Words Their Way

31 Replies

I've been pushing for an early years Synthetic Phonics program at one of the schools I work in, but sadly I'm just a far-too-busy part-time contractor and outsider, who doesn't get to go to the meetings where such things are decided, so I haven't succeeded.

Oh well, I guess it means they'll always generate plenty of work for a Speech Pathologist with literacy expertise (she said, through gritted teeth).

The literacy program they've chosen to use is called Words Their Way, which in the early years essentially puts a layer of initial and analytic phonics over what remains at its core a Whole Language program.

People I know and respect say it is better than the standard "give them a bath in written language and they will magically catch on" Whole Language fare, but its conceptual framework still sees literacy as natural and developmental and a bit mysterious, to be "facilitated" as it "emerges", not an artificial skill to be pulled apart and actively and systematically taught.

"Emergent Spellers"

Words Their Way calls anyone aged one to seven who is writing random marks on paper, drawing pictures, doing "mock linear or letter like writing" or writing random letters and numbers an "Emergent Speller".

Actually, I call someone aged one who is making any sort of recognisable marks on paper a baby genius. Most one-year-olds are more likely to suck the pencil or throw it at you.

On the other hand, anyone in our education system who can only write random letters at age seven is well behind, and probably well aware of this, and highly distressed about it.

Words Their Way assessments for "Emergent Spellers"

Words Their Way's assessments for "Emergent Spellers" first examine their ability to identify rhyme and alliteration, and circle pictures that begin with given letters. This is all good, we know that little kids who start school with awareness of initial sounds, rhyme and letters are ahead of the game on literacy.

The assessment also requires children to spell little words like mat, nap, kid, log, jet and gum. Of course, an "Emergent Speller" who is writing random letters will not be able to do this, and is by definition not an "Emergent Speller" at all (more on this later).

A "Concept of word" assessment teaches children to memorise the rhyme Humpty Dumpty (which most children from mainstream backgrounds will already know, bad luck if your family is from South Sudan and you haven't heard it before) and then checks, one by one, whether they can "read" it themselves, by pointing to each word as they say it. The teacher is expected to score this pointing on a scale from 0-6 where 0 is going backwards and forwards and all over the shop, 3 is "points to words for each rhythmic beat or syllable, getting off track" and 6 is accurate pointing. I'm not going to try to unpack the construct validity of this assessment, except to say that it makes my "what's the point?" meter go off like a rocket.

The assessment goes on to ask individual children to read particular words from Humpty Dumpty, firstly in the verse itself (this is called Word Recognition in Context) and then on a list – on, Humpty, put, horses, sat, men, king's, wall, had, fall – which is called Word Recognition in Isolation.

Most of this just makes me want to cry – it simply makes no sense from a linguistics point of view, it's basically assessing initial letter-sound skills (which have already been assessed) and visual memorisation of words as wholes (which if used exclusively as a strategy soon leads to literacy failure). I despair at the idea of a whole lot of lovely teachers and kids I know spending hours on such tasks, instead of things that do make linguistic sense.

Words Their Way program for "Emergent Spellers"

The teacher of Emergent Spellers is advised to "talk with and read to students and share the sounds and meaning of language", "build vocabulary with concept sorts", "develop phonological awareness with picture sorts, songs and games" and "enhance alphabet knowledge with games, matching activities, and sorts".

In practice this means a lot of memorising whole words, reciting rhymes and jingles while pointing to the text, initial phonics of the "a is for aardvark, b is for badger" variety, vocabulary and concept picture sorting, discussion of vocabulary, dictation (without prior explicit teaching of the relevant spellings), finding named letters in text and shared reading.

There is some rhyme sorting, as well as some rhyming games like bingo and concentration, which at least acknowledge that there are letters in words beyond the first one. But these still don't break words right down into phonemes and graphemes and really teach children how to put them together and pull them apart.

Right from the beginning, tiny children are presented with written multisyllable words like "triangle", "animal" and "vegetables".

Words Their Way stories

The first story in the Emergent Spellers book contains not just simple, one-letter-equals-one-sound spellings, but also the "ee" in "peel", the "a" in "banana" (sounds like "ar" in Australian English), the "y" in "my", the "u" in "put", the "th" in "the" and the "ow" in "bowl". That's just in the first verse.

