Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction

By Michael Strickland

Too much that is known about how to teach spelling isn’t being put into practice. I can think of no subject we teach more poorly or harbor more myths about than spelling.—Richard Gentry, 1987

9780137035106_H1For decades, more people seem to have considered themselves poor spellers than good spellers, despite the fact that most of us spell correctly the vast majority of the words we write. With spelling, we seem to expect that all of us should spell one hundred percent correctly, even on first drafts, and even as young children, according to Heinemann Publishers.

Perhaps it is this unrealistic expectation that leads some parents and others to object when teachers use newer methods of helping children learn to spell, such as encouraging children to “use invented spelling” in their early attempts to write. Such critics mistakenly assume that children who initially use approximate spellings will never become good spellers, or that if the time-honored method of memorizing spelling lists were used instead, every child would become a perfect speller. Neither observed experience nor research supports these assumptions.

What research demonstrates

Young children using invented spelling employ a considerably greater variety of words in their writing than those encouraged to use only the words they can spell correctly (Gunderson & Shapiro, 1987, 1988; Clarke, 1988; Stice & Bertrand, 1990).

By the end of first grade, children encouraged to use invented spellings typically score as well or better on standardized tests of spelling than children allowed to use only correct spellings in first drafts (Clarke, 1988; Stice & Bertrand, 1990).

Young children encouraged to use invented spellings seem to develop word recognition and phonics skills sooner than those not encouraged to spell the sounds they hear in words (Clarke, 1988).

At least in grades 3-6, it is not clear that spelling instruction has much of an effect beyond what is learned through reading alone, if children are reading extensively (Krashen, 1991). The developmentally driven Words Their Way ® instructional approach is a phenomenon in word study, providing a practical way to study words with students. The keys to this successful, research-based approach are to know your students’ literacy progress, organize for instruction, and implement word study. The Fifth Edition features an innovative redesign and introduces technology integration aligning text to all new classroom video, an interactive classroom assessment application, prepared and create-your-own word sorts, games, and more specific to each chapter. It gives you all the tools you need to carry out word study instruction that will motivate and engage your students, and help them to succeed in literacy learning. Ordered in a developmental format, Words Their Way ® complements the use of any existing phonics, spelling, and vocabulary curricula.

About the Authors

Donald R. Bear is director of the E. L. Cord Foundation Center for Learning and Literacy where he and preservice, Master’s and doctoral students teach and assess children who struggle to learn to read and write. Donald is a professor in the Department of Educational Specialties in the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Reno. Donald has been a classroom teacher and he researches and writes about literacy development and instruction. He is an author of numerous articles, book chapters, and books, including Words Their Way® , Words Their Way ®with English Learners, and Vocabulary Their Way.

Shane Templeton is Foundation Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is Program Coordinator for Literacy Studies. A former elementary and secondary teacher, his research focuses on the development of orthographic knowledge. He has written several books on the teaching and learning of reading and language arts and is a member of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He is author of the “Spelling Logics” column in Voices from the Middle, the middle school journal of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Marcia Invernizzi is a professor of reading education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Marcia is also the director of the McGuffey Reading Center, where she teaches the clinical practica in reading diagnosis and remedial reading. Formerly an English and reading teacher, she works with Book Buddies, Virginia’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative (EIRI), and Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS).

Francine Johnston is a former first grade teacher and reading specialist who learned about word study during her graduate work at the University of Virginia. She is now an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she teaches courses in reading, language arts, and children’s literature. Francine frequently works with regional school systems as a consultant and researcher. Her research interests include current spelling practices and materials as well as the relationship between spelling and reading achievement.


Bolton, F., & Snowball, D. (1993). Teaching spelling: A practical resource. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Buchanan, E. (1989). Spelling for whole language classrooms. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Clarke, L. K. (1988). Invented versus traditional spelling in first graders’ writings: Effects on learning to spell and read. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 281-309.

Cunningham, P. M. (1995). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing (2nd ed.). New York: HarperCollins College Pubs.

Gentry, J. Richard. (1987). Spel . . . is a four-letter word. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gunderson, L., & Shapiro, J. (1987). Some findings on whole language instruction. Reading-Canada-Lecture, 5 (1), 22-26.

Gunderson, L., & Shapiro, J. (1988). Whole language instruction: Writing in 1st grade. The Reading Teacher, 41, 430-437.

Laminack, L. L., & Wood, K. (1996). Spelling in use. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

McGee, L. M., & Richgels, D. J. (1990). Literacy’s beginnings: Supporting young readers and writers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Routman, R. (1991). Invitations: Changing as teachers and learners K-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Routman, R., & Maxim, D. (1996). Invented spelling: What it is and what it isn’t. School Talk, 1 (4). Urbana, IL:National Council of Teachers of English.

Stice, C. F., & Bertrand, N. P. (1990). Whole language and the emergent literacy of at-risk children: A two-year comparative study. Nashville: Center for Excellence, Basic Skills, Tennessee State University. ERIC: ED 324 636.

Temple, C., Nathan, R., Temple, F., & Burris, N. A. (1993). The beginnings of writing (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Wilde, S. (1992). You kan red this! Spelling and punctuation for whole language classrooms, K-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project and © 1996 by Constance Weaver. A similar version was published as a SLATE Starter Sheet by the National Couincil of Teachers of English (1996). In C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby, Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education (Heinemann, 1996). May be copied.

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