Thinking about Word Study

I think there is a time and place for word sorts. When kids are sorting printed words, they look for differences in words. One issue with word sorts is that kiddos often sort without reading the words. Make sure to require kids to read the words as they sort them and after sorting.

When using word sorts, we often use them to teach a pattern or rime. However, we can also use them to help students recognize more words by sight. I will be doing more research on these two objectives for word sorts soon.

When completing Word Study activities, you need to understand your objective and know your students and how they learn. An alternative to word sorts is analogy charts. Here is a video showing how they work.

The objectives for analogy charts are to identify the vowel sound in a given word and use a word they already know to help them spell the word. This required encoding. Words sorts require decoding. Furthermore, Jan Richardson, the teacher in the video, has added a step to the analogy chart routine. At the end, the teacher, without saying the word, writes a challenging word (or two) that includes the targeted vowel concept on a dry-erase board. Students break the word up into chunks and read. For example, if you were doing an analogy chart for ow/ai from the video. A challenge word might be belowground, brainteaser, or arrowhead. There is value in doing word sorts and value in doing Analogy charts. Which one will have more of an impact on your objectives? Which one impacts a student’s ability to read (decode) and write (encode) words more?

One thing I am trying out is Word Mapping. The technical term would be Grapheme Phoneme Mapping. You can use a form similar to this.

I ask students to repeat the target word after I say it. Then I ask them to tap it out on their fingers. They tap out words with 3-4 sounds on one hand by tapping a finger to their thumb for each sound heard in a word.

I ask how many sounds the word has, and then they write it. This is very similar to using Elkonon Boxes, often called Sound Boxes. When two or three letters represent one sound, they go in one box together. The word “see” above is an example of this.

When mapping words, you do not need to include words that follow a single pattern. Know your focus for the activity. Mapping words is an excellent way to review words or several patterns already taught.

Sunday Cummins and Jan Richardson have created a Mapping activity for high-frequency words. It has been added to the steps Richardson wrote about in her Next Step books. Click this link to find those books. This additional step is not in these books. Find it below. It was placed as step one, replacing What’s Missing as step one and moving it down to step two. The routine now has 5 steps.

Burkins & Yates (2021)

As you consider words with patterns for mapping, analogy charts, sorts, or other activities, keep in mind the students’ level of alphabetic knowledge. They are just not ready for some words, even when using analogies.

Also, understand that the sequence does matter when studying words. Do not overlook this. When building words, it is essential. You must make sure students attend to the feature you are working on. Understand that when it comes to working with words, the part of the word that we change or move when building words is the part students focus on. Therefore sequence matters! If working with vowel sounds, many teachers start with a list of short vowels and then move to long vowels. For example, they may ask them to read, write, or build this list of words: kit, bit, sit, kite, bit, site. This will cause the students to focus on what is changed, the initial consonant. Not the vowels. Sequence the words this way instead: kit, kite, bit, bite, sit, site. This focuses the student’s attention on how the e changes the vowel sound. You can do similar sequences for digraphs. Order matters.


Words to build: kite, kit, bit, bite,hit, dim, dime, him

Words to read: dim, dime, time, tide, hid, hide

Words to write or map or use in an Analogy Chart: kite, kit, side, sit, site, dime, spit, spite

Children’s analysis of words is often very different than we realize. Don’t assume they notice, and note the same details in the words you expect them to. How they focus on words and what they see and hear depends on their current knowledge. We must observe and listen to them. When considering an activity, we must weigh its benefits against concerns. We cannot embrace an activity and assume it will work because it worked in a different setting with different students with their current level of knowledge. You can make those minor adjustments.

More to come on word sorts and analogy charts


To Graphic Organize or Not?

One of my ultimate goals for my students is for them to process a text efficiently in their heads. I have seen the skillification of reading as Vicki Vinton refers to it in her book Dynamic Thinking for Deeper Reading hurt striving readers. All readers, really. Skillification happens when teachers break down reading so much that students never get a chance to gather their thoughts and put together a complete picture of their thinking. I emphasize “their thinking.” Not a teachers’ modeled and scaffolded thinking.

Our students must get to experience doing the, in the head work of reading that readers do. This work is messy and not readily displayed for others to replicate. This type of work does not fit nicely onto a slide or graphic organizer. You cannot make it look pretty on social media. It is chaotic but purposeful. It is often slightly different for different students.
Using a graphic organizer of some sort is one way to build a bridge to help access some of that thinking and to discuss/describe the reading processes the brain has to execute for students to make connections and inferences, draw conclusions, and put details together by bundling them into meaningful realizations. Not all readers need them, however. They can slow down some readers and turn the reading process into a broken-down mess.

I constantly juggle with the decision to have students use a graphic organizer. With the striving readers I work with, one more step can lead to the shutting down of thinking and to just going through the motions and doing what the teacher asks without much thought. When they can, I usually ask students to code a text by underlining or using various symbols to identify their thinking. I prefer this to sticky notes for many reasons. Then I ask myself do I have them transfer the information they accessed from the author onto a graphic organizer. Will this process help support them through their thinking or slow it down or make it disjointed?

