A Better Way to Teach Spelling (Word Study, part 1)

What was spelling instruction like for you?  If you’re like most of us, you had  a weekly list of words from a textbook.  Sometimes the words were related – and sometimes not.  You were taught to memorize each word by copying it until you knew it.

And of course, you had the same list as everyone else in your class – whether or not one of you needed extra help or was ready for a more challenging list.

What’s wrong with the traditional approach to teaching spelling?

  • Rote memorization is not an effective way to learn and remember.   How many kids forget their spelling words as soon as they finish the test?
  • With traditional spelling instruction, kids are passive learners.  Spelling is boring – for both the students and the teacher! We need to give kids an active role.
  • Children move through the stages of spelling development at a different pace.  Just a handful of kids’ needs are met when the entire class has the same word list!


 It’s called Word Study.

It works for kids in preschool through high school.

It’s interesting.

It’s hands-on.

You don’t have to buy an expensive curriculum.

It’s great for the classroom.

And it’s perfect for homeschooling.

How is Word Study different from traditional spelling instruction?

traditional spelling versus word study

What’s coming next?

Don’t worry – I’m not stopping here!  But it’s a dense subject, and we’ll take it step by step.  My end goal is to provide a giant set of free printable lists and games that you can use to save yourself some time as you teach Word Study in your home or classroom.

And if I’ve piqued your interest, this book is a must-have resource!

best book teaching spelling

For more detailed information about word study, see this post from This Reading Mama: Word Study: What Exactly Is It? 

Be sure to check out the rest of my Word Study series!  If you like what you’ve read, please share with other homeschooling parents or classroom teachers!

© 2013 – 2015, Anna Geiger. All rights reserved.


  1. says

    Great post on Words Their Way. I agree it is an excellent resource. I was one of those kids that memorized spelling words for the test and then promptly forgot them. When I began teaching, I knew there had to be a better way to teach spelling.

    We also use Alphaphonics as part of our curriculum. Quick organized introductions to word patterns. For those just getting started with teaching reading, writing and spelling Words Their Way goes more in depth than Alphaphonics.

    • annageig says

      Thanks for the note about Alphaphonics, Jeannine. I’ve never heard of it. I’ll have to look into that.

  2. says

    Well, yes…you’ve piqued my interest! I tend to use more activities and word explorations that teach patterns in spelling…I should not be surprised there’s a whole philosophy behind it, lol! I’m so glad you shared this at Teach Me Tuesday at Preschool Powol Packets!

    • annageig says

      Thanks for stopping by, Carla! I hope the rest of the series gives you some practical information.

  3. Len says

    So I have a question(s), I have been looking at purchasing the “Word Their Way” book for homeschool use. I’m questioning what exactly to get. They have the “main” book but does that have all the word sorts or just the lists? I don’t mind typing up sorts in Word, if I have the lists to type. There are some used ones that are less expensive but no DVD and/or CD, do I need the DVD and/or CD? There are also the colored books, are those needed if I have the “main” book? What’s the difference between the colored books and the “main” book? Thank you, I really look forward to the rest of the series!

    • annageig says

      Hi Len! I’m excited that you’re considering starting Word Study! In my opinion, the “main” book is all you need. You do not need the DVD and CD. Those are just intended to save you some time because they have some game patterns and a couple other things. I don’t remember using them much if at all. The colored books may or may not be useful — in reading online I see that they are also timesavers and may also have some useful lesson planning information. You are correct in assuming that the main book has all the word sorts, but that they are NOT written up as lists. (A very simple thing to do – just type them up as a table.)

      My guess is that the colored books are more of a timesaver for a classroom teacher who has several word study groups and a lot more prep than you would have with just your own child(ren) at home.

      Also, there is a newer edition of the Words Their Way book. Since I got out of teaching I have already bought a newer edition (the one I linked to), so I will probably not buy another new one. I linked to the second to last one because that is the one that I will be referring to in my posts. My guess is that you will be quite content choosing that one if you choose not to buy the brand new one.

      Another benefit to choosing the second to last one (that I linked to) is that I have it in my hands and can answer any questions based on page number. I love Word Study and am very happy to be your resource via the comments section or my e-mail: themeasuredmom@gmail.com. I am also available by phone should you need a longer consultation :).

      I hope this answered your questions! Now I should really go back to bed. :)

    • Nicole G says

      I posted below, but personally, I found the colored books you refer to a huge timesaver in homeschool prep. To answer your other questions, the CD ROM has some printables of activities, but it isn’t thorough enough. The main WTW book is mostly the theory of word study. It has assessment tools and is the starting point. It has some activities, but it certainly doesn’t have everything (especially for higher levels). The colored level-specific books give actual, prepared word sorts (basically the prep work done for you). Hope that helps!

