When I first implemented Words Their Way, I found it completely overwhelming.
At the time, our school was using Houghton Mifflin for reading instruction, which came with weekly spelling lists that were designed for third graders. As many of you have likely realized, these one-size-fits-all lists create a real instructional struggle in an elementary classroom.
Giving the same spelling list to an entire class robs most students of the targeted instruction they need, and addresses the needs of a very small percentage of our learners. Teaching this way was uncomfortable, so our team made the decision to begin teaching differentiated spelling within our reading RTI block, using Words Their Way.
Due to the fact that Words Their Way was taught during our RTI block, I was only managing one or two lists, and introducing lists every two weeks. Still, I felt overwhelmed.
My two biggest mistakes at the time were:
- I was trying to squeeze word work practice into a 10-15 minute block of time, which is not nearly enough.
- I was trying too hard to teach “by the book” and use the Words Their Way sorts exactly the way the teacher guide suggested, which just isn’t realistic in most elementary classrooms where we are planning and teaching every subject.
Despite my struggles, I was still so inspired by the research behind the program, and was determined to master this amazing tool for differentiating word work instruction.
When I switched schools, and moved to second grade, everything started to click. I reading blog posts about different approaches to using Words Their Way, dug deep into the teacher’s guide, and made a more realistic plan for how to successfully use it in my classroom. Four years later, I am confident in my word study routines, and I am here to share the approach I use in my third grade classroom
At the beginning of the school year, I follow the steps for initially assessing and creating groups outlined in the Words Their Way teacher guide. I reassess and regroup my students each trimester. Typically, my third grade class of 25 students is differentiated into 4-6 word sort groups.
Preparing for the Week
After setting up my differentiated groups and identifying the sorts for each group, I make a master spreadsheet of the sorts each group will be working on for that trimester. This spreadsheet includes the students within each group, and the sort they will be working on each week.
Using this spreadsheet, I copy words sorts for each group for the entire trimester. The sorts for each group are copied on a different color paper, making it easier to identify any word cards that may get misplaced during the course of the week.
Each student gets two copies of each sort. One copy is kept in the classroom, and used for our daily word work activities at school. The second copy is kept in each student’s homework folder for nightly spelling/word work practice at home.
Inside my binder of master sorts, I place sticky notes on the page of the next sort that must be copied, along with the number of copies needed for each group. This makes subsequent trips to the copy room more efficient.
On Friday after school, I set the two copies of the upcoming sort on each student’s desk so they are ready to cut and label their sort when they come in the room first thing on Monday morning. This could also become a class job, but passing out all the sorts doesn’t take me long, and is a little something that helps me prepare my mind for the week ahead.
Each day of the week, we spend time completing word work activities in the classroom, followed by additional practice at home each night. Below is an outline of the activities we complete each day in an effort to prepare for our weekly word word/spelling assessment.
On Monday morning students walk in the room, and see their new sort sitting on their desk. During bellwork (the first 20 minutes a day), they slide one copy of their sort into their homework folder, and complete their “Cut, Label, Pocket” routine with the other sort. They write their name or initials on the back of each sort card, cut the cards apart, recycle their scraps, and place their words in their pocket.
During reading workshop on Monday, I do not teach a whole class reading mini lesson or hold reading conferences. Instead, students jump right into reading and annotating, and are called to the back table one word work group at a time to learn their sort for the week.
When teaching each group their sort, I use the lesson plans directly from the Words Their Way master books. After learning their sort, and sorting once at the back table, students return to their desk to complete the sort once more before tucking their words back into their pocket, and resuming reading. During this additional sort at their desk, students are welcome to check in with other members of their word sort group if they need any support.
After all groups have been introduced to their sort, I follow up on any weekly word work reassessments that needed to be complete (reassessments are explained in more detail under the “Friday” section).
During our Tuesday word work block, students are given 30 minutes to independently “Sort and Write”. This activity comes directly from the Words Their Way curriculum. Students sort their word cards at their seat, then write their words in sorted columns in their Word Collector’s Notebook.
During our Wednesday word work block, the class works for 10-15 minutes completing a series of “Speed Sorts”. Again, this activity comes from the Words Their Way teacher guide. As students take their words out of their pocket, I project the Google timer on our whiteboard.
