word families how to teach word families guide

Post Promise: In today’s piece, the focus is on word families: what they are PLUS why, when and how to teach them so you can guide your students to mastery. Don’t miss the complete set of FREE three-letter Word Family Posters at the end of this post so that you can get started as soon as today.

Watch my FB Live Video Training about Word Families HERE!

What are Word Families?

Word families are groups of words with the same ending rime (also called phonogram.) These words are used strategically by educators when teaching children to read because of their predictable and easy-to-distinguish spelling patterns.

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    what are word families

    There are many word families in the English language but Primary Teachers focus on those that can aid their students in certain phonics-related skills (such as CVC words and long-vowel patterns.) Kindergarten teachers find the most use out of three-letter word family words (like the -am family words Sam, ham, ram and yam) while 1st and 2nd Grade Teachers dive deeper into the more complex spelling patterns (like the -ouse family words mouse, house, louse and spouse.)

    For an extensive list of word-family words, I like to go here to Enchanted Learning.

    Why teach Word Families?

    It is my sincere belief that, in order to be truly successful in teaching any concept- we must first understand WHY we teach it. I know we teach many thing “because the Common Core standards tell me to,” but can’t we dig a little deeper than that, friends?

    There is great passion to be found within purpose; understanding the inner workings of a reader and the strategies they need- will help us be better, more passion-driven teachers.

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    So, why should we teach word families? Here are 3 powerful reasons that go beyond “ CCSS says so”:

    • Spoken Word & Symbol Connections
    • Superior Decoding Tool
    • Confidence Boosting

    Spoken Word & Symbol Connection. Truly, the biggest undertaking in a child’s journey in becoming a reader is finally making that connection between spoken word and written text. They MUST understand that the sounds we make with our mouths are directly tied to the symbols we see in text. Then, and only then, can they decode, read and write to their ultimate potential.  

    Word families are a PERFECT tool for demonstrating this connection for students. Just think about this; word families sound the same at the end and are spelled the same at the end. (This isn’t something that happens often in the English language, by the way.)  The consistency of word-families can aid in helping our students in understand how our language and written text are related and guide these fluent speakers to become fluent readers.

    Superior Decoding Tool. The goal of phonics instruction is to give every child the tools they need to decode words. When they come upon an unknown word, we want them to have a proverbial toolbox stocked with gadgets they can pull out to get the job done. Teaching word families and their natural patterns is a tool added to that box.

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     When our students become truly fluent in reading the phonograms (the ending rime) of word-families- this is a superior tool! Think of how much faster they can decode a word with a “chunk” rather than making each individual phoneme (sound). This strategy also give them access to success with an exponential amount of words. Did you know that when students are comfortable with the 38 most common phonograms (the rime part of the word) they can decode 654 words? Talk about a great tool to provide for our little readers! (You can find a list of those here in Andrew Johnson’s eBook titled 10 Essential Instructional Elements for Students with Reading Difficulties.)

    Confidence Boosting. “Hey! I’m reading!”  Engagement is key in everything we do and one sure-fire way to increase engagement is to give students confidence in what they are doing. When students see the patterns and understand the simplicity of word-families, they can actually read them. Suddenly, they perceive themselves as true readers and every word they read is an imaginary “vote” towards this new identity. As they continue is this process, they gain confidence in themselves as readers that (when nurtured) can lead to a life-long love for it.

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    So, if anyone ever asks you “WHY” you teach word families, you have a proper ROCK-STAR-TEACHER answer. Word families for the win, folks!

    When to teach Word Families

    Now that we have real purpose-driven reasons to teach word families, it is great to know when we should be teaching them.  From my research and experience in the classroom, I found that there are a few major pre-requisites that we should consider before jumping into this seemingly simple concept. We of course want to equip our students with tools, but if your students aren’t comfortable using a hammer, you definitely don’t want to hand them a power-drill, right?

    Two areas you may want to consider (and even formally assess) before introducing word families are Phonological Awareness Skills and Letter/Sound fluency.

    Phonological Awareness is KING.  

    Or queen, whichever monarch is at the top of the totem pole for you. 🤣 The point is… Phonological Awareness is ESSENTIAL in all phonics instruction. If you didn’t know that or don’t fully understand it (I didn’t and you’re not alone), take my advice and dive into the topic NOW. Learn everything you can about it and implement some explicit PA instruction into your everyday schedule. When I was a new teacher (way back when) I failed miserably in this area- so miserably that I spent the next YEAR developing and perfecting a daily PA learning routine. (You can check out my best-selling resource right HERE.)

    In order for your students to grasp and implement the concepts of word-families, they first need a deep foundation in certain Phonological Awareness skills. Although there are many, here are the 3-most important skills involved in word-family instruction.

    1. Concept of Spoken Word. I mentioned earlier that Word-Families are a great way to demonstrate the connection between spoken word and text- but before we get to that- our students must understand the difference between spoken sounds, syllables, words and sentences. When we say “bat,” our students need to have an understanding that “bat” is a complete word that is made up of sounds. Without this understanding, looking at the written word bat has little-to-no schema for students and makes it difficult to understand.

