Building a Love of Language: We Review Words Their Way

Many early childhood and elementary teachers like me have been using Words Their Way for a long time. In fact, I still have a cobbled-together collection of black-line masters from my college days! I’ve always liked the program because of […]

Many early childhood and elementary teachers like me have been using Words Their Way for a long time. In fact, I still have a cobbled-together collection of black-line masters from my college days! I’ve always liked the program because of the deep connections kids can make in their word learning.

Words Their Way CurriculumWhen you’re using Words Their Way in the classroom, you often see kids spread out on the floor with their “words” in front of them, cut up into small paper strips. As they work, you may hear them quietly speaking their words out loud to themselves. They’re trying to hear the distinctive sounds that make up the whole word, and then they’re trying to sort those words according to what they hear.

It’s a sophisticated process really, but it’s one that kids as young as 4 and 5 can manage. It’s that process of taking words apart and then thinking of them as whole words again that builds reading, writing and spelling skills. I love watching the progress my 5-year-old students make in their writing and spelling after we sort words using the Words Their Way method. That’s why I was excited to receive a complete “Words Their Way: Word Study in Action” curriculum for review (no more tattered college handouts)! Here’s what I found.

Curriculum for K–5

One of the first things that surprised me was the fact that the curriculum actually goes all the way through fifth grade. As an early childhood educator for much of my career, that’s where I had seen Words Their Way in action. I’d watched kindergartners and first graders diligently sort their words each day, gaining a deeper understanding of the way we construct words in the English language. For example, younger students are provided with pictures and asked to sort their “words” (which are actually pictures) according to the initial sound.

As they progress through the program, kids begin to sort real words according to vowel sounds and letter patterns. The curriculum for the upper grades works in much the same fashion. Kids are still sorting words and the curriculum still incorporates effective, research-tested methods. It’s just that the words are harder, and kids are looking at word parts, like prefixes and suffixes, or Greek and Latin roots, rather than sounds and phonemes. This is where students make the connection between spelling and meaning, developing lifelong vocabulary skills.

Teach a Variety of Skill Levels in the Same Classroom

My colleagues and I appreciate the fact that no matter what grade level you’re working with, different kids in the same class can be sorting different words. This means that if you’ve got a first grader who is still learning to blend individual sounds together, she may be sorting words like cat, hot and bit, while a first grader who is starting to understand vowel combinations may be sorting words like snake, brain and snack.

Beginning Reader Libraries With Activities to Support the Word Sorts

Until I received this curriculum in the mail, I hadn’t realized how comprehensive the program really can be. In addition to the classic sort activities, where kids study words and sort them according to their sounds, letters and other distinctive features, there are also beginning reading books and interactive whiteboard activities to supplement the program.

You can actually try a few of the whiteboard activities yourself on the Words Their Way site. The libraries that can be purchased to work alongside the Word Sorts contain just the kinds of books you’d want to use with your beginning readers. They are all leveled according to all of the major leveling systems (pick your favorite: Guided Reading, DRA, etc.), and they teach the same key phonemic skills that are covered in the word sorts. It’s easy to create a unified program when you’ve got decodable readers that match the way you’re teaching letters and sounds.

Full-Color Pictures

Another thing I noticed were the colorful pictures included in the primary sorts. Gone are the hard-to-interpret black-line sketches where it’s difficult to tell for certain what to call the item in the drawing. These sorts include full-color photographs that take out the guesswork. Your kindergarten and first-grade students will spend more time sorting and less time asking, “What’s this one again?”

beginning sounds picture

If you teach in a bilingual setting, good news: There’s a Spanish-language version of Words Their Way—Palabras a su Paso. This program is based on Spanish-language development.

Author Webinars

Whether you already teach with Words Their Way or are interested in learning more about it, you might be interested in a series of webinars with the program authors taking place in November. Donald Bear and Lori Helman discuss word study and using the program in English and Spanish. Sign up for this webinar here. Shane Templeton also presents strategies to incorporate word study in a balanced literacy classroom. Sign up for this webinar here.

You can also get 25 percent off Words Their Way Libraries. These books complement the “Words Their Way: Word Study in Action” curriculum. Just enter this promo code: WTWLB.

Karen Nelson

Posted by Karen Nelson

Karen is a Senior Editor at WeAreTeachers. She's also a former elementary school teacher who loves teaching with technology.

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