The importance of word knowledge is evident throughout the Common Core State Standards. It is a central aspect of the Reading Foundational Skills in grades K–5 as these skills relate to the decoding and recognition of words during reading. Word knowledge is a central aspect of the Language Standards in grades K–5 as these skills relate to the encoding or spelling of words in writing. (Spelling is classified in the CCSS as a convention of written language and is addressed in the Language standards.) The CCSS are explicit, however, about spelling knowledge being “inseparable” from reading and writing. Research in developmental word knowledge supports this interconnectedness.
The developmental research on which Words Their Way is grounded shows how learners become aware of and construct knowledge about the relationships among printed words, spoken language, and meaning. When we examine children’s writing, we see the evolution of this understanding and the types of information they are using to construct this understanding.
In the CCSS, the instructional scope and sequence for reading and spelling skills presented across the grades follow in large part the developmental sequence found in Words Their Way. In our instruction, we will look for what young children and older students “use but confuse” in their spelling of words rather than attempting to target what is absent in their spelling. In this way, we can be assured that they will better internalize and productively apply knowledge of spelling patterns.
How Does the Instructional Model in Words Their Way Develop the Foundational and Language Standards of the Common Core State Standards?
While the CCSS presents Foundational and Language skills for reading and writing in a developmental sequence, they do not suggest how to teach these skills. We know that the most effective instruction supports children’s integration of knowledge across sound, spelling, and meaning. Effective instruction supports students’ general knowledge of how words work: This is the type of knowledge learners apply when they are not sure how to spell a word, when they encounter an unfamiliar word in their reading and need to decode it, or when they encounter a brand-new word and need to determine its meaning. Effective instruction also supports students’ specific knowledge of individual words.
We also know that instruction should be enjoyable and engaging. With respect to words, knowing that there is an understandable structure is empowering for students. The combination of both exploratory and explicit frameworks of the Words Their Way approach develops this enjoyment and engagement, and as a consequence, more efficient and long-term learning.
How Does Words Their Way Support the Common Core’s Call for Differentiated Instruction—Particularly for Struggling Readers?
The CCSS acknowledge that not all students at each grade level will reach grade-level standards. The standards emphasize, therefore, that “Instruction should be differentiated…. The point is to teach students what they need to learn….to discern when particular children or activities warrant more or less attention” (CCSS, p. 15).
By using students’ spellings as a guide, teachers can differentiate efficient, effective instruction in phonics, spelling, and vocabulary. As we move through the grades, it is common that the range of variability among students increases. Developmentally-appropriate differentiated instruction effectively accommodates this range, and Words Their Way provides powerful support for assessing and grouping appropriately.
The type of word study provided in Words Their Way also supports the Response to Intervention process. The combination of explicit and exploratory instruction and learning is effective for students who need intensive, often one-to-one intervention; these include students identified as being learning disabled in the area of literacy.
Words Their Way Supports English Language Learners
The Common Core State Standards address expectations for English Language learners: “Each grade will include students who are still acquiring English. For those students, it is possible to meet the standards in reading, writing, speaking, and listening without displaying native-like control of conventions and vocabulary” (CCSS, p. 6). This is a realistic observation, reflecting the understanding that word-level knowledge and skills at each grade level often, though not always, are not as fully developed as those of many native English-speaking students at the same grade level. Because the Words Their Way approach is developmentally-grounded, teachers are able to assess their English learning students’ knowledge of word structure and place them at the appropriate levels within the Letter Name-Alphabetic, Within Word Pattern, or Syllables and Affixes curriculum. They may also adjust the pace of instruction accordingly, taking more time with particular features and patterns as necessary.