysis of the words and leads to developing mastery over the words (Rasinksi, 2008, p. 260).

This is an extremely effective approach to word study, because it promotes both understanding of how to make words from a word family, and how to use them in poetry and promote fluency.  It also transfers from whole group instruction to small group work, where the students practice sorting the words.


Question for the Reader:  

Click on this link and watch this word family video.  How does this video tie into Rasinki, Ruply, and Nichols’ approach to teaching a word family?  

What Does Word Work Look Like in My Classroom?


In my kindergarten classroom, word work varies from a lesson that incorporates the whole class, to students working independently in centers, to individual students working on the Smartboard.  For whole group instruction, I have adopted Rasinki, Ruply, and Nichols’ approach to teaching word families, where the students and I generate a list of words from a word family on the first day (students are also writing down the word on a personal dry erase board), and then incorporate the words into poetry (to practice fluency) and independent work during small group time.  An independent activity might consist of a student creating a list of words that end with “-at”, adding a beginning phoneme (let’s say they add the /b/ sound), and matching the picture to the word (student will match the picture of the bat to the word “bat”).

The students also use a lot of word sorts to help them become familiar with syllables, beginning sounds, middle sounds, ending sounds, digraphs, and long and short vowels.  I differentiate the word sorts based on the needs of the students.  A student who is struggling with a beginning sound might sort a group of words into three beginning sound categories (/m/ words, /p/ words,  and /r/ words) on a pocket chart.  Students who have a firm grasp of beginning sounds might transition into a similar activity for ending sounds.  Other students might be sorting words based on the short and long sound of a vowel, where more advanced students might be sorting words based on the digraph, either at the beginning or the ending of the word.  These are all activities that were first demonstrated by the teacher during whole group or small group instruction, and then the students practice these skills during centers time.

Students can also use activities on the Smartboard to further enhance their word work skills.  The Smartboard can have the advantage of correcting a student if he or she makes a mistake.  For example, if a student student is sorting words from the -at and the -an word family, the teacher can program the activity to send back a word if it is not placed properly.  If a student tries to place the word “can” in the “-at” word family, the word will pop back to where it was, forcing the student to reevaluate his or her choice.  When the word is placed correctly, it will spin and stay in the place.  These visuals help motivate the students to keep going, and helps to keep them accountable.

As an educator, I am constantly learning new ideas and strategies to incorporate into my classroom.  I am excited to learn new methods to approaching word work throughout the years.  It will also be interesting to see how new advances in technology  throughout the years will enhance word work and add even more motivation and accountability for the students.


Invernizzia, M. and Hayes, L. (2010).  Developmental-spelling research: a

          systematic imperative. In R. M. Bean, N. Heisey, C. M. Roller (Eds.), Preparing

          reading professionals (2nd ed., pp. 39-51). Newark, NJ: International Reading


Rasinski, T., Rupley, W.H., and Nichols, W.D. (2008).  Two essential ingredients: Phonics

          and fluency getting to know each other.  The Reading Teacher, 62(3), 257-260.

Zucker, T.A. and Invernizzi, M. (2008).  My esorts and digital extensions of word study.

           The Reading Teacher, 61 (8), 654-658.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s