Should I instead be focusing on using meaningful talk as a strategy to help students access their thoughts and go through that inside of the head, meaning-making work? It depends on the students and the type of reading lesson I am asking them to complete. Is it a guided reading group, student-led literature circle, students working individually or with partners. All of this weighs into my decision. I have seen students go through the work of transferring their notes and the writers underlined details onto a graphic organizer and not make critical realizations until they can discuss it with the group. This often includes bantering the importance of and meaning of different details from the text. Was the use of the graphic organizer helpful? I often ask the students themselves and take notes as I confer with them as they fill them out. If they just copy information from the text into another sheet of paper, it is not helpful. The thinking process readers go through to evaluate and synthesize information the writer shares is most valuable. I ask them to put what they have underlined into their own words when using a graphic organizer.

Do not ask students to create a graphic organizer just to have something to display on social media that looks great! Or to have evidence for one reason or another to prove you are teaching the curriculum or to share in PD. Those reasons alone are not what is best for students. Some need the challenge of working through their own thinking first to make their own meaning. Students do not necessarily need to watch someone else do the work. Bend and stretch the curriculum when you need to.

Two quotes come to mind as I think through how and when to use graphic organizers or even explicit modeling when teaching students to think.

When you figure something out for yourself, there is a certain thrill in the figuring. After a few successful experiences, you might start to think that figuring things out is something that you can do. Maybe you are even a figuring out kind of person……..

Peter Johnston

This is what true agency is all about! Give students the space to work on becoming figuring out kind of people. When they are not motivated to do this consider incorporating some of Ellin Kneene’s ideas on engagement into your teaching. I wrote a post a while back about some of her ideas. Check it out here.

“In too many places, we ask kids to read and write so we can give them a grade that shows they learned some skills someone has decided they need to learn. Skills are important. But if we aren’t reading and writing so that we can grow, so that we can discover, so that we can change–change our thinking, change ourselves, perhaps change the world–then those skills will be for naught.”

Kylene Beers & Robert Probst

I want to give kids opportunities to think and learn by trying things out on their own as much as possible. I want to capture what they are doing naturally and strategically on their own. Then notice and name what kids are doing and look for opportunities to understand what strengths they already have as readers and thinkers. You must consider what skills and strategies they are using already that are a byproduct. A byproduct of giving them time and space and jumping in with support as needed.

So back to my question. When are graphic organizers useful? I only use them when they provide students some form of generative value. They have to find value in them for themselves, not simply be filing one out because the teacher said to. I think they come in quite handy when kids are reading/viewing multiple texts over the same or similar topics. They can help students bundle their thinking and carry it over from one source to the next. You can create a graphic organizer to support kids in this effort where they can synthesize what the writer wants readers to understand from several sources on one form. A chart similar to the one below could be utilized.

This is a form I created for a group of 4th and 5th grade readers reading several articles on Invasive Species. I want them to carry over the information they learned from one article to the next to grow their thinking and understanding on the topic. The charts I ask students to use usually include a leading question they are reading to find answer to.

We will have to work on writing about how we feel about what we read. This reader was just not into the topic of Invasive Species that much.

They underlined information dealing with the problems, and solutions and took some notes to help them process the information they were reading on the articles themselves before completing graphic organizer.

One student came up with the idea of using P for problem and S for solution to help him make meaning. I was trying to lead Ss to make a choice like this, but come to it on their own.

It is not essential that students underline the exact same things on every article or write a note to themselves saying the exact same thing. For each student to get what they need out of this process, they need to do the work for themselves. If they are reading and rereading parts of the text when they need to and thinking about it on a deeper level using some questions to help them focus their thinking, it will have more generative value. I had two students discussing if a group of pelicans eating the goldfish in the above article was a problem or solution. Students had it marked differently. They were doing the work and the thinking. They are not just copying what I have done or what another student has done. To me, it did not really matter what conclusion they came to because they were deepening their level of understanding in the process. Graphic organizers do not need to look the same for every student. I am not always focused on answers themselves, but answers as a byproduct of thinking and talking about our reading. I work with striving readers, by the way, and we are a constant work in progress. 🙂

Let me know your thoughts and experiences.

Engagement and Understanding text beginnings.

I have a group of 5th grade readers who often struggle to fully engage in reading. It is often a choice they are making because they feel like the text may be to hard or they may not like the content or may be districted by any number of reasons. I  know this group of readers has a hard time recognizing information that is important at the beginnings of texts. To help overcome these struggles I have started to read the first 1-2 pages of a text to them as they follow along. I select a stopping point that should leave them with lots to think about. I read enough to peak the students’ interest with the text. I want them to get their feet wet with the topic or story line. I want them eager to know more about the characters or topic. If I pick the right spot, they will feel a need to read on, to find out what happens or what the writer might inform them of next. I do not want students thinking impeded by language structure, vocabulary or word solving at that time. We will tackle those as they arise when I confer with them individually as they read. With this group of students comprehension is where they struggle more. Before they can dig into the type of thinking required with in the graphic below, they have to understand the basic information and recognize what information they do not have or do not understand.


