Words Their Way Classroom is a phonics, spelling, and vocabulary program that is designed for kindergarten through fourth or fifth grade, but some students will be able to complete it in fewer than five or six years. The publisher has created a homeschool package for Words Their Way Classroom that includes the Teacher Resource Guide, eight student workbooks, the Implementation Guide, and a six-year license to access digital courseware (course resources available only online) at SavvasRealize.com.
The methodology is quite different from that of other programs covering these subjects although it shares some elements of the Orton-Gillingham methodology. The program teaches reading with phonics, but it does so with a recognition and sorting strategy as students identify common elements within words. For example, the ninth lesson in Letter Name: Volume 1 teaches word families for -op, -ot, and -og. It provides words and pictures (on separate cards) for pot, hog, cot, hop, log, frog, top, jog, mop, dot, hot, and pop. Children arrange these under the three different word family headings. This basic strategy is used throughout the lessons, even in the final workbook where students sort words such as mortician, homonym, pseudonym, and generator under the Greek and Latin roots such as gen, mort, and onym. The sorting aspect is so important that the lessons are called Sorts. So rather than starting with Lesson 1, you start with Sort 1. In this review, I will use the word lessons rather than Sorts to avoid confusion with the actual sorting activities.
Occasionally, the program will teach different ways of spelling the same phonetic sound within one lesson as it does in Within Word Pattern: Volume 2 with the words horse, hoarse, soar, and floor (Sort 27). More often it will mix sounds as when it teaches both short-vowel and long-vowel words together in the thirteenth lesson of Within Word Pattern: Volume 1 that teaches words such as clock, note, stone, boat, and shop.
How It’s Organized
You might have noticed that my references listed different titles. The entire program is presented from one large book, Words Their Way Classroom: Teacher Resource Guide. Within the guide, the program is divided into five sections that are designed to be used in order:
- Emergent-Early Letter Name
- Letter Name
- Within Word Pattern
- Syllables and Affixes
- Derivational Relations
In this program the words are selected and organized by four criteria: developmental appropriateness, frequency of usage in student reading and writing, common spelling patterns, and shared affixes and word roots. (Shared affixes and word roots are only in the last two sections.)
The lessons for the second, third, and fourth sections are divided into two volumes for each. And there is one volume each for the first and fifth sections, giving eight volumes in all. There is a consumable student workbook—called a Word Study Notebook—for each volume. These eight full-color workbooks are where you find student pages to do the sorting activities. These usually include pages to be cut apart, separating the pictures and words to be sorted. (Pictures to be sorted are phased out after Letter Name: Volume 1.) The workbooks also include “writing sorts” where students write words into the correct columns.
The fourth and fifth sections of the program add occasional pages that look similar to those found in other language arts programs. These pages might ask students to do things such as fill in the blank with the best word from a pair of words or write sentences using some of the lesson’s words in context.
Each lesson is intended to be completed over five days, although you might be able to complete them in fewer days. The Teacher Resource Guide presents each lesson in three parts.
The first part of each lesson, “Introduce, Model, and Reflect” includes introducing the new words, discussing the meanings of words, introducing the first sorting activity for the lesson, and other activities that vary for each section (such as reading a rhyme and discussing the words in it).
The second part, “Practice and Extend,” has students repeat sorting activities or do a different type of sorting activity. Depending upon the section of the program, Practice and Extend might also involve reading a story from the online Classroom Library Books, playing a game, discussing a concept, illustrating words, searching for words outside the program components, and more. The Classroom Library Books function as read-aloud books until you get to the second section of the program, at which point students should be able to start reading short-vowel words phonetically.
The third part of each lesson, “Apply and Assess,” generally has additional words for students to work with that follow the same patterns as the words in the lesson. There’s also an activity to do with those words, and there might be an alternate activity, such as sorting words by other categories. The “Assess” aspect is most often oral up through the sixth lesson in Letter Name: Volume 1. After that, the assessments are almost always done by dictating spelling words for students to write correctly.
You can watch a brief, explanatory video on the publisher’s website to see what it looks like or try out a sample lesson.
The online digital courseware, a critical part of the program, has a surprisingly large number of resources. I couldn’t possibly explore everything available before writing this review, but some of the most useful resources are those for each lesson (Sort). For the first three sections of the program, the Teacher Resource Guide begins many of the lessons with a rhyme from the Big Book of Rhymes and includes reading from a series of Classroom Library Books. Most of the lessons include printable PDFs for games. All of these resources (Big Book of Rhymes, Classroom Library Books, and PDFs) are available only in the digital courseware.
The digital courseware also includes interactive versions of the sorting activities (with audio pronunciation) where students can drag and drop images and words. (You might get tired of cutting out pieces from the workbooks for the sorting activities and find the digital courseware more efficient.) If you use the online sorting activities, it is still important to discuss the words with students, and there are other activities that don’t involve sorting that still need to be completed in the workbooks.
The program does not teach handwriting, but the program assumes that kindergartners have already been learning to write letters and words. (This is not unreasonable since many pre-kindergarten programs teach handwriting.) In Words Their Way Classroom, students practice writing letters in the first two sections, and many lessons in the first section ask students to write complete words. Some kindergartners might have difficulty writing the words, so I suggest using your own discretion as to when to start having students write words.
Originally Designed for Classrooms
The program was created originally for classroom use, and this creates a little confusion. There are probably other components available for the classroom. Some lessons begin by saying, “Display the words,” but the only display suitable for this purpose is usually the first page of the lesson in the student workbook. The lessons refer to there being cards with the words from the main lessons as well as the additional words (from the third part of the lesson, Apply and Assess) printed on them, but all you will have are the small slips of paper cut from the student workbooks—and those only for the main lesson. You can always photocopy the pages onto cardstock or write or type words onto cards, but that’s a bother. Also, some activities talk about children working in pairs or groups, and while a parent substituting for the needed extra child will work fine most of the time, parents have a clear advantage when it comes to some of the games.
The combination of hands-on activities, stories, discussion, online activities, and games in Words Their Way Classroom makes it interesting. But the many interactive features require a significant investment of time and energy from parents. If parents have the time to properly use the various components, this program offers a unique approach for integrating reading, spelling, and vocabulary instruction that might work very well.