In the next two verses we also meet the "a" (which sounds like "o") and the "sh" in "wash", the "pp" and "le" in "apple", the "a" (which sounds like "i") and the "ge" in "orange".

The next story is about circles, and contains the word "circles" five times, but the lesson plan seems to contain no explanation for children about why the letter "c" sounds like a "s" the first time it appears in this word, and a "k" the second time.

This story and the next one contain more digraphs and spelling overlaps – the "a…e" in "make", the unstressed "er" in "paper" (introduced before the stressed "er" in "her" and "term", so children will think the sound for this spelling is "u"), the "ir" in "bird", the "ey" in "monkeys", the "a" in "water" (sounds like "or"), the "wh" in "everywhere" and also add trigraphs – the word "air", the "oar" in "board" and the "ere" in "everywhere".

In story number four we meet a highly irregular spelling – the "oe" in shoe (like canoe, Donohoe and if you know of any other words like this, please tell me and I will add them to my spelling list). The regularly-spelt "oe" word "toe" is also in this story, but there seems to be no point in the lesson at which the teacher tells children that we ordinarily say "oe" as per the word "toe" (see this list), not as per the word "shoe".

Being an American program, there are rhymes in Words Their Way that don't work in an Australian accent like "I Can't Said The Ant" (I can't said the aunt?), and I think I had better stop there, you get the idea.

"Developmental stages" of spelling

Saying there are developmental stages in spelling is a bit like saying there are developmental stages in learning to cook, fix a car or program a computer.

None of these things are in the slightest bit natural or developmental. If you put a child alone on a desert island with paper, pens and pencils, a fully equipped kitchen, a car and a motor mechanic's shop, and the most whizz-bang computers available, you could come back and assess them as often as you liked, but they probably wouldn't write a story, a word or a line of code, scramble an egg or fix the simplest breakdown.

If you hung around with them on the desert island for a few years, writing and reading, cooking, fixing and programming, and they watched you, most of them would learn at least the basics, but some would not. If you want someone to be a good cook, motor mechanic or computer programmer, you start them off doing simple things and then gradually and systematically teach them harder and harder stuff, till they are as proficient as you (or if you fix cars and program computers as well as I do, you get someone else to teach them).

Our usual system for teaching beginning spelling, however, seems to be a weird combination of let-them-hang-around-and-watch, and actively setting about a quarter to a fifth of children up to fail, by requiring them to do linguistically and conceptually hard things well before they've mastered much easier ones.

Instead of talking about "developmental stages" of spelling, spelling programs for beginners should actively teach the simple and common spellings in all word positions first (like the spellings in the words mat, tip and rug), then the more complex ones (like "wh" and "er" and "a…e"), working from short to long words, along the way pointing out any tricky spellings from which they should not try to generalise patterns, like the "oe" in "shoe", the "ai" in "said" and spelling nightmare words like "choir" and "sure".

What's wrong with teaching correct spelling straight up?

As mentioned above, a Words Their Way "Emergent Speller" who can spell little words like mat, nap, kid, log, jet and gum is not in fact an Emergent Speller at all, so I went looking through Words My Way for their stage.

The second stage is called "Letter Name – Alphabetic Speller". These children, aged 4-9 (!), are writing "mine" as M, MN or MIN, "drive" as JN, JV, JFR or DRIV and "send" as S, SD, SAD and SED. Heaven help the nine-year-olds, I say. If you haven't cracked the spelling code by age 9, all the research on long-term outcomes suggest that you are in serious, serious trouble. Unless someone comes along with a seriously effective intervention, you probably won't learn to read and spell very well, ever.

For a program to suggest that it's OK for nine-year-olds to be writing "mine" as "M" is, I think, frankly scandalous.

The third stage, children aged 6-12 (the pedagogical and accountability implications of these blurry age groupings will have to be the subject of another rant, another day), is called "Within Word Pattern Spellers" and here children write "seat" as SETE or SEET, "nail" as "NALE" and "rope" as ROAP. So they are getting the idea but are still not expected to spell correctly.

