Word Solving Strategies: As It Relates to Word Study

Do you do word study in your classroom? If so, how much of your instruction is devoted to word sorting. In my first post, Understanding Word Study in the Primary Classroom: Understanding the Three Language Systems, I mentioned that when referring to word study I am specifically talking about word sorts. Are you familiar with word sorts? When students are engaged in word sorting activities in your classroom, they are actively and independently sorting words into categories. Categorizing is a fundamental way that humans make sense of the world. When students sort words, they engage in the active process of searching, comparing, contrasting, and analyzing. Word sorts help students organize what they know about words and form generalizations that they can apply to new words they encounter in their reading or spelling.

The primary focus of word sorting is to teach students how to spell and decode and improve their word recognition speed. The goal is for students to identify spelling patterns with automaticity and apply that knowledge when they encounter new and/or unfamiliar words. The stronger students are with identifying patterns and spelling features, the more fluent they are as readers. There are a variety of ways that word sorting activities can strengthen phonological and phonemic awareness in the developing reader. When students categorize words by sight and sound, we are teaching them to examine words to learn the regularities that exist in our spelling system. Additionally, picture sorts and word sorts are designed to help students learn how and where to look at and listen to words.

When sorting, students must pay attention to words so that they can make logical decisions as they place each word into a column. Also, students work with words or names of pictures that they can already pronounce. This is because as students move from known to unknown words, they are required to concentrate on analyzing the sounds or the patterns within each word. In a nutshell, sorting is an analytical process for students- students examine their word parts listening for sounds, looking for patterns, or thinking about meaning.

Word sorting through word study is an effective way to differentiate instruction and meet the needs of all learners through a tiered learning process.

Word study (as it relates to word sorts) lends itself to teaching students word solving strategies that they can use to become independent readers and writers.  The strategies that I talk about in this post can be introduced in word study and reinforced during guided reading, small group reading, and/or tutoring.

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Sorting words in the letter name stage of spelling development.


We teach students how to solve words. We want them to be effective word solvers because in order for them to be independent fluent readers, they need to be able to successfully figure out how to pronounce words based on how they look. And spell them  based on how they sound. Have you ever worked with a struggling reader and when they got stuck on a word you instinctively directed them to, “sound it out”? This is a great strategy to teach; however, only about 50% of words can be sounded out phonetically. In English, there is not a one to one regular letter-sound correspondence for all words. A skillful word solver needs to be equipped with a range of strategies that support their decoding skills with familiar and unfamiliar words. This is the primary focus of this blog post.

There are more than 1/2 million words in the English language. All of these words are made from 26 graphemes (letters). These graphemes represent between 44 and 53 phonemes (sounds), depending on how the words are pronounced. So how do we teach students these sounds? There are several strategies that readers and writers use as they learn about how words work in the written language system. Students can learn to read and/or figure out new words based on:

  • how words sound
  • how words look
  • how they mean
  • how they connect
  • how more can be learned about them

Ways of Solving Words

Phonemic strategies that students use when decoding and/or spelling words are based on how the words sound and the relationships between letters and letter clusters and phonemes within words (bat, bake). When reading, readers use their knowledge of the relationships between letters and sounds to take words apart while reading. Spellers use this same body of knowledge as a guide when they are spelling. This works best when readers are solving words that are phonetically regular or almost regular. This is when students use the popular strategy of sounding a word out; they are decoding words using a left to right sound analysis. They are then producing sound in the order of the letters related to them. For the reason mentioned above, this strategy is only useful some of the time. There are limitations for using this strategy because not all words can be sounded out. Also, when readers become proficient they are no longer reading letter by letter. Instead they are “chunking” words into meaningful parts of words and spelling patterns.

This word solving strategy is best taught through word study (as it relates to word sorting) because as explained above, through word sorting, students are becoming fluent with spelling patterns and their sounds moving from the most basic (initial and final consonants, short vowel sounds, beginning and ending digraphs) to more complex patterns (blends, digraphs, complex vowel patterns).

Visual strategies that students use when reading include paying close attention to how words look, including their clusters and patterns of the letters in words (hear, fight). In our language there are permissible patterns or clusters of letters that represent sound. These sounds can’t be taught by having students sounding them out because in these clusters, individual letters and their related sounds are not evident. The entire cluster makes a new sound. This is based on letter positioning.

We can teach students this strategy and reinforce sound recognition through word study because students constantly interact with the patterns and their sounds. Through sorting students strengthen their automaticity with recognizing these sounds and can use common/easy to recognize words as anchor words when reading.