            I believe it is my job the help entice kids into texts they may have never chosen to read on their own. I believe we can get kids to choose to engage in a text they may not want to at first and to expose them to many different types of texts they may not pick up on their own.

Kids choose to engage and re-engage in activities all day long. I have seen multitudes of students over the years not want to engage in a text for various reasons and then choose to engage with the text after hearing another student read a section they struggled with or overheard a conversation between two students or a student and the teacher. There have been times when I have not wanted to give a text a try and regretted it later.  I have started texts and not finished them, regretting the choice it when I hear about information I missed out on thinking through and discovering for myself. Or I missed a great story that I realize now I would have enjoyed and maybe learned something about human behavior from.

For this group of 5th graders who are already reluctant to come with me for reading support because they are fully aware of their struggles, this approach has worked. My text choice is intentional as much as the stopping point is. I make sure to choose a text that will help my mumble reader want to figure the words so he can find out what happens.

I know that in guided reading students are asked to do all of the reading. I also know that guided reading is designed to meet readers where they are, to meet their needs and to still be able to adherer to the curriculum.  If I am teaching the reader and know these readers struggle with engagement and with understanding the basics of texts at the beginning, then I will adapt my instruction to meet those needs.

I can also have real conversations with them about my own regrets with texts I didn’t start or finish. I can model how to slow down at the beginning of texts. How to attack a text from the beginning and read with the intent of figuring out what the writer might be wanting me to feel and think about the topic or characters. What pieces of information has the writer given me in the first few pages that I may have not given enough thought to, or skipped over because it was an unfamiliar word or phrase? I have to make sure my students understand that information given at the beginning of texts may seem boring or unimportant, but it should not be considered so. They need to understand writers use beginnings to set readers up to understand the rest of the text. There is often information that seems insignificant at first that we know may become important to understand later. We know this as experienced readers, I need to show my students this who may be very inexperienced readers.

So, I believe there is a time and place where it is Ok to read part of a text aloud to students in guided reading groups. I do so with a pre-planned purpose however. It is often a muti-layered purpose like I have been describing.  I want to make clear that I am not doing any thinking for them, or telling anything. I suppose I am providing a scaffold for them, but not a scaffold that is taking away the thinking work of reading for meaning.

I will share some of what I feel are the best strategies to help kids who struggle with text beginnings and the basic information the writer shares in some of my next posts. I will also share what I do next with this group of students to make sure they are doing the thinking work after I have read aloud.

We are your thoughts and experiences?



Ideas from Sunday

I was lucky enough to attend a wonderful PD session today with Sunday Cummins. I plan to blog about several of the take always I got from the session over the next few weeks. This helps me process through the information and reflect on it. Hopefully someone else will get something out of it as well.

I work in a district that has supported reading instruction exceptional well. We have implemented Reading Work shop and continue to use Guided Reading as well. We use the Fountas & Pinnel Benchmark Assessment system as one way to access reading.

The session was on working with transitional readers using a lesson plan taken from Jan Richardson’s book: The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading.

Next Step

Transitional Readers are students reading at levels J-P.

When conferring with students as they read during a guided reading lesson Sunday shared that she focuses first on-

1st Monitoring/decoding

2nd Fluency

3rd Comprehension

If they showing competence in one area move to the next.

I think this makes sense because monitoring/decode and fluency both effect comprehension.

When moving to check comprehension when conferring we focus on using Fountas & Pinnell’s Systems of strategic actions:

Checking Understanding on:

                                        1st – Thinking Within the Text

                                        2nd – Thinking Beyond the Text (inferring)

                                        3rd – Thinking About the Text (authors craft)


When conferring with students who are in the writing phase of the guided reading lesson focus on-

1st– meaning 

            2nd – syntax (language structure)

            3rd – Spelling

I say address capitalization and punctuation if time as you see fit to meet the kids needs, but remember that when we ask students to write about what they read we are doing it as a way for them to show understanding of the text and to extend that understand at the Transitional stage.

When writing always make sure you provide students time to plan their writing with you and then orally rehearse it. Students who need guided reading are often readers who lack good language skills. 

Please contact me if you have any thoughts or questions!

Check out Sunday’s blog at:



Kansas City Literacy Association


Seeking Ways to Grow Proficient, Motivated, Lifelong Readers & Writers

Second Thoughts

Observations of a 2nd Grade Teacher


A meeting place for a world of reflective writers.

To Make a Prairie

A blog about reading, writing, teaching and the joys of a literate life

Pernille Ripp

Teacher. Author. Creator. Speaker. Mom.


Crawling Out of the Classroom

In everything that my students and I do together, we strive to find ways to use reading and writing to make the world outside of our classroom a better place for all of us to be

sunday cummins

Experience Nonfiction



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