I can't tell you what stage a child aged 5-12 who can spell mat, nap, kid, log, jet, gum, mine, seat and nail is in. Words Their Way seems to have an underlying assumption that all children will make constant mistakes in spelling, and adults' job is to assess and record and accept these, while trying in a gentle, oblique way to facilitate their development away from them.

The problem is that if you practice a spelling mistake often enough, it becomes a habit, and hard to undo.

A first-and-fast, explicit phonics teaching methodology is the way to avoid encouraging children to practice spelling mistakes, but getting schools to recognise this and start using it is a lot harder than I expected.


31 responses to “Words Their Way”

  1. Christie says:

    Thank you!

    I wonder what prompted the particular school to make such a strange decision; one that will most likely have a profound effect on the students in the program and will create a heck of a lot of work for middle school teachers who will need to do an enormous amount of remedial work to bring these students up to an acceptable level of competency before they fall into the "semi-literate" basket of early school leavers? Particularly when there are good quality Australian programs available!

    • alison says:

      I don’t know, I wasn’t involved in the discussions. Anyway it’s done now and I think there is valuable stuff in the upper levels of this program, it’s just the part designed for absolute beginners that most concerns me.

  2. Kate says:

    Thankyou so much for this Alison.  So many schools around here are embracing Words Their Way with zeal, and it's been hard to find information on it.  I visited a local school and got the deputy to take me through the program, but I didn't look at it long enough to work out what's what, especially in the younger years.  I saw some synthetic phonics-type activities in the upper levels involving different spelling patterns for long vowels, and I was impressed with word derivation activities in middle school years which talked about how words we took from particular languages followed special spelling patterns.  But this information is what I needed to know, thanks.

  3. Shannyn says:

    I must say I agree with this, and it makes me want to cry.  I am in Australia too, and my daughter is using this program in her first grade classroom.  The sorts she is bringing home as homework don't make sense to ME half the time (and for the record, my spelling and vocabulary have always been far above average).  My daughter is an excellent reader, but I don't think this program is helping her.  Some of the categories seem odd (eg should "room" and "broom" go in the same category as "pool" and "stool"?  Because for my money that's a different sound, but she has been told they go together!)  Add to this the fact that half the sorts only work if you have an American accent, and it makes things extremely confusing!  My daughter has even brought home words that are spelled (for Australia) wrongly (eg "gray" instead of "grey").  I hate that my girl is being taught to spell things incorrectly!  My daughter's teacher is lovely, and I want to support what she's teaching, but I find it very difficult to do so when it seems so very wrong to me!  My daughter's school is fantastic in all ways but this, and I do so wish they were not using this program.  Thank you so much for this post, as it's nice to hear this opinion coming from someone who actually knows what they are talking about!

  4. katie says:

    Hi Alison

    Thaks for your comments to date………So, in short, what's the answer?

    "A first-and-fast, explicit phonics teaching methodology" ….such as? We use Spalding with every class as a schoolwide initiative, however, as a Learning Support teacher – I can now clearly observe a link between children who are referred to me for 'Learning Support' who can parrot all the sounds for 'ough' yet cannot apply the correct sound to spelling (nor can they recognise and use them appropriately in the context of written text). As a teacher with 20 plus years experience, I tended toward 'whole language' techniques for years but, over time, have changed my perspective and agree that phonics must be explicity taught to many students – particularly those at risk of reading difficulties. We use a combination of Multilit programs for a variety of children with reading difficulties. I have read the 'Words their Way' material and actually think it works quite well as an addition to the explicit teaching of phonics. I'd be interested in your view of quality 'phonics' programs that may assist Australian teachers. 




    • alison says:

      Hi Katie, I think a more interesting question than “what programs should schools use?” is “what knowledge and skills do teachers need?” in order to teach in a way that helps children quickly learn to decode and encode well, so they can shift their focus to meaning and using literacy for learning.

      Once teachers know what their objectives are, and have mastered basic Synthetic Phonics teaching methods, they can evaluate programs on their own, and teach well using simple and affordable materials rather than needing a whole lot of fancy, expensive programs with lots of bells and whistles.

