When my children first started playing travel sports, I made many mistakes. I forgot pieces of their uniform, I learned that I should always bring swimwear in case there was a pool, I took a wrong turn on numerous occasions, and I felt the stress of constant travel. I reached out to the more experienced parents on the team and asked for advice. What shouldn’t I forget to pack? What was the best app for directions? How do you manage the “Are we there yet?” queries? Although I was learning along the way, I knew there were challenges that I had yet to discover and that, quite frankly, I did not want to. I needed a few guiding principles to ensure a more successful traveling team experience.
As a literacy coach, I find that teachers have just as many questions about small-group word study and alphabetic instruction as I did about traveling sports: How do we know what letter or pattern to teach first? What order do I teach alphabetic skills in? What instructional routines are most effective? As someone who spends much of her time planning differentiated intervention lessons to strengthen students’ alphabetic knowledge, I offer you the following principles to guide your small-group, differentiated word work instruction:
You cannot wing it. Teachers know the importance of a carefully constructed lesson, but when it comes to word study, they may have only a general idea of what they hope to accomplish, such as to build words with long- and short-i patterns or to focus on digraphs. Yet, creating an effective word study lesson involves much more. Every decision we make matters, from the goal we choose to the words we select for students to build and the sequence we have students build them in. Ensure that you give your word study lessons the careful planning they deserve.
Understand the trajectory of development. To plan thoughtful lessons, we must understand how alphabetic skills develop. If your school uses a word study program, you should plan to follow that scope and sequence to ensure alignment and consistency for your students. But if you are not required to use a program, I recommend following the guidance from Scanlon, Anderson & Sweeney (2017): Typically, students first learn beginning consonants, then ending consonants, and finally, medial vowels. When learning vowels, a suggested sequence of instruction is to start with long and short a, then i, then o, then e, and finally, u. Teachers should understand that letters with stretchable sounds (such as m, s, and f) are easier for students to attend to than letters with stop sounds (such as t, p, and b), and it is beneficial to teach students both sounds of each vowel at once for comparison. If we understand how words work and the typical sequence of development, we can use that knowledge to choose a starting point for our instruction, based on the data we have from the students in front of us.
Choose words carefully. Once you have chosen a goal for a group of students, you plan for the words they will work with. If you decide students need to work with digraphs such as ch and sh, you create a list of words that contain those features, such as ship, shin, shop, chop, chin, and chip. But in your brainstorming, you might also list chill, chalk, shout, and show. Those seem like appropriate choices, but if we understand how alphabetic skills develop, we realize that those four words would be inappropriate to include, because development of digraph knowledge comes long before more-challenging vowel combinations. The students would not be ready to build those kinds of words. Once you have brainstormed an appropriate list of words, choose a handful of them to use in your lesson based on your knowledge of the students’ stamina and the lesson time available. Make available only the letters needed to build that particular set of words, to avoid loss of instructional time hunting through a mound of letters.
The sequence of word building matters. This is often the most overlooked step in planning word study instruction. It is imperative that you carefully sequence word building to help students attend to the feature you are working on. If working with sh and ch digraphs, many teachers will have students build a sequence of words that might look something like this: ship, shin, shop, chop, chin, chip. Let’s think about this for a minute. Here is what we know about word work: the part of the word that moves is the part that students attend to. If students move from ship to shin to shop and then move from chop to chin to chip, they are primarily moving the rime (ending part) of the word, giving that their attention. To focus students’ attention on the digraph, they must move the digraph. If we reorder the list of words to have students build ship to chip to chin to shin to shop to chop, then we are moving the digraph as well, something we must do to call students’ attention to it. If working with vowels, many teachers have students build all the words with the short-vowel sound first and then words with the long-vowel sound: mat, hat, fat, mate, hate, fate. Here, students are focused only on moving the initial consonants, not on the vowels, which inadvertently places their attention there. Instead, try something like mat to mate to fate to fat to hat to hate. See how students’ attention is now focused on how the e changes the vowel sound? The order in which we have students build words is critical.
Students must build, read, and write words. Simply building words in our lessons is not enough: students must also read and write them. Developmentally, building words from a select group of letters is easier than reading them, and reading them is easier than writing them. So, a good rule of thumb when planning lessons is to have students first build words, then read words the teacher has built, and finally, write them. This way, students are engaging with words in multiple ways and across different contexts. Just be sure to vary the words across building, reading, and writing to encourage problem-solving and application. This is essential if we are going to have students apply their new learning to future reading and writing situations. Here is an example for working with long and short i:
Words to build: bit, bite, kite, kit, hit, him, dim, dime
Words to read after the teacher builds them: dim, dime, time, tide, hide, hid
Words to write: kite, kit, sit, site, side
How do we put it all together? Over time, and with practice, I devised a traveling template to remind me of all the items I had to pack and remember for each weekend trip. This printed reminder was critical to my traveling success. Similarly, planning templates can support our teaching lives. Whether your small-group instruction is explicitly focused on word study skills or is embedded within a larger guided reading or supported reading setting, you might find this template handy. Notice the simplicity of it. I did not adorn it with chevrons or cute graphics. Instead, I focused on the most important elements of our teaching so they could take center stage, an important lesson for our teaching as well. Avoid lesson materials that are patterned, colorful, or “prettified,” because students will focus their attention on those items rather than the actual letters and sounds. Although those kind of selective cues might initially be helpful for emerging readers, they do not sustain more complex literacy work later on.
So, there you have it. Just as I benefited from tips from fellow traveling parents, I hope these guiding principles help you successfully plan for your small-group word study lessons with greater expertise and ease.