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Making a Case for Word Study Instruction

Systematic, Sequential, Cumulative, Explicit

Making a Case for Word Study

Every year, we inevitably encounter students with a similar reading profile. These are the students who score within the independent range for comprehension. However, oral reading fluency scores tend to indicate a need for support. Closer examination of fluency will likely reveal decreased accuracy with minimal self-corrections. Rate, however, may falsely inflate the overall fluency score. This means that the student reads words quickly but incorrectly and does not stop to correct his errors. When comprehension is assessed, he is able to piece together reasonable responses using picture and context clues. What is he missing? You guessed it….phonics!

Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary defines phonics as, “a method of teaching people to read and pronounce words by learning the sounds of letters, letter groups, and syllables”. In other words, phonics is the understanding that sounds in the spoken language can be represented by written letters and letter patterns.

Let’s examine the progression of decoding skills.   Phonological awareness provides the foundation. First, readers must have an understanding that spoken words are made up of individual sounds (phonemic awareness).

Next, readers must begin to apply that understanding to the written word (phonics).

Then, readers must accurately apply the phonetic process (letter-sound knowledge) to decode a written word.

Last, readers must synthesize these skills in order to read connected text accurately and fluently.


Teachers deliver instruction in a consistent, organized and efficient manner so that students become familiar with the word study process.

Variety is not the spice of life when it comes to phonics instruction! Often times, instructors feel pressure to vary the activities within their lessons through games and/or assorted worksheets in an effort to increase engagement. However, in doing so, they risk the student using valuable cognitive energy to focus on the “activity” leaving less mental energy to focus on the learning. In addition, while students might be successful in applying the skills to a particular worksheet or game, they may not intuitively transition this knowledge into daily reading. This is particularly true of struggling readers.

We have found that, because students are familiar with our word study procedures, they know what to expect and are motivated to learn and/or apply their new understandings. Their sense of success leads to active engagement and intrinsic motivation.


Teachers deliver instruction in a logical order. This sequential instruction helps early readers come to realize that there is a reliable system to reading and that it begins with accurate decoding.

While there exists a plethora of phonics worksheets and games, teachers should be intentional in their use of these resources. Be sure to avoid arbitrary introduction of various skills as students might then view phonics as random and unreliable.

The best way to ensure sequential instruction is to follow a phonics scope and sequence.  You can read more about the power of a phonics scope and sequence here.  If you or your school does not have a phonics scope and sequence, click on the image below for a free download.

picture of our K-2 Scope and Sequence


Teachers deliver new instruction that is built upon previously taught skills, starting with simple concepts and moving toward more complex understandings.

As with anything, building a strong foundation is crucial. Phonics skills must be layered in such a way that students are able to utilize previously taught skills and apply those skills to new learning. Introducing a new skill before mastery of the previous skill may lead to confusion and, once again, cause a student to view phonics as random and unreliable. We recommend pre and post assessments and/or progress monitoring to determine a starting point for instruction (back it up to what they know) as well as a students’ level of mastery.

An example of cumulative instruction is applying one’s knowledge of single syllable types to read multisyllabic words.


Teachers deliver instruction in a clear, concise manner.

While words in the English language may appear random in their spelling, the majority of English words follow consistent patterns. These patterns must be clearly explained to students. If not, we leave it up to chance that students will independently recognize and apply the intended skill.

This resource is available in our TPT store.

The ultimate goal of reading is comprehension. Students should always monitor their reading for understanding. However, the use of context clues, or guessing and checking, is not an effective strategy. Conversely, the use of phonics clues for word solving is significantly more beneficial.

West and Stanovich (1978) and Stanovich, West and Freeman (1981) found that struggling readers rely heavily on context clues to facilitate word recognition. In contrast, the automatic word recognition and/or decoding processes of skilled readers were so proficient that they did not have to depend on context clues. This finding holds true and is supported in recent reading research.

In other words, proficient readers do not need to rely on context clues for word solving. They can accurately and automatically apply phonetic rules to read unfamiliar words. Struggling readers, however, over-rely on the use of context clues in an effort to compensate for poor word identification. As texts grow more complex, the use of context becomes increasingly inefficient and comprehension suffers.

Think about students you’ve had who fit the reading profile described at the beginning of this post. Is there a place for systematic, sequential, cumulative and explicit word study within your language arts block? What are some ways you might incorporate these techniques?

These resources, available in our TpT store, follow the systematic, sequential, cumulative and explicit model of phonics instruction beginning with single syllables and moving toward the more complex skill of multisyllabic decoding.


This resource is designed to help students read multisyllabic words by recognizing syllable types

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  1. Phonics is a huge part of first year primary schools in New Zealand. Is phonics a major priority of the preK and K curriculum in the US? I like how you have broken this down into the four areas. I have found that the systematic approach is best too – variety seems like a good idea, but actually can be a hindrance to the learning.

    This was a really interesting blog post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Several years ago my district adopted a reading program that didn’t have much phonics instruction. In third grade I’ve noticed a huge decrease in students’ spelling and decoding skills as a result. We’re finally starting to put more of an emphasis on word study again. Hopefully, we’ll see improvements in the next few years.

  3. I 100% agree with the necessity of explicit, systematic, and sequential word study!!! So important for students to have a solid basis for reading and spelling. I do however constantly play games with my OG students to reinforce concepts and in the place of the traditional card drill. I have found that this helps students remain engaged throughout the hour lesson (especially my kinders and first graders) and actually helps them internalize the rules – I have not found this to be a hinderence to learning and actually have been able to get kiddo’s through the OG scope and sequence that had been previously unsuccessful. So I think when done right games can actually very much supplement a solid word study program.

    1. Thank you initiating this discussion. You raise some a valid points and please allow us to clarify. We do not believe that games should be avoided altogether. Games can be an effective means of reinforcement for previously taught concepts when integrated purposefully into instruction. In fact, the single syllable and multisyllabic word study units we have designed, begin each lesson with a warm-up game that reviews single syllable types.

      As you mentioned in your comment, games can also help students to remain engaged throughout the lesson and we agree. Our reading intervention lessons often incorporate familiar games. Because the games are familiar to our students, they are able to focus on the concept.

      We are sure you can appreciate the huge difference between implementing games that build upon previous instruction versus indiscriminately playing games with the intent of replacing “the game” for instruction. As former first grade teachers, we certainly respect the need for engagement, but we do feel that initial introduction of a phonetic skill should follow a consistent and explicit format that is familiar to students. While games cannot replace explicit instruction, they do not have to be a hindrance. They can certainly, as you said, “supplement a solid word study program”. Thank you again for your thoughtful comment! We appreciate participating in professional dialogues.

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