      I just did the Sounds Write four day course in Perth, and I think that it’s the sort of training all early years teachers need so that they can get 95-97% of their children reading and writing in the first year of school. Trainees get a folder full of useful information, a USB stick with other materials on it, and the main teaching materials you need are whiteboards and post-it notes plus decodable readers (the Dandelion Readers follow the same sequence as Sounds Write). As soon as I’m not busy with other things I’m going to write some blog posts about this!

      All the best

      Alison C

  5. Jenny says:

    My son is in grade 4 and his school has just implemented Words Their Way. This whole term has been a complete waste of time as he has been required to put lists of words into the right categories ie: cvc, cvce etc. He was spelling these word lists in grade 1 and in my opinion I don’t see the importance for a child to know what categories a word fits into as its pointless and doesn’t teach them to spell. He found the whole experience boring and he himself said this is a waste of time. To extend his spelling I use an approach called SSP (Speech Sound Pics approach) and he has the skills and resources to try and spell any word he desires. He might choose the wrong sound pic at times but we then refer to his spelling cloud keyring to make the right choice. For example: When spelling the word ‘proud’, if he spelt it ‘p/r/ow/d, I woul say to him well done but you need to change the ‘ow’ picture, we would then refer to the ‘ow’ cloud on his keyring and find the right choice which would be p/r/ou/d, it’s as simple as that. If you’re interested they have a Facebook page called ‘Read Australia’ and a website http://www.wiringbrains.com. It frustrates me to see ineffective programs used that can confuse many kids when I know there’s an easier way. I also started using SSP with my youngest son in Prep and at the beginning of grade 1 he was on chapter books. He is now in grade 2 and top of his spelling in class and it’s all because of SSP. Thanks for your time

    • alison says:

      Hi Jenny, thanks for the comment, I have heard very mixed reports about Words Their way, sorry to hear it was a waste of time for your son, but how great that the SSP approach has worked for him. I’ve seen the Read Australia website and talked to Emma quite a while ago, and her approach is a speech-to-print, synthetic phonics one, so we are all definitely on the same wavelength. I can’t remember why I haven’t reviewed her program or why I don’t have any of her materials, I think I felt a bit overwhelmed by her website and decided to get back to it later, but still haven’t found the time. Thanks for reminding me that there are useful resources there, I’ll add it to my list of things to get done over summer. Alison

      • keeganpamela says:

        Hi Alison, I know this is an old post and comment, but have you since had the time to review Speech Sound Pics?

        • alison says:

          Hi Pamela, Sorry, I am not planning to write a review or anything else about Speech Sound Pics. I would like to explain why but I don’t think I can in a public forum such as website comments. All the best, Alison

  6. jo says:

    Hi Alison,
    Am currently experiencing the same frustration with WTW.
    Education Queensland has based their entire primary school spelling scope and sequence on WTW!
    It is virtually impossible to separate this from WTW and introduce a high quality phonics program. As a full-time learning support teacher and EALD co-ordinator this is extremely disheartening. I am really just trying to pick up the pieces when I have 8, 9 and 10 year olds coming to me who cannot blend or segment effectively.
    I am hopeful about the new Australian Curriculum Version 8 however (just released). It has a phonics and word study subheading all the way through to Yr 10!

    • alison says:

      Hi Jo, how very frustrating! Let’s hope that the version 8 Australian curriculum soon means there are hardly any kids making it to age 8 or beyond who can’t blend or segment. I see far too many of them too. Alison

  7. Meggie says:

    Great write up on WTW, Our school has just decided to go with this and after a couple of training sessions I still cant see how this is going to work in our prep and grade 1 areas. I thought I would look up the research to WTW and to be quite honest I’m struggling to find any research by original founder, and the research I’m finding is for around 270 students in the states and on average their were only 2-8 students in each test group per test class. The more I try and research and get quality information to make me want to teach WTW the more I think as a teacher I’m going to be bored and disappointed with what I have to unfortunately teach with WTW. My Mother teachers prep at another school who used WTW for 6 months before the parents complained and the teachers were going crazy with their preps always loosing cards, not being able to cut their own cards up and teachers spending hours making cards, just to be told by the preps that it was boring and didn’t want to do it any more. I’m a little bit over Principals who jump on the bandwagon of a fad without researching, asking for opinions from other teachers or even considering the amount of out of hours time these cards require in prep, because lets face it, prep teachers will have to chop up lots of these cards as some/ lots of these students don’t know how to use scissors yet. I’m so disappointed just like the parents at our school that again we are jumping to another poor choice for our children. Big sad face 🙁

