Making Word Learning Memorable

“Struggling readers need to build a core of words that they know quickly and automatically-that they can recognize without effort. They also need to develop a system for learning how to learn words.”

~Gay Su Pinnel & Irene C. Fountas

Some students take on word learning with what appears to be minimal effort.  Then there are others who really struggle to develop even a small core of known words.

Early readers need some known words to anchor them to the text.  Known words also create helpful links for students that support new word learning.

It is important for us to keep in mind that it isn’t so much about the specific words that we are teaching the student. Our job is much bigger than that! We are helping the child to “develop a system” for taking on words. The same system might not work for every child. Once a student has a system for learning words they will take less time to learn new words.

For those students who need support with word learning, we have to provide opportunities in which the child interacts with words in memorable ways.

When choosing a new word for a student to learn we want to think about what the student knows about letters and words. It might not be the right time to teach the word “here” if the child knows the letter ‘h’ sometimes, does not know ‘e’, and knows ‘r’. There are too many unknowns!  Also, we need to be cautious with two letters. They seem simple to us, but can be quite confusing for early readers.

Our most struggling readers will need to look closely at the details of a word, feel the word, and use large movements to make the word.

Before having the student name the letters in the word have the student look closely at the features of the word. For example, if the student is learning the word “the” the student might notice that the word has two tall letters and one short letter and that the middle letter has a “tunnel”. When talking about the letters in the word ask what letter they see first in the word while you show them where their eyes should look. You might even use an index card to mask the word and move it from left to right revealing each letter.

When building words make sure to always model building left to right and watch carefully that your student is always working left to right.

We can have the student make words through large movements on the whiteboard, chalkboard, a finger in the air or with their finger on the table.

We can also have the student experience words through touch. Some examples are:


Puffy paint, sand/salt tray, shaving cream

Gel bag (made from hair gel)

Present your student with materials that are fun & appealing to use such as:

Water pens for the chalkboard & markers (especially smelly ones!)

Note: Whenever the child makes the word we MUST have them say it and when they run their finger under the word it MUST be precisely under the first letter and run precisely to the last letter. Be picky about this!! This will require the child to attend more to the print.

Students can also have fun with words by playing games such as:

Concentration: Make two identical sets of 5-10 words. Make each set of cards on different colored index cards. Place the cards with the words facing down. Students take turns turning over two cards and reading the words on the cards as they turn them over. The students get to keep the cards when they get a match.

Word Slap: Students lay a set of cards down in front of them – no more than ten words. When the teacher says a word the student finds it quickly and slaps it.

My Pile Your Pile: Flash each card to the student.  If they say the word correctly it goes in their pile, if not it goes in your pile. I like to make the stack of cards with 5 known words and 1 new word written on 5 different cards for a total of 10 cards.

An example set of cards might include:

Known:        the        to         a          can        see

Unknown:  like       like      like       like      like

It is very important that we are not having the child spend copious amounts of time working on learning words in isolation.  During our reading lessons, 2-3 minutes of isolated word work is sufficient.  We want to have our students spend the majority of their time reading and writing.  Our students need to see these words in a variety of places.  Otherwise, you might see a child that knows the word in isolation but does not recognize it amongst other words when reading.



Clay, M. (2016).  Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Pinnell, G. & Fountas, I. (2009).  When Readers Struggle:  Teaching That Works.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.



3 thoughts on “Making Word Learning Memorable

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