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The Problem with Words Their Way®

Alternatives to Words Their Way

The Problem with Words Their Way

Back in the late 1990s, I served as an elementary reading specialist in a large Northern California school district. Our cadre of 21 reading specialists were in-serviced on new word study program, Words Their Way®. Dr. Shane Templeton, one of the authors, trained us for four days. Two of Dr. Templeton’s training components, the Qualitative Spelling Inventory (developed by colleague and fellow author, Dr. Donald Bear) and the developmental patterns of spelling, were novel approaches to word study. By the end of the fourth day, we reading specialists had bought in hook, line, and sinker to the Words Their Way® program. Our 50,000-student district adopted the Qualitative Spelling Inventory as our K−6 diagnostic spelling assessment, and teachers used the test results to both place students in reading programs and differentiate instruction within the classroom.

The elementary school to which I was assigned was over 1,000 students and drew from lower to middle income, ethnically and language diverse neighborhoods. Our supportive principal purchased each staff member a copy of Words Their Way®. I was allotted 10 two-hour staff developments, and we dug into teaching the program to our students.

By the end of two years, here’s what we teachers found: The Qualitative Spelling Inventory (now in three iterations: the Primary, Elementary, and Upper Elementary) was a reliable placement assessment, alongside of our phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and writing sample assessments. Certainly, spelling ability is one key indicator of reading ability as recent studies have demonstrated (Adams, 2011; Gentry & Graham, 2010; Moats, 2005; Reed, 2012). However, the assessment gave only general information as to which developmental spelling stages matched our students’ spelling mastery. Diagnostic assessments, based upon random samples, which produce only general student data are problematic for teachers in the trenches. Teachers want comprehensive diagnostic assessments which pinpoint specific deficits. In other words, teachers want teachable data. The Words Their Way inventories narrowed down the deficits, but were rather useless, according to my elementary school teachers, in terms of targeting differentiated instruction.

After the first year of training and implementation of Words Their Way® in my elementary school, only half of the teachers decided to continue the program for the next school year. By the end of the second year, only a handful continued use of the program. It just wasn’t their concerns about the utility of the spelling inventory; teachers found other problems with the program:

  1. The Words Their Way® program requires inordinate amounts of teacher prep and class time to implement with fidelity.
  2. The results from both standardized tests and teacher observations did not see the expected spelling improvement (nor reading and vocabulary improvement). That improvement did come two years later with the district’s adoption of the Open Court phonics program, albeit without a district-wide adoption of a spelling curriculum.
  3. Teachers began to see the Words Their Way® word sorts as only one means of spelling practice and wanted to use other spelling instructional strategies. Additionally, primary teachers, especially, questioned the accuracy the development stages. Their students and their spelling-reading instruction did not perfectly conform to and match each neatly described spelling stage. Intermediate and upper grades teachers found The Derivational Relations Stage to be an unwieldy creature to teach and did not see the pay-off for investing so much prep and instructional time in the program. As usual, teachers can be quite prescient when evaluating the application of theory into practice. Twenty years later, noted spelling researcher, J. Richard Gentry, PHD, echoed their concerns in his article, “Why America Can’t Read,”

Words Their Way is a guidebook for studying words; it is not a spelling curriculum. The original preface describes it purpose:  “…Ordered in this developmental format, Words Their Way complements the use of any existing phonics, spelling, and vocabulary curricula.”

Dr. Gentry cites what he views to be the theoretical flaw in the Words Their Way® program:

In Chapter 1 of Words Their Way® (2016 edition) we learn the theoretical basis for this method of word study: “Developmental spelling researchers have examined the three layers of English orthography in relation to developmental progressions from alphabet to pattern to meaning.” (Bear, et al, 2000, p.5.) As a developmental spelling researcher, I beg to disagree. There is no developmental progression in the child’s brain when constructing word knowledge that proceeds over time from alphabet to pattern to meaning. Word knowledge of alphabet, pattern, and meaning are being constructed at every stage of spelling development (Gentry, 2000).

More importantly, spelling development does not continue to develop in phases or stages beyond a ceiling which usually happens near the end of first grade if kids are developmentally on track. I pointed this out in The Reading Teacher in a refereed journal article about sixteen years ago (Gentry, 2000).

Let me be specific. There is no developmental stage for Ages 10+ in Grades 5 to 12 called “The Derivational Relations Stage” as claimed in all editions of WTW. In fact, as spelling researcher Louisa Moats points out, Derivational Relations begins in first grade: Words in a first grade spelling curriculum are Anglo-Saxon regular consonant and vowel phone-grapheme correspondences along with words such as goatwifemotherlove, and house. They all have an alphabet layer, an Anglo-Saxon pattern, and a meaning layer. In fact, derivational constancy is so dominant in English at early levels that the 100 most frequently used words in English—the ones teachers should teach in first grade—can all be traced back to Anglo-Saxon origins. This debunks Word’s Their Way’s “alphabet, pattern, and meaning” stage theory which suggests that clusters of error types develop later in brain development.

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So, how did these teachers continue to teach spelling without using Words Their Way®? We applied the best elements of WTW instruction: diagnosis, spelling patterns (not whole word) instructional focus, spelling sorts (albeit, not the time-consuming WTW exploratory sorts) based upon spelling patterns, differentiated instruction (individualization, if you prefer) based upon diagnostic assessment in a weekly instructional plan that was effective and efficient, yet required no prep, only minimal correction, and minimal amounts of valuable class time.

Weekly Instructional Plan

  1. Weekly spelling pattern pretest of grade-level spelling patterns
  2. Spelling pattern sort
  3. Personalized spelling lists
  4. Differentiated spelling patterns practice based upon results of diagnostic assessment
  5. Paired posttests of the personalized spelling lists

Differentiated Spelling Instruction Programs

Differentiated Spelling Instruction

Teachers bought into this Weekly Spelling Plan, but needed the resources that Words Their Way® did not provide. So, over the years I developed five grade-level spelling programs (4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) to help implement the Weekly Instructional Plan for grade-level, differentiated spelling instruction. I also developed a comprehensive diagnostic spelling assessment with targeted spelling pattern worksheets (each with formative assessments) to correspond to each of the 102 spelling patterns included on the comprehensive Diagnostic Spelling Assessment.* Check out my Differentiated Spelling Instruction, my Spelling Literacy Centers, or my Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary BUNDLES.

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*FREE as promised…

Fall 2020 Update: I recently created an audio version and Google forms self-correcting version of the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment to make life easier for teachers (especially for distance learning, make-ups, and for new students). The links to the paper, audio, and Google forms assessment formats, as well as recording matrices (paper and Google sheets) are available without cost in each of the product descriptions linked above. Additionally, make sure to preview the programs and print the free samples.

Alternatives to Words Their Way

The Problem with Words Their Way

Interested in side by side comparisons of the Words Their Way® spelling inventories and the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment? See all kindergarten–third grade spelling pattern test item comparisons in this four-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aczs81Jhcz8

Literacy Centers, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Kimberly Lim
    September 5th, 2020 at 15:48 | #1

    When I click on download, I receive an error message.

  2. September 12th, 2020 at 14:25 | #2

    Fixed!

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