Use Word Families for Reading and Spelling

word familiesMake lots of use of “word families” as you teach your child spelling and reading–and writing, too.

As well as being a great way to learn to recognize various sound combinations, and to learn about rhyming, word families also are a great way to think up and then write creative sentences, stories, or poems, and to practice spelling of similar words. And word families are not just for beginning level reading and writing; as you’ll discover, they can even be used for more complex words of several syllables.

Use word families for creative writing:

Children often love to make up funny sentences, or even a short story. For example: “A fat rat with a hat sat on a cat, who poked him with a bat.” Illustrating the sentence adds to the memory. Some children also enjoy reading a short poem that uses rhyming words from a particular word family, and then creating a new stanza of their own for the poem.

Extend simple word families to more complex words:

Once a child has learned the basic sound/letter combination for a particular word family using simple rhyming words, you can extend it to more complex words. For example: bar, car, far, jar, mar, par, tar … then: Bart, cart, dark, farm, hard, lard, mark, part, apart, star, start, spar, tart, tartan … and even toss in some “hard” words like “variety.”

Use Nursery Rhymes to practice word families:

A good way to practice word families is to take simple poetry books (such as nursery rhymes) and put your finger over one of the rhyming words, have the child read the previous line(s), and guess the covered-up word, then spell it out.(“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candle ____” [stick].

Word family flowers:

One way to help your child with a particular “word family” is to draw a circle in the middle of a sheet of paper, and put the “family chunk” in the circle (for example “at”). Then around the circle draw petals (like a daisy). Each petal will have an initial sound or two, with blanks for the “family chunk” (for example: p_ _; fl _ _). Your child can fill in the blanks, read the words aloud–and draw little sketches to illustrate each word, if she likes.

Make and match words and pictures:

Another way to practice word families is to write a list of words from a “family” down one half of a piece of paper, and draw little sketches scattered here and there on the other half of the paper–then your child can draw lines to match the words and pictures. You don’t have to draw sketches for all the words–in fact, it is a bit more of a challenge if some words don’t have pictures! Make sure that your child reads all the words aloud, including the ones which don’t have a picture hint. They can use the picture hint ones to “get” the family sound; then sound out the remaining ones. Your child may also enjoy drawing pictures for those words.

Word families, decoding units, and syllables:

One author, Dr. Jerome Rosner, has taken the “word family” concept to another level by using “decoding units” (such as “ag” or “ill”) to help children build word recognition skills. Each set of word lists include four levels of increasing difficulty. The first level is single syllable words, usually just consonant-vowel-consonant. The second level is also single syllable, but adds blends to the start of each word. The third level is two-syllable words. And the fourth level is words of three or more syllables. Thus, not only does the child learn to immediately recognize certain letter combinations (as in word families), but this is also a great way to develop skills in reading multi-syllabic words. When you present the words, you can draw a slash between each syllable to help the child practice syllabication skills. The author also gives detailed suggestions on how to use these lists, and I have found this method very useful indeed for children who are struggling with learning to read. It is also a great way to increase vocabulary and build spelling skills, and children also enjoy picking out “compound words” from levels 3 and 4. This is also a good way to “build words” and improve their blending skills and chunking skills. And of course the lists also include quite a number of rhyming words, and can be used to create poems or rhyming sentences.

Example: For the unit/word family “an”:

  • Level one: ban, can, Dan, fan, Jan, man, Nana, pan, ran, tan, van.
  • Level two: ranch, scan, bland, ant, hand, chant, stand, span, strand, land, brand, plant.
  • Level three: began, manner, demand, cannot, handle, candle, banner, spaniel, Spanish, standard, dandy, landing, lantern, mantle, vanish, vandal, scandal.
  • Level four: Santa Claus, fantasy, fantastic, understand, Canada, outlandish, ancestor, animal, anniversary, grandstand, antelope, bandanna, advantage, manufacture, manager, chimpanzee, reprimand.

You can find Dr. Rosner’s word unit lists in his book Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties (3rd ed.)(New York: Walker and Co., 2009). This is such a useful, practical book for working with children who have learning disabilities, dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning challenges. I’ve found it particularly useful for helping children with perceptual difficulties, pronunciation difficulties, and more. The book gives clear instructions and detailed exercises, for using geoboards, auditory exercises, the word lists mentioned above, and more. This book is packed full of really practical ways to help your child develop literacy skills, whether he or she has learning challenges or not.

How do YOU use word families to help your child read, write, and spell? Share your ideas in the comments below.  Thank you!

Looking for other useful tips on helping your child read and write? Check out the list of topics in the second half of our Tutoring Tips page.

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