        • annageig says

          I’m sorry I’m late in replying here, Nicole – I really appreciate your comments about the colored books. I didn’t realize that the extra books have a lot more word sorts. I wish there was a preview of those books on Amazon. I really don’t want to buy them to check them out, since I don’t need them! Also good to know that they provide more for the higher levels. When I taught Word Study I only taught through the Syllables and Affixes stage.

  4. says

    Word Study sounds like a really interesting approach to spelling. You have “piqued my interest.” I look forward to reading more about it. Thank you for the information and comparisons.

  5. says

    interest peaked! I was just telling my husband yesterday that I don’t think I’m going to buy anymore spelling curriculum. It seems like my son learns more spelling from reading and discovering new words than lists. I printed out a “mystery word” book mark for him to write down any words he doesn’t know, and then we’ll “investigate”!

    There are so many variations to phonics rules that’s it seems like once I teach one thing, there’s four hundred exceptions anyway.

    • annageig says

      Yes, the exceptions are crazy! Word Study teaches patterns and then calls those exceptions “oddballs” — it’s a nice way for kids to really examine those words that don’t fit the pattern without being totally frustrated by all the rule breakers!

      • LaNell says

        Scientific doweling teaches by grouping the words into phonic patterns. For example, you might have words that use the different patterns for long a like a, a consonant e, and ay. You teach students about the exceptions that go along with that letter sound also. It breaks the word down by initial, middle and final sound. You also teach “rule” words, such as ” floss rule” ( words that have a short vowel before a final f, l, or s, double the f, l, or s- example stiff, well, glass).

        • annageig says

          Hmm – what sounds the same is grouping words into patterns. However, Word Study doesn’t break words down by sounds, and one thing Word Study never does is teach rules. It teaches generalizations and exceptions. And it doesn’t get into nitty gritty phonics rules like the “floss rule.” That sounds a lot to me like Saxon phonics — have you heard of that? Some people truly love its regimentation but I taught with it and wow – I’m not sure I could despise anything more! But I’ll get off my soapbox before I get carried away!

  6. says

    You have piqued my interest. My child is heading into 1st Grade. And, to be honest, I never thought about how crazy the English language is until he started learning to read. There are so many rules and exceptions! From a 1st Grader’s perspective, it does seem excessive. Looking forward to seeing your free sheets… will be using them for the summer.

    And thanks so much for linking up to my Friday Flash Blog on The Jenny Evolution


  7. Nicole Guzman says

    Love Words Their Way! I discovered it during my master’s degree program… I used it in my classroom when I taught full time, and now I use it at home with my own kids. It is so effective and simple. Personally, I think their premade word sort books for each level are worth the cost for busy homeschooling families!

    • annageig says

      Thanks so much for the tip about the premade word books, Nicole! I’ll add something to that effect in my post.

  8. Angie says

    I have printed and read all of your posts on this. I went looking for the book and of course looking for the best price. It seems that there are two programs. One is by traditional grade levels and one by developmental stage, but both seem to be by Pearson. Help! I’m confused.

  9. Fatima says

    Hey Anna,

    hope you are doing good!!!

    i have been following your site for quite a sometime now
    and im so inspired to use word study to supplement my kindergarten going daughter at home
    motivated to buy words their way i went to check out amazon
    i decided to buy ” words their way” for emergent spellers

    but there is a newer edition
    Words Their Way for PreK-K (Words Their Way Series)

    so am confused which one to buy

    please suggest me what will be the difference between them and what i should buy..

    Thanks Anna

    for all your resources and advices

  10. Kari says

    I have some questions for you on WTW. We are currently using the program at school. I am struggling to find this program successful. From what I see, WTW is similar to a conventional spelling program, because either way they have to memorize things. My students struggle to identify and sort words on their own, especially at the Syllables and Affixes level. I would love for this program to make my kids successful, however it hasn’t happened yet. I have the book you posted, but I haven’t read the whole thing. I have moved to a new grade level, and they made worksheets to go with every lesson. I think that it’s important for kids to have some of the skills that they acquired in the old spelling, that they don’t get with WTW. I have also been to a conference on WTW. They said that each kid should be working at their own level, which I kind of do, but if it each kid… how do you keep track of where everyone is?? If you have any helpful tips for me, that would be great!


  11. Jenny says

    We can’t afford a new curriculum, but I would like to implement the word study approach to what we have–we have BJU, which does teach the word familes and would be easy to create the word study with.

    Any ideas for various days of the week?

    What about my 7th grader who can read at a high school level but still has trouble with a few spelling patterns? ( doubling the consonant before a suffix)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *