Understanding Word Study in the Primary Classroom: Understanding the Three Language Systems

Understanding the Three Language Systems: As It Relates to Word Study

If you are looking for information that will support word study instruction in your classroom, you may find this blog post helpful. I personally find that word study instruction, when done consistently and systematically, can be key in strengthening the young readers in your classroom. In this particular post, and a few that will follow, I want to highlight tools, strategies, and resources for word study instruction that are instrumental for effective word study instruction during your literacy block. Keep in mind that word study is researched based and has been used in my classroom for many years.

In a series of posts (over the next few weeks) I will discuss and provide information about:

  • Our language system
  • Word solving strategies
  • How to conduct an informal spelling analysis
  • And tips, strategies and resources for conducting word study in your classroom.

My goal is to have a bank of resources before the summer begins so teachers who are planning for the upcoming school year have a few blog posts to reference as they plan.

Before you start reading about how to effectively use word study in your classroom, it is important that we are on the same page with how we define word study. Think about what word study looks like in your classroom. What do you use word study to teach or reinforce? Sight words? Vocabulary? Phonics? Well, word study can actually incorporate all of these things. Word study is just that…the study of a word. When you are studying/teaching the structure or form, meaning, and or usage of a word-you are teaching your students through word study activities. There are multiple ways to teach word study. Word study can be taught through the use of graphic organizers, games/learning activities, word wall activities, making words activities, and sorting activities. Understanding that word study can look different depending on what you are teaching is important. The process for teaching words is ongoing and never really stops in the classroom; it can span across all subjects and activities. As I talk about word study in this series of posts, I am specifically referring to word sorts. Although I use a variety of ways to teach word study, I believe word sorts is most effective when teaching and reinforcing important phonics skills.

Word study (as in word sorting) is an alternative to traditional spelling instruction. It is based on investigating and learning word patterns rather than memorizing unconnected words. In word study, it is more important for children to practice placing words into categories and to come up with their own examples than it is for them to be able to repeat a set of spelling rules.

When developing word study instruction for students it is important to understand the five stages of spelling:

Stages of Spelling Development

Stage I: Emergent

Stage II: Letter Name

Stage III: Within Word Pattern

Stage IV: Syllable Juncture Stage

Stage V: Derivational Constancy

(Kathy Ganske, 2000)

Because this blog series is focusing on developing early language skills- I will be focusing specifically on the first three stages of spelling development when I start to share resources and strategies; however, this information can be applied and repurposed to meet the needs of spellers in the later stages.

Here is a brief explanation of the stages:

  • Emergent Spelling: characterized by writing that shows no letter-sound correspondence until the end of the stage.
  • Letter Name Spelling: students begin to represent beginning, middle, and ending sounds with letters that are phonetically accurate. Letter choice is often based on the sound of the letters name rather than on the more abstract letter-sound association.
  • Within Word: Students in this stage move beyond strict one-letter-one-sound correspondences and learn to spell by pattern. A Primary instructional focus is the marking of long vowels and other vowel and consonant patterns.
  • Syllable Juncture Spelling- Students work with words of more than one syllable. They learn how syllables join and when to double a final consonant or drop a final e, they also learn to extend their vowel pattern knowledge and to correctly represent vowel sounds in unstressed syllables. (trample, polar, mayor)
  • Derivational Constancy Spelling– spellers study relationships between derived forms of words- namely, between words that share a common root. They learn that many spelling patterns remain constant across derived forms despite changes in sound.

 What is Language and how do teachers develop language skills in the classroom?

This first post will highlight language and the systems of language that contribute to effective and meaningful communication. Take a minute to think about how we use language to communicate. What comes to mind? Words…sentences…gestures…text messages…sounds…phrases? Absolutely. We communicate in a variety of ways both verbally and nonverbally.

In order to describe language, linguists have defined and described 3 systems that are interrelated: semantic system, syntactic system and phonological system. These are the systems that children use to process, understand, and use language.