Morphemic strategies that students use when reading are grounded in how words represent meaning through the combination of significant parts or morphemes (slow, slower, slowest- eat, eating). Word solvers use the structure of words and their meaning to spell and/or pronounce a word. Knowing the meaning of base words and affixes is extremely helpful when using this strategy. Read my previous blog post to read more about the semantic system in our language and why it is critical is strengthening morphemic awareness when teaching developing readers by clicking here.

Word sorts is great for strengthening a students morphemic awareness. As students learn and sort words, they are learning their meanings and usage. Through sorts, a tactile activity, students engage with words and are forced to look at them through a variety of lenses when sorting. This helps to strengthen their understanding of how these words work together and change depending on how they are used.

Making connections and assimilations is critical when coming across unfamiliar words in context. When reading, effective world solvers use what they know about words to figure out new words. When possible, readers and writers use the largest chunks of information they can. Effective word solvers are constantly searching for connections between what they know about words and what they are trying to figure out. This is a representation of their metacognition skill; readers are using analogies to manipulate and think about words. Similar words can be used to solve unfamiliar words through analogy (knowing she and out helps with decoding the word shout). When doing this readers are taking what is known in one area and using it in another. This isn’t always the best strategy; however, strategic readers know how to effectively move through strategies as they need them to navigate knew and unfamiliar words while processing the text.

Inquiry strategies are being used when students use materials as references and other resources (dictionary, thesauruses, etc) to learn more about words. When using these resources students are working independently to expand their knowledge of words. This is a strategy that can be used to reinforce active learning when following up with vocabulary lessons, editing their own writing, and coming across an unfamiliar word while reading.

Keep in ming that effective word study, outside of word sorting, takes place within the context of a classroom where language is in constant use. Students must be given several opportunities to interact with words. Word sorting is great for daily reinforcement of categorizing, classifying, and thinking about words and their spelling patterns. But, keep in mind, students need opportunities to use these words in context when writing. They also need to practice reading these words in a variety of contexts. For more information on how can do this effectively, stop back to read the following blog posts that will be shared over the next few weeks:

Understanding the Three Language Systems

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)

I hope that you found this information helpful. If you did check out some of my word sorting resources available in my TPT store:

word study for primary pic

This kit focuses on word families and patterns. The Word Study: Word Sorting Kit is designed to support teachers with the implementation of word study in their classrooms.

The goal is not to reinvent a strategy that has already been developed; the idea is to provide teachers with supplemental resources that can be used by both the instructor and the child to further enhance their understanding of words and how they work. This resource can be used to provide guided instruction in a small group or large group setting.
The Word Study Sorting Kit is designed to enhance phonological awareness through phonetic and phonemic awareness. This resource is for you if your students are beginning to represent beginning, middle, and ending sounds with letters that are phonetically accurate. Or, if their letter choice is often based on the sounds of the letters name rather than the more abstract sound or letter-sound association.

The Word Study: Word Sorting Kit (Letter Name Stage) will support instruction and students’ understanding of initial/final consonants, initial/final consonant blends and digraphs, short vowel sounds, affricates, and final consonant blends/digraphs.If you are looking for a systematic system for word study instruction that is ready-made and easy to use, this kit is what you need. I provide twenty-one word sorts for all possible phonograms (word families) that address the skills listed above. By the end of this unit, your students should be ready to move beyond one-letter one-sound correspondences and develop their spelling through using more complex patterns (Within Word Pattern Stage).


Teacher Resource Guide: A brief guide to using word sorts in your classroom. Explain the different types of sorts and provides a suggested timeline for daily routined activities.

Pre and Post Assessment and recording sheet, student data log.

Sound Boards: Short vowel sounds (all short vowel sounds), Individual Sound Board for each short and long vowel sound (a,e,i,o,u). A sound board for blends (r-blends, l-blends, s-blends), digraphs (ch, sh, th, wh, ph).

Blank printables for practice activities.

Picture Sorts: (at/an, ad/ag/ap, am/an, it/in, ot/op, et/en, ut/ug, ch/sh, wh/th, bl/br, fl/fr, cl/cr, gl/gr, pl/pr)

Twenty-one Word Sorts for the entire Letter Name Spelling Stage- all possible phonograms (word families) using CVC spelling patterns focusing on initial/final consonants, initial blends/digraphs, affricates, final consonant blends/digraphs.

Drill and practice sheets for each set of word sorts.

*150 pages of ready-made/ easy to use activities (just add paper).


One thought on “Word Solving Strategies: As It Relates to Word Study”

  1. These two blog posts have been wonderful! It is so important for us as teachers to understand the whats & the whys to make learning more meaningful & the activities we choose more valuable.
    Will you be continuing to post the later two post on informal spelling analysis and teaching tips, resources, & strategies: preparing for word study? or have you posted these else where?

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