    A good example of this is a below-level student I currently have in my RTI group. He sometimes looks at the sight word “a” and says “apple.” He has associated the letter Aa with the word apple and doesn’t recognize the connection I mentioned above. Word-family instruction will not be beneficial to him until he develops more understanding of the language/symbol connection.

    2. Rhyming. Rhyming words sound the same at the end, word-family words look the same at the end. Without a solid PA skill set with rhyming words, your students will likely struggle in internalizing the ending-chunk in word families. (If you notice students sounding out all three-phonemes in a word-family word, weakness here could be the culprit.) To be fully successful with word families, student first need to have a fully developed rhyme understanding.

    3. Beginning Sounds. Word family instruction and activities are heavily rooted in a child’s ability to remove and replace the onset of a word. If your students don’t have phonological practice in this area, you may notice they can’t do this easily or need to see a written model before they can.

    Letter/Sound Fluency

    Another skill you will need to consider before introducing word families to your class are your students’ fluency with letters & sounds. If the majority of your students haven’t mastered this concept, they are not ready for word families. Word-family instruction relies on your students being comfortable with blending the onset-and-rime. If they don’t recognize the letter or can’t produce its sound, don’t expect them to blend words.

    If you are finding yourself over half-way through the school year and feel that the majority of your class isn’t secure here- consider a daily-review of all Letters/Sounds to get them moving. I have specifically created a resource that thousands of teachers use to increase fluency and get their students more engaged in practicing their letters and sounds. You can see it here and even get a FREE version to download immediately.

    Don’t panic! If your class isn’t ready for word-families, don’t fret- just refocus! The only action you should avoid is introducing skills and concepts your students ARE NOT developmentally prepared to learn. If YOU aren’t the hero who gives them success with the preliminary skills first- it isn’t likely they’ll catch up in the future. Find the resources and strategies you need to strengthen their foundation and everything beyond that will fall into place.

    How to teach Word Families

    Now that we know why and when to teach word families, let’s get to the fun part. Yay! Teaching word families is an enjoyable experience for students and their teacher. When I have prepared my students (it takes months) for this instructional milestone, it is actually a bright and cheerful time. I can see their growth as readers and they feel proud of their accomplishments.

    Word families are fun because there are so many resources available to teach them. I won’t declare which curriculum or resource are best, but there are definitely some important factor to be watching for. Here are the most valuable components that need to be included in your Word-family instruction:

    word family how to teach word families

    Model & Excite.  Be ready to explain to students the concept of word-families in your best student-friendly language. Don’t use fancy terms (like onset-and-rime) or prolonged explanations of how they work; students just need a knowledgeable model (that’s you!) to tenderly demonstrate and explain the pattern. I personally like to demonstrate word families by initially writing them on my white-board or chart paper.

    Along with clear modeling, it’s also great practice to excite your students during this time about the benefits they will reap from learning the word family. To excite your students, use language like, “Wow! I bet you can already read ALL of these words on the list! Little readers, let me see what you can do!” Pump up your students to anticipate their success so that (when it becomes evident) they feel accomplished and confident.

    Keep Engagement in Mind. Ditch the worksheets as much as possible here, friends. Remember that engagement is key to all instruction. If your students aren’t engaged, you are leading a horse to water that is too bored to drink it. 🤪 So, in your journey to providing word-family instruction- look for curriculum and activities that will keep your students engaged. Some major items I search for are those that include movement, singing and routine. All three of these engagement strategies are backed by research. You can’t go wrong with any activity that includes them. (Check out an activity I designed that incorporates all three. It is called My Bag of Word Families and my kids are CRAZY for it.)

    Group & Independent Practice. I’m all for the “I do, we do, you do” model of teaching (You can read more about it here on my post all about Writing CVC Words.) It’s not only backed by formal research, it’s backed by my personal experience: I’m a full-time teacher that is telling you IT WORKS.  Before executing your Word Family Lesson, ask yourself if you include enough of the three modalities: Teaching (I do), Guided Practice (We do) and Independent Practice (You do.) So, after you’ve done your part in teaching and modeling, be sure to include opportunity for guided and independent practice of these skills. Our students need all three modalities to become fluent word-family readers.

    Provide Visual Support. Once you’ve taught the concept, be sure to provide your visual learners with access to a poster, anchor chart or word list that they can refer to. Having a place they can look to gain understanding during independent work is really empowering to students. I personally use posters that I introduce to students after demonstrating each word family. I even make a point to place the poster in it’s place during the lesson so students know exactly where they can find it when they need it. Get a complete set of the Word Family Posters I use down below.

    free word family posters

    Ready to go? Get your FREE Word Family Posters HERE.

    I hope I’ve helped you understand the process of word-family instruction a little better. Word family instruction may sound like child’s play but it is a major milestone in the journey of creating little readers. If I’ve bored you to sleep, atleast you get a set of free word family posters out of the deal anyway, right? Just type in your name and email into this form and I’ll shoot them to your inbox right away!

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    Now it’s your turn to be in the hot seat. How do you teach word families? Leave your best tips, resoures and advice in the comments below. Your expertise will be valued and appreciated, teacher friend.

    Until next time, happy teaching!


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