We communicate with sounds, that make words, that make sentences, that have meaning. We hear streams of sounds that we make with our tongue, mouth and teeth. Our ears process these sounds and our brain sorts them into meaningful units. These small units of meaning, or morphemes, make up words. We structure these words using an unconscious set of rules into sentences and phrases. Those sentences or phrases express a message that is then processed by the person we are communicating with.

When we are talking about our sound system- we are referring to the phonological system. This system is responsible for recognizing the distinct speech sounds heard in our language. Understanding our sound system is important because we use sounds to make words. Developing readers and writers are learning our sound system. They are learning what letters and pattern of letters make what sounds and how those sounds can be combined to make words. This is the heart of word study in terms of teaching students how to spell, decode and represent sounds with graphic symbols or characters (letters). Using an informal spelling analysis will help you target spelling features that students have mastered and where the need development. We will talk about the informal spelling assessment briefly in the third post in this series.

The semantic system, also referred to as our meaning system, emphasizes the meaning of speech. As our students’ vocabulary develops, their semantic system grows in utility and flexibility. One of our roles as teachers is to strengthen our students’ vocabulary by authentically exposing them to a wide variety of new and unfamiliar words. We should also teach them multiple meaning words, exposing them to the different speech categories of words and how words are alike and different, exposing them to figurative language and when it is applicable and useful, and provide multiple opportunities to practice what they learn. The semantic system is an important component of our language system because it is how we understand or express nuances of meaning by using specific words. For example, a child who wants to describe something that tastes good may choose from a variety of words (delicious, tasty, yummy, scrumptious). Word sorts and matching games are a great way to teach and reinforce vocabulary skills, synonyms, antonyms, homophones, homographs, etc. All of these types of words add to a child’s mental dictionary of words (or lexicon) and will strengthen their oral communication and comprehension.

Understanding how we build on students’ semantic system is important. There is a clip that I like to share with teachers when discussing how morphemes (smallest unit of meaning) make up words. I feel like this hits the nail on the head when we are discussing the importance of building on a student’s knowledge of affixes (bound morphemes) and roots (free morphemes) when developing their spelling and lexicon.

The syntactic system of language, or the structure of language, is basically how words are put together. It involves word order, sentence structure, and grammar usage. The syntactic system is our unconscious understanding of how words work together in a sentence.

All of these systems work together together to support written and oral language. When we focus on written language, we can discuss the orthographic system. The orthographic system, or our spelling system, involves the relationship between the sounds and the letters. It also involves the spelling patterns of written words. Students need orthographic knowledge to communicate through writing. We develop this knowledge through phonics instruction and other word study activities. Word sorts, instruction based on students identifying and categorizing spelling patterns, is a great way for strengthening phonetic and phonemic awareness. Especially in the primary years.

So what is the point of me sharing ALL of this with you? When we teach students to communicate we have to teach them the sounds of words, the meaning of words, and the structure of words. This is because these are all essential components of our language systems. By understanding what these systems are and how they impact reading, writing, and communicating- we are better equipped to provide meaningful and effective instruction that strengthens our students understanding. Were you already teaching these things- I can bet that you already teach phonics, vocabulary and grammar. My purpose of this post was to just share the why behind what and to illustrate how all of these systems work together. Because all of these systems work together, instruction can overlap. The primary source of instruction that I use in my classroom to teach and reinforce these systems is word study. If you are interested in learning more about the foundations of word study instruction, feel free to check back for the following posts:

Word Solving Strategies: As It Relates to Word Study

Informal Spelling Analysis: As It Relates to Word Study (not yet posted)

Teaching Tips, Resources and Strategies: Preparing for Word Study Instruction (not yet posted)


One thought on “Understanding Word Study in the Primary Classroom: Understanding the Three Language Systems”

  1. Your post is very insightful. It clearly outlines the importance of children being able to get comfortable with words and the ways in which teachers like me can make sure that my students are constantly interacting with words. It is also imperative that teachers know their material. I have been learning how to execute word study lessons in my classroom since October and I can definitely see the improvement in decoding skills as well as comprehension and semantics. The difference is that this time around I am systematic and consistent with how the word sorting materials are being delivered by me and manipulated by the students. Keep writing! I am dying to hear about the other strategies.

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