  8. John Walker says:

    Great post, Alison! I think it’s only by doing what you are doing and analysing exactly what’s going in some of these programmes that teachers can see how problematical and confusing they are.
    How ironic it is that so many of these dreadful, early years progs to teach reading and spelling come out of the USA, when so much of the research that shows exactly what should be taught has been done there.
    I’m sure that this version of ‘stages’ theory is derived from Piaget and then later, for all her good work, from Jeanne Chall, who wrote Stages of Reading Development. Since Chall, it has been promoted by a number of prominent names in the field – all, in my view, because traditional, graphemic phonics doesn’t work for so many children. Linguistic phonics makes sense and is the way to go!

  9. Dianne says:

    You made excellent points, Alison! I have no problem using the words their way programme in upper elementary as long as students have had an extensive and explicit phonetic grounding in the early years. Unfortunately, many schools are more focused n teaching sight words than our morpho-phonemic written language. Trying to encourage my school to push phonics more in 1st and 2nd Grade so that we can correctly analyse some very complex spelling lists. Keep doing your best for your students!

  10. Amanda says:

    Hi. What program would you recommend for an intervention teacher working with students from all primary year levels, with limited knowledge of how to teach phonics please?
    Thank you.

    • alison says:

      Hi Amanda, Sorry to take a while to reply, I missed your comment till now. That’s a very big question. If you want a really good grounding in synthetic phonics it is hard to go past Sounds-Write, and they have some four-day training sessions coming up in Perth and Melbourne, see http://www.sounds-write.co.uk/page-2-courses.aspx. You get most of their resources as part of the training. The Little Learners Love Literacy training that is running via ACER is also good but the materials themselves are more focussed on the younger cohort, see https://www.acer.org/professional-learning/events/little-learners-love-literacy. Or if you follow the links on this old blog post you should be able to find other good upcoming training sessions related to other programs https://www.acer.org/professional-learning/events/little-learners-love-literacy. The Phonic Books materials for older readers are good but I don’t know of any training related to them available in Australia, they are like packages that someone with limited knowledge can just pick up and use so perhaps that’s what you’re after for the older kids. https://www.phonicbooks.co.uk. Hope that’s helpful, and again sorry to take a week to get back to you. Alison

      • Carolyn Horton says:

        Sounds Write is simply BRILLIANT. I did the course about 5 years ago. Revolutionary! Every teacher there agreed “BEST PD EVER’. Should be mandatory for every primary teacher. I did an earlier Early Childhood Certificate and learnt about synthetic phonics- but didn’t see what the fuss was about. The fuss is that taught correctly, synthetic phonics REVERSES the way we think about teaching reading and spelling. SOUNDS first!! And so easy! Since doing that course, ALL my students learn to read at word-level- including the child with global development delay who entered yr 2 at Kindy level. Just a cautionary note however- Synthetic Phonics is half of the literacy journey. Comprehension skills are separate skills that MUST be taught alongside SSP. Otherwise you are just teaching robots to spit out words. They are two halves of the whole.
        I find that many people who critique synthetic phonics fail to grasp this. All SSP programs do say this, however many people don’t seem to ‘get it’.
        Thank you for this amazing website. I spent four weekends trawling the web looking for cheapish decodable reading books that actually were decodable. Out of the hundreds available, the six brands I chose were all on your recommended list when I finally found your website. I could have saved so much time if I had known about your site. Thank you.

        • alison says:

          Hi Carolyn, I agree that Sounds Write is great, I’m just doing a refresher course now, as like you I trained in it several years ago. I agree that comprehension also needs attention, everyone agrees, there’s no such thing as a phonics-only person. Thanks for the lovely feedback and all the best. Alison

    • I would simply recommend that any intervention teacher worth their pay should acquire expertise in phonics and how to apply multisensory principles to remedial instruction.

