Make Word Study Fun: Strategies For Playing With Words

Teaching children to read is perhaps the single most important job we have as elementary school teachers. Reading is the foundation for everything! There have been a lot of theories and much debate about the best strategies for teaching reading. I’ve spent a lot of time studying literacy—enough to know that how I used to teach reading wasn’t great. I emphasized memorization way too much and didn’t spend enough time giving students phonics strategies they could apply to unfamiliar words. 

Research into the science of reading has given us a lot of insights into how the brain works when learning how to read. We now know that most children need explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness to make connections between how a word looks and how it sounds. 

Knowing about the science of reading is the first step for teachers to become better at teaching literacy. The next step is knowing how to make it fun and enticing for kids! In my classroom, we talk a lot about “playing with words.” Word study time isn’t about rote memorization, it’s about exploring words with curiosity. 

I personally love the Orton Gillingham approach. It was developed specifically to help students with learning challenges such as dyslexia, but it also works well with any young learner. It’s a multisensory approach to reading, using visual, auditory, and kinesthetic strategies. The idea is to give students multiple ways to interact with (and play!) with words. It’s an evidence and science-based way to teach reading that really works! 

Here are my favorite strategies for making word study fun, using concepts based on the science of reading and the Orton Gillingham approach: 

Word Sorts of All Shapes & Sizes

There are so many ways you can use word sort activities when teaching students how to read. Word sorts push students to use higher-order thinking skills as they look for similarities and differences in the features of each word. 

There are so many ways you can use word sort activities when teaching students how to read. Word sorts push students to use higher-order thinking skills as they look for similarities and differences in the features of each word. 

The best part about word sorts is that you can easily tweak the activities to suit your particular students’ needs and interests. 

  • For your visual learners, add color-coding or highlighting to the word sort activity.
  • Are your students competitive? Race against a partner or see if they can beat their own time by completing a timed word sort. 
  • Even more motivating? Have them beat the teacher by finding mistakes that you’ve purposefully made. Kids love pointing out their teacher’s mistakes! 
  • Get kids up and moving by doing a word sort gallery walk. Tape up words around the room and have students travel with their notebooks, recording the words in their correct categories. 
  • Integrate technology with digital word sort activities.

Try several different styles of word sorts to see what works best with your students. 

Trash It! Which Word is Nonsense?

My students always love this fun twist to phonics. Present your students with a word list that includes a handful of words with specific spelling patterns. Three of the words follow the spelling pattern you’re currently studying, and one does not! Students have to use higher-order thinking skills to identify the one word that doesn’t belong. The digital version I created has students actually dragging the mismatched word into trash cans. Check out the Digital Word Work for Grades 1-5 here

Word Riddles

I include word riddles with each of my Digital Word Work bundles. This requires more advanced proficiency in phonemic awareness. Students read the riddle and then choose which word from the given list solves the puzzle. My clues focus on various phonemes, patterns, and syllabication. Here’s an example of a slide from third grade:

Word Work Dice Games

There are tons of different games you can play with dice during word study time. Some ideas include: 

  • Rainbow roll & write: students write their words based on the color they roll
  • Roll & spell: students roll the dice to choose beginning, medial, and ending letters/sounds. After they have the full word written out, they have to decide if they wrote a real or a nonsense word. 

Hands-On Word Play

I love changing things up by introducing activities using hands-on materials. Some ideas include: 

  • Molding words out of play-doh
  • Tracing words in a sand tray or sensory bin
  • Forming letters with wikki stix
  • Stamping letters 
  • Forming words with alphabet magnets, cookie cutters, or blocks
  • Build words using clothespins labeled with each letter

These types of activities certainly help your kinesthetic learners, but they can also be a lot of fun! Most importantly, it slows students down and allows them to analyze words letter-by-letter, sound-by-sound.

If you don’t have the supplies needed to try those suggestions, I also have Hands-On Word Work bundles for grades 1-3, which involve cutting, pasting, and sorting.

Word Work Tic-Tac-Toe

Students are always more motivated when they are given autonomy to make choices about their learning. With a tic-tac-toe board, students can choose any three Word Work activities they want, as long as they can get three in a row. Some options may include: 

  • Sort words by what they have in common, and let them find the commonality on their own (same medial sound, same digraph, etc.)
  • Change one sound in a word to make a new word
  • Write three rhyming words each
  • Write a complete sentence for each word

I think the key to making word study fun is to offer your students a variety of options that appeal to all learning types. 

Ready to try some new word study activities without spending hours creating your own materials? Check out my Digital Word Work Bundles, customized for each grade level: 

First Grade 

Second Grade

Third Grade

Fourth Grade

Fifth Grade

Do you have any favorite word study activities that haven’t been mentioned yet? Let me know in the comments!

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Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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