Are You Having Problems with Words Their Way?

When you look at your students’ writing, do the plethora of spelling mistakes make you cringe?  Are you frustrated because you’ve spent weeks (or months) making sure you’ve dedicated time for word study…but it’s not transferring?  Are you just plain having problems with Words Their Way?   

Then you’re probably making some big mistakes with it.  

The issue is not that it’s an analytic approach (whole to part) vs synthetic (part to whole), as some of the “research” will tell you.  That has actually nothing to do with it.  It’s the implementation that’s the problem.  

Here’s what I mean.

As with most things in literacy, without a lot of training, things can go south.  This is what happened with book leveling and balanced literacy instruction.  Without proper and ongoing training, misunderstanding ensues, and big mistakes are made.

And kids suffer.

As is the case when teachers are having problems with Words Their Way.

First, Words Their Way (WTW) is built on the premise that our brains are not cameras.  Spelling patterns are learned when they are mapped in the brain, through pattern-seeking.  Spelling is not learned through memorization.  Here’s a quick example to illustrate this, taken from the book Developing Word Recognition (2014) by Hayes and Flanigan.  Give yourself only 3 seconds to learn the word I’m about to give you, then cover it up and write it down without looking back at the letters.  Promise you’ll play along!  

Ready?  Go!


How’d you do?  Terrible?  

It’s ok.  I’m going to give you another one.  Ready?  



Better?  Yep.    

These examples both contain the same exact letters.  But only the second set is grouped into patterns–patterns that your brain knows.  The first one has no pattern to it.  So asking kids to memorize words and not help them see the patterns is exactly where problems begin with Words Their Way.  Too often, teachers give kids the sort, say “off you go,” and leave it at that, with little or no instruction.

Sometimes, especially with the lower level sorts, it’s very easy to figure out the what and the why behind the patterns–so teachers have no problem explaining the phonics rules behind them.  This is because at these early levels, spelling patterns were derived from the Old English spelling system–the alphabetic system.  But then it gets a little difficult, adding Middle English’s complex patterns as well as Greek and Latin morphological (meaning) units.  These are much harder to explain.  English is tricky!   So the explanations can become sparse and confusing, or left off altogether.

But the explanations are the phonics that kids need!!!  

This neglect has been a growing problem for years.

“Research calls for explicit spelling instruction and many of our nation’s schools are potentially harming children by not teaching kids to spell.  When we don’t teach spelling explicitly and well, many children struggle or fail with reading.”

-Richard Gentry (2015, Psychology Today

But the thing is…every single sort comes with a very detailed and explicit lesson plan.  It even includes bolded words that are super important to say–the words that explain the phonics patterns.  Yes, many times we encourage kids to make sense of the patterns they’re seeing through inquiry with open sorts.  This sense-making is key.  But it cannot stop there.  Teachers must guide and explicitly teach the phonics.    

Not only is there a detailed lesson plan, there’s a very comprehensive overview explanation both in the teacher manual and in all the sets of sorts about each stage that gives a ton of information.  But both of these key resources are often skipped.  In their book This is Balanced Literacy, Fisher and Frey stress that “the real learning occurs with the discussion after the sort.”  They are correct.  That’s the explicit part.

Not only that…

The lesson plan also includes suggestions for vocabulary instruction.  Understanding what the words mean is a huge component of WTW as well.  

Skipping the carefully constructed lesson plan is a huge missed opportunity, rendering the whole thing useless to kids.  

Other problems that happen with Words Their Way?

The activities. In so many ways.  

First, what happens a lot is that there is very little thought put into what kids are doing with the words.  All too often, teachers just purchase and download a big bundle of activities from TPT…and too often, they are of little to no value.  They’re busy work.  One quick search and the first 5 resources that popped up for me just now?  A 260 page, $65 download with very little that included anything that would help kids learn the actual spelling patterns, a $32 download of a ton of word searches–which do nothing for learning the patterns, and several $20 sets that are copies of WTW’s copyrighted sorts, just in a larger and cuter font.  

All kids need is a notebook and a Ziploc bag for their words.  That’s it.  

Oh-and they need thinking work.  

I love what Hayes and Flanigan say about the word work activities kids should do.  They say we should think of it like cross-training.  This means students should be reading, writing, manipulating, and transferring the spelling patterns across activities.  The authors of Words Their Way themselves concur.  They tell us that “[t]he most effective instruction in phonics, spelling, and vocabulary links word study to the texts students are reading, provides a systematic scope and sequence of word features, provides multiple opportunities for hands-on practice and application, and promotes active thinking.”

That active thinking part is key for transfer.  Sorting work is important, to be sure.  Fisher and Frey remind us that “word sorts reinforce pattern recognition, which is vital to phonics development.”  But if all we ask kids to do is sort, sort, sort, and never apply the patterns in novel ways, it’s never going to stick.  That lesson plan that comes with each sort?  It even gives many suggestions for other words with the same patterns that can be used in this way.  We never want kids to only work with the words that are on the sort page they’re given.  

WTW done right takes time.  Not a lot, but certainly more than printing off some pages and handing them to kids.  

One more big mistake that leads to big problems?

Another mistake that causes teachers to have problems with Words Their Way is not giving kids enough time to actually work with the words.  I always encourage teachers to use a two-week span, but do WTW activities 6 times, and use the other times to fit in explicit grammar, conventions or other needed spelling work, like morphology.  

Coming back to activities…the WTW teacher manual itself suggests many, many activities, and even includes a lot of games.  Other resources I’ve used a lot?  Hayes and Flanigan’s Developing Word Recognition for sure, and for decades Fountas and Pinnell’s Word Matters has been an invaluable resource for independent and partner activities that really make kids “cross train.”  Word Journeys is another resource I turn to often.  And recently, Kourtrakos’ Word Study That Sticks has a great selection of ideas to incorporate.  All of these books are full of high-quality activities to help your students truly master the spelling patterns they’re learning.

If, that is, you’re not making this huge mistake:

Not holding kids accountable!  Spelling improves with repeated practice.  If you’ve taught them, say, silent “e,” then you’d better be looking to be sure that your kids are applying that feature to their own work all across the day.  And if they’re not?  Have them fix it!  Practice builds habits–so you can either allow them to practice incorrectly–thereby solidifying it incorrectly–or make sure they practice correctly–thereby mapping the patterns to their brains.  

WTW is a fantastic program.  But it takes an intentional teacher who’s willing to do the planning work to make it successful.  

If that’s you, but you could use some support in getting it going strong, I’m here for you!

I’ve done a lot of coaching and training with Words Their Way, and have used it successfully in my own classroom for many years–with big results!  So if you could use a thinking partner to plan to effectively implement Words Their Way so that it sticks–and without causing YOU to have to work super hard, reach out for a coaching call.  I’d love to support you!

For ongoing, quick support,  join my private FB group!

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