      A program does nothing. An educated and intelligent instructor is the key.

      • alison says:

        So true, a really good program in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand it isn’t going to work very well, but a teacher who really knows what she or he is doing can teach kids to read using whatever is on hand, and lots of good materials are available for free or very cheaply.

  11. Debbie says:

    Hi Amanda and Alison,

    Phonics International (resources provided online) can be used with older learners and it can be used very flexibly. It is also provided ‘free’ for a year for people who register for the Phonics Training Online programme (not just about Phonics International – much broader than that). There is a stand-alone module in the Phonics Training Online course specifically for Phonics International (out of 14 modules) – and the whole course should equip teachers to be able to evaluate their own phonics provision and phonics programmes. You can read some feedback about programmes and training here:

    Warmest regards,


  12. Don Potter says:

    J. Richard Gentry wrote an article the fall of 2010, “Creating Better Readers and Writers: The Immportance of Direct, Systematic Spelling and Handwriting Instruction in Improving Academic Performance.” He targets Words Their Way for in-depth criticism. To my chagrin, my school district here in West Texas, USA recently adopted Words Their Way.

  13. Ros says:

    Hi Alison,

    Thank you so much for such a thorough review. I think any program is useless without implicit and good quality teaching. As far as a guide, would you like to comment on Sound Waves as a program? Anyone who is using it at the moment?


    • alison says:

      Hi Ros, thanks for the nice feedback, I have Sound Waves but just show it to people, I don’t use it myself, it’s really a program for classroom teachers not speech pathologists. I have heard it can be a little difficult to implement across a school, and it’s really a spelling program not a synthetic phonics program for the early years, so programs that are both reading and spelling programs, with decodable books that match the phonics teaching sequence, plus matching games and other activities are probably a slightly better fit for kids in the first couple of years of school. But I know some teachers of older kids who have found it really useful in structuring spelling instruction. Not being a teacher I am perhaps not the best person to comment on what’s really a mainstream classroom resource, with most of its materials targeting kids who are outside the clinical range. Anyway I hope that slightly rambling answer is useful, and it’s certainly a far better spelling option than finding misspelt words in one’s personal writing and then writing them out repeatedly in rainbow colours, which seems to be what currently passes for teaching spelling to older kids at times. All the best, Alison

    • Deirdre says:

      Hi Ros,
      Sound Waves!! Agh!! This programme seems to have been adopted by schools all across Perth, WA, and I cannot understand why!! The basic rationale for their programme makes sense to a certain extent, but the order in which they present the material is extremely poor in my opinion. VERY confusing and way too complicated for our younger children in schools! When I first came across it 8 years ago, I contacted the organisation selling the programme to WA schools and requested some articles on the ‘evidence based’ that it claims to be, but the person I liaised with was unable to supply me with any of that type of information. I am amazed at WHY so many schools have taken it on.

  14. Frances Prentice says:

    Have you had any more success getting schools to adopt a better phonics approach? LEM phonics (a systematic, synthetic Australian phonics programme) are updating their materials over the next two years and would be well worth checking out.

    • alison says:

      Hi Frances, some schools are taking up synthetic phonics, yes. I have some LEM phonics materials but I haven’t used them much, I found some mistakes in them and lost confidence in them. Looking forward to seeing the improved version. Alison

  15. Terry says:

    Hi Alison,
    Thank you for your website and the invaluable information it provides. As a psychologist that has worked in the education system for the past 20 years I share the pain. It takes years sometimes even when you are embedded in a school. Sometimes a school will decide to “take-on” a synthetic phonics program but then still use PM Benchmark readers!

    Adding to the problem is that I work in a system that seems to be championing Reading Recovery (I bet you can guess which one). Anyway, continue the good fight.

  16. Frank says:

    I think words their way can be useful as an add on activity in the context of a complete program, never seen it as the ONLY program a school uses to teach phonics,etc.

  17. Cherrie says:

    I think the WTW analysis of spelling is really helpful and was excellent to help individual students identify what area of spelling they needed to work on. The word sorts are not necessary to use but work with some children. Not all children benefit from the same approach, no matter what the approach.

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