Ellen A. Thompson, Ed. D., author
February 27, 2023
For this past year, I have been on a mission to better understand the draw that word study has on educators. It is being used as a silver bullet for all that ails readers and writers in our schools. Let’s be clear, it actually is not all of word study that is deemed important, just two parts of it: phonemic awareness (PA) and phonics instruction. It is as if nothing else matters for the teaching of reading. Word study has an analytical side as well as a constrained right and wrong way to use it in reading and writing. This idea of using word study as a tool for further understanding has gotten lost in the one size fits all drills of sounds in the air without any print connections model. The abstractness of this endeavor boggles my mind.
When I think about my many years as an educator teaching young children to read, I know that making meaning from text was most important to me. I wanted my students to understand that everything we did in the spirit of teaching reading was for just that: constructing meaning from print. It meant that all the components of literacy development: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, were firmly centered on sense making. I taught it all within the context of meaning. I systematically taught phonics and reinforced their learning through daily interactive/shared writing experiences. We sang and became fluent readers using our sound skills in shared reading of poetry carefully selected by me for the phonic skills we were learning. I modeled what a reader does to make sense of their reading through my interactive read alouds. We kept track of interesting words and discovered the patterns of meaning that could help us unlock them when needed. Connections to print and meaning abounded.
Back to word study. My mission driven reading on word study has affirmed much of what I thought I knew when I was teaching in my multiage classroom with young learners. It has also pointed out some areas that I could have done better. My realization that not all of my learners needed the same thing at the same time day after day was firmly ingrained in me during my first year of teaching grade 2. It took me a few years to set up a word study workshop in my classroom, complete with a phonics/word study focus lesson based on what 80% of the children needed, coupled with the use of small group and 1-1 instruction to reinforce, teach, and/or reteach skills needed with independent word “play” as an anchor activity when they were not with me. Word “play” = choice reading and writing. My students loved word study time! I now know that I could have been more systematic, following a scope and sequence of PA and phonics skills agreed upon by my grade-level peers. We did not have one. I am sure my language used to describe how these skills were used in print would need some rethinking. My readings from Wiley Blevins, Jan Burkins, Kari Yates, and Julia B. Lindsey affirmed that I was working correctly all those years ago.
I’m glad. After all, I wanted the best for my students. Whenever I hear about what they are doing now, I do a quick little happy dance. I have brought doctors of medicine, professors of academics, television producers, lawyers, authors, researchers, teachers, organic farmers, and so many more into this present world.
Blevins, W., & Fisher, D. (2017). A fresh look at phonics, grades K-2: common causes of failure and 7 ingredients for success. Thousand Oaks, California, Corwin Literacy.
Burkins, J., & Yates, K. (2021, February 18). Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom.
Lindsey, Julia b., & Duke, Nell (2022) Reading above the fray: reliable, research-based routines for developing decoding skills, Scholastic.
Ellen A. Thompson, Ed.D., Literacy Consultant
Ellen Thompson has been an educator for over 45 years. She taught as a classroom teacher in Vermont for over twenty years, many of those years in a multiage setting teaching children aged 6-9. Ellen was named the Vermont State Teacher of the Year in 1993 and achieved her National Board Certification as an Early Childhood Generalist in 1999. Ellen began consulting nationally in 1993 and has continued this work throughout her years as an educator. Upon leaving the classroom, Ellen joined the Elementary Education literacy faculty at the University of Vermont in 2000. At the University, she taught undergraduate literacy courses, supervised student teachers, and worked as a literacy consultant in two large-scale literacy research projects that span grades K-6. Ellen worked with the Essex Town School District for twelve years as the Director of Instruction and Information Services. After merging the Essex Town School District and the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union, Ellen continued working with educators in the newly created Essex Westford School District as the Director of Learning Design. During this time, Ellen completed her doctoral studies in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont in the fall of 2007. Ellen is currently a literacy consultant for Partnerships in Literacy and Learning.