Word Study

In addition to the phonological and morphological approaches, word study is an effective tool for teaching decoding skills. Often associated with spelling instruction, word study gives students opportunities to be “word detectives”, investigating and understanding patterns in words. This helps them learn that these patterns can be used for spelling, reading, and writing [1].

Word study focuses on high-frequency words, so that students may recognize and read them automatically, as well as word-solving strategies, so that students can decode unfamiliar words [2]. Educators may have students compare and contrast word features, sort words on flash cards, hunt for word patterns in their texts, keep a word study notebook, or play word study games [3].

Students should start with 3-5 words at a time. These words may be selected based on their frequency (e.g., the, and, or, go, to), word families (e.g., -ing words, -at words, -ake words), or words following a spelling principle (e.g., double consonant; silent “e” at the end of the word). To differentiate this activity, some students may be expected to add more words, including words of greater complexity that follow the same pattern or spelling principle.

To implement word study effectively, educators can benefit from more in-depth learning about the nature and structure of the English spelling system. The following article on the Reading Rockets website offers a useful starting point for this learning, and describes the key spelling and word study concepts to emphasize at each grade level. Click here to access the Reading Rockets article How Spelling Supports Reading.

The video clip below provides an overview of Word Study and considerations for students with LDs.

Click here to access the transcription of this video.

High-Frequency Words

Emphasizing high-frequency words helps students recognize words and word families automatically while they read. This notion of “automaticity” refers to accurate, speedy word recognition, which enables the reader to easily understand the meaning of a whole sentence because they are not struggling to decode individual words.

Students with LDs often have difficulty with this and require more intensive practice to develop automaticity. For these students, it is helpful to post the words that are being studied on charts in the classroom or on a Word Wall. Prompt students to look at these charts before they ask for help, and continue to reinforce this behaviour until they internalize the practice.

“Ehri and Snowling found that the ability to read words “by sight” (i.e. automatically) rests on the ability to map letters and letter combinations to sounds. Because words are not very visually distinctive (for example, car, can, cane), it is impossible for children to memorize more than a few dozen words unless they have developed insights into how letters and sounds correspond.” [4]

Reading Rockets has compiled a list of 850 words that account for 80% of the words used in elementary students’ writing. This list may serve as a guide for selecting word study patterns. Click here to access the Basic Spelling Vocabulary List.

Shared Reading

Instructional strategies such as phonics and word study may be taught out of context; however, they should also be integrated into practice with authentic, engaging reading material [5]. Shared Readings are a great instructional strategy that allow students to practice their decoding skills, recognize high-frequency words, and begin to see themselves as readers.

Preview of Shared Reading PDF

Click here to access the printable document How to Implement Shared Reading in an Inclusive Classroom.

The video clip below provides an overview of Shared Reading and considerations for students with LDs.

Click here to access the transcription of this video.

Word-Solving Strategies

For students with LDs, simply being exposed to high-frequency words and spelling patterns are often insufficient for translation into improved decoding ability. Explicit strategy instruction, in addition to metacognitive strategies, is essential.

“The critical importance of strategy instruction and the promotion of a flexible approach to word identification and text reading tasks cannot be overemphasized when it comes to achieving generalization and maintenance of remedial gains.” [6]

The word-solving strategies described below should be taught alongside metacognitive strategies. Educators should model the word-solving strategy and explain:

  • why it is used for a given word;
  • how it is applied; and
  • how to check whether it is working.

Metacognitive awareness is helpful because it teaches students that different strategies may be more helpful for decoding different words, helps them choose the most effective strategy for any given word they need to decode, and prevents them from getting stuck while reading.

A number of reading approaches and software programs incorporate metacognitive strategies. These include the EmpowerTM reading program and Lexia Core 5R software, both of which are highly recommended by Ontario Provincial Demonstration Schools for students with LDs. For instance, EmpowerTM teaches five different decoding strategies (including the four outlined below), and students explain which strategies they will use in decoding specific words [7].

Reading by Analogy

“If I can read lake, then I can read snake.” [8]

Word identification by analogy, rhyming, or word families teaches students a bank of keywords, which they can use to decode unknown words with the same spelling patterns. Through explicit instruction, students learn to compare an unfamiliar word to a word that is familiar to them. For example, the keywords kick and her may help students successfully decode the word bicker [9].

Peeling Off

unpacking: un + pack + ing [10]

unhappiness: un + happy + ness [11]

The peeling off (morphemic) strategy teaches students to remove the affixes from multi-syllabic words; in other words, it teaches them to “peel off” prefixes and suffixes in order to reveal a smaller root, which can be more easily decoded using other strategies.

The most frequently used prefixes and suffixes should be taught as keywords, and then the educator should model how to identify the affixes at the beginning and end words.

Seek the Part You know (SPY)

abundance: a + bun + dance [12]

The SPY strategy teaches students to decode longer words by identifying smaller, familiar words or letter groupings within the longer words. Similarly to the above two strategies, SPY draws on students’ knowledge of high-frequency words and word families/spelling patterns, which should be explicitly taught beforehand.

Students with LDs often have difficulty retrieving words. To help them use the SPY strategy, post the key words on a chart or Word Wall, where they can refer to it easily while reading.

Vary the vowel sound

have vs came; cap vs far

break vs bread

In English, vowels and vowel combinations can take on different pronunciations. This strategy, sometimes called Vowel Alert [13], teaches students to adopt a flexible approach to word identification by attempting variable vowel pronunciations. Thus, the students need to say the words out loud to hear the differences.

Educators should explicitly demonstrate how vowels can have different pronunciations, and how pronunciation is often determined by the surrounding letters. Students learn to experiment with different pronunciations of a new word and then must decide on the correct pronunciation.


[1] Leipzig, 2010

[2] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2003a, p. 23

[3] Leipzig, 2010

[4] Moats, 2009

[5] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2003a

[6] Lovett et al, 2014, p. 23-24

[7] Berrill, 2018

[9] Myre-Bisaillon, Tremblay-Bouchard, Parent, Boudreau, & Rodrigue, 2015

[10] Myre-Bisaillon, Tremblay-Bouchard, Parent, Boudreau, & Rodrigue, 2015

[11] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005, p. 105

[12] Myre-Bisaillon, Tremblay-Bouchard, Parent, Boudreau, & Rodrigue, 2015

[13] Lovett et al, 2014, p. 25