The first speed sort lasts for 3 minutes. Students sort their words as quickly as possible. If they finish before the 3 minutes is up, they can silently celebrate while others finish. Our expectations for a silent celebration are:
- Stay seated and silent so those still sorting can thinking clearly.
- Celebrate using hand motions, seated dance moves, or eye contact and a smile.
My students love this silent celebration time before the next sort. We then complete a second speed sort that lasts two minutes, and a final sort that lasts 1 minute. At the beginning of the year, these faster sorts are challenging for most students, but they quickly catch on to the routine and begin loving the challenge.
During our Thursday word work block, students are given 30 minutes to independently complete “Word Work Sentences” in their Word Collector’s Notebook. This activity is modified from the suggestions in the Words Their Way curriculum.
Each week, students select five words from their sort that interest them or challenge them in some way and use each word in a separate sentence. In the past, I have required students to write “juicy third grade sentences” that are filled with descriptive detail. This year, I will be following the lead of one of my team mates and setting specific requirements for sentences that are more closely connected to our grammar standards. When students finish writing their sentences, I provide feedback on the spot. This is an easy way to boost student writing growth while practicing word work.
On Friday before school, I refer to my spreadsheet as I assign each group their spelling test for the week using Spelling City. This website makes differentiated assessment seamless because all the Words Their Way lists are pre-loaded into their database. I simply login and select the correct test for each group without the need to type every list each week.
During our Friday word work block, students are given 30 minutes to “Sort, Glue, Test”. Students sort their word cards, and glue them into their Word Collector’s Notebook in sorted columns using a glue stick. This is a silent activity when students have one last opportunity to study their words before their weekly test. They then tuck their notebook away, pull out their Chromebook, and begin their spelling test using Spelling City.
The test is automatically graded so students receive immediate feedback on their results. Those results are also immediately available on my account, so I am able to log in a view each student’s score. My third graders are required to score 80% or higher on their test each week.
On the rare occasion that this score is not achieved, I email the student’s parent at lunch that day to inform them of their child’s score, and request they continue to study the words over the weekend so the child can be reassessed the following Monday.
During any reassessment, students login to Spelling City during reading workshop on Monday, and complete their test at their seat while the class works through the Monday routine described above.
On Friday after school, I repeat the same steps to prepare for the upcoming week of word work instruction.
Students are assigned word work homework on a nightly basis to further support their mastery of words each week. I am confident students who focus on the work we do in the classroom will be fully prepared to demonstrate mastery on their assessment each week.
Our community finds comfort in nightly spelling practice, so I send the following options home.
- Choice Homework Menu: The menu below is sent home as one approach for word work homework. Students select one of the creative options from the grid to complete each night.
- Guided Homework Menu: Many parents prefer to forego the choice menu option in an effort to make homework more efficient. If they prefer a more prescribed homework approach, these are the activities suggested each night:
I do not require students to submit any word work homework, and do not use homework as an assessment score because I am unable to measure the level of independence with which each student completed their assignment.
Tweaks For Your Unique Classroom
I am all about taking strong curriculum, and tweaking it. It is so important to remember that every classroom is so unique. The routines I have described above will not likely be a perfect fit for you because we are different people working in different classrooms with different students and different schedules.
One way I modify the traditional approach to using Word Their Way is only to regroup once per trimester. It is recommended by the teacher guide book that students should pass with a score of 80% or higher at the end of each unit of sorts. I choose not to use these unit assessments because I do not have the bandwidth to regroup so frequently. I find regrouping every trimester still fosters wonderful student growth, and helps me keep my sanity.
I also like to incorporate student reflection into our word work routines, and use two rubrics to guide this process. Students glue one rubric to the front cover of their word work notebook, which outlines expectations for each day routine. On the back cover of their notebook is a second rubric that outlines their ability to transfer what they’ve learned to other contexts, and their learning behaviors associated with word work.
Using Words Their Way In Your Classroom
Finding a way to make your word study curriculum meet the unique needs of your students can be challenging, and I hope these tools & tips make the planning process easier for you. Your students are so fortunate to learn from someone who cares deeply about meeting their needs through quality differentiation.
If you have any questions, or insight about how you teach word work in your classroom, I would love to hear from you in the comments below. If you are interested in using the tools featured above, I have them ready for you here. Wishing you and your students all the best!