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Why I Don’t Use Words Their Way for Spelling

Why don’t I use Words Their Way for my sole phonics and spelling curriculum? And why don’t I use Words Their Way for my weekly spelling lists and spelling test? I get this question often.

You know that I love Words Their Way. (We now use our own comprehensive phonics and spelling curriculum Word Play Phonics which also includes a word sorting component.) I think word sorting is a very powerful way to look at a student’s strengths and give him or her the support to move to the next level of success.

But in my experience, doing weekly word sorts isn’t enough to develop strategic spellers.

After many years of trial and error I’ve come to the conclusion that students need both word sorting AND chunk spelling to become strategic spellers.

What is Chunk Spelling? Chunk Spelling is a word family based interactive spelling routine that focuses on building words with onsets and rimes.

Here are some of the reasons why I use BOTH word sorting and chunk spelling for my students:

  • With Words Their way, students are refining concepts and rules.  With chunk spelling, they’re practicing word attack strategies.

Children will become more powerful spellers if they are taught that knowing how to spell one word can help them spell many other words.  This analogy idea broadens as students learn more about written language.

Diane Snowball Spelling K-8 Planning and Teaching, p.13

“Chunk” spelling is technically called spelling by analogy, using part you know to figure out what you don’t.

Dorothy P. Hall and Patricia Cunningham use this skill brilliantly in their Making Words activity as well as Rounding up the Rhymes from their Month-by-Month Phonics books.

  • Spelling by analogy is incredibly powerful for beginning readers and writers.

You can read a study here about the positive effects of explicit onset and rime instruction.  J. Richard Gentry goes so far as to say that spelling by analogy is the fulcrum of beginning reading and writing.

Deciphering the English spelling system and understanding how the printed symbols of the alphabet—namely, letters or chunks of letter combinations and patterns—combine to represent comprehendible, meaningful, pronounceable words and subword parts, are at the fulcrum of beginning reading (and writing). Once this chunking breakthrough is accomplished, the brain can activate circuitry for recognizing words automatically and read with much more proficiency, precision, and independence. (We will see that early independent reading, which is much more dependent on repetition and memorization of easy material, may be an entirely different process and activate different brain circuitry than later skilled independent reading.) It may surprise you that it normally takes some children two years to break the code. (And too many never really break it!).

J. Richard Gentry, Breaking the Code, p. xiv

So chunk spelling deserves some of our class time!

  • With Words Their Way, students are exploring sounds.  With chunk spelling, they’re building words.

Teaching spelling this way shows students the building blocks that make up words.  

The most useful aspect of knowing about onsets and rimes is that by starting with one word children can work out how to read and spell other words.  The more print words children are familiar with, the better able they are to use analogy—for example, not only will they work out how to read or spell man because they know can, but they can also figure out how to read and spell smack because they know the words smile and back.

Diane Snowball Spelling K-8 Planning and Teaching, p.71

  • With Words Their Way, students are learning content.  With chunk spelling, they’re learning a strategy. 

When I teach math, I do some lessons where we explore one topic (even and odd, counting coins, etc.).  I also do lessons based entirely on practicing strategies.  The whole class may be doing the same problem, but they’re exploring and discussing different ways to solve that problem.

It’s the same with spelling.  WTW gives them the content (the long a sound can be made with: a_e, ai, ay, eigh).  Weekly chunk spelling helps them build strategies for decoding and writing any unknown word (I hear a long a sound, which spelling pattern should I use? I’ll use -ai because entertain has the same chunk as rain.)

  • With Words Their Way, words are assigned.  With chunk spelling students choose what they practice.

It’s true that WTW is leveled, but there’s something incredibly powerful about giving students ownership over the words they practice.  They’re more motivated which, in turn, makes them more successful.

  • Words Their Way can be overwhelming for students.  Chunk spelling meets beginning spellers where they’re at. 

In a WTW sort there are 20-30 words.  That’s a lot for an early elementary student to master in a week.  Especially if they don’t know which 10 or 15 they’ll be tested on.

For beginning spellers it’s particularly tricky because many of their sorts are pictures.  They might be sorting long a and short a pictures, but the long a pictures may represent a variety of spelling patterns (cake, rain, play, etc.).  One sort that comes to mind is for beginning short vowel sounds.  Those pictures are Etch-a-Sketch, ostrich, alligator, igloo, umbrella…great sounds to listen for, not great spelling words!

Also, many of the WTW sorts involve vowel sounds with the same pattern, but different spelling.  It seems mean spirited to test students on multiple spelling patterns after only a week of practice, especially when the WTW assessments don’t come until the end of a “unit” (which is often preceded by a week of a review sort).  When I used WTW sorts for weekly spelling words there was a lot of frustration and confusion.

  • WTW teaches students why a word is spelled the way it is.  Chunk spelling teaches students what to do with that information.

In conclusion…

I don’t think chunk spelling is better than word sorting. I think kids need the support of BOTH approaches. Even if you don’t send home spelling lists or do a spelling test, students will benefit from the different approaches.

Want to read more about our approach to word study? Read more about Word Play Phonics and how we integrate word sorting and chunk spelling into one comprehensive curriculum. Our Word Play Phonics curriculum also includes a daily decoding routine that builds students fluency with a large number of word families.

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After a combined 14 years in 2nd grade, sisters Heidi & Emily are passionate about helping simplify life for other teachers!

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