Let’s Move from Word Study to Word Play!

By Timothy Rasinski, Ph. D, Reading and Writing Center, Kent State University

Tim. Formal. 2014%5b5%5d

Dr. Rasinski will be speaking at the 2016 Literacy for All Conference on the following dates:

“Why Reading Fluency Should be Hot?” (Grades K-8) Monday, October 24th, 1:30-3:00PM and again on Tuesday, October 25th, 10:15-11:45AM

“Phonics and Vocabulary Instruction: Word Study that Works!” (Grades K-3) Monday, October 24th, 3:30-5:00PM

I am a self-proclaimed and unapologetic lexophile, word nerd, or vocabulary zealot! I love words! I love to learn about how words came to be; I love the fact that some words have the same spelling but varied pronunciations and meanings while other words may have the same pronunciation but different spellings; and I love how words can be used to convey facts, tell a story, or elicit emotion. Words are wonderful for me. Yet, why is it that in many schools across the country students (and many teachers as well) do not find the study of words terribly interesting. Whether it is phonics, spelling, or vocabulary instruction, I have heard students use words such as “boring” or “not today” when word study is mentioned.

How can word study be so interesting for some and so boring for others? I think it is not in the words themselves, but in how words are taught. In many classrooms word study consists of rote memorization of lists of words or the daily completion of word worksheets that involve filling in blanks, matching words to pictures, or some other mind numbing activity.

A few years ago, my wife and I had an interesting epiphany. Every evening during the holidays, between Christmas and New Year’s, my family would have dinner together and then, after the dishes were done, we’d go back to the table to play a family game. When my wife and I were putting these games back into the closet a few days after New Year’s she said to me with a bit of startle in her voice, “Tim, do you realize that every game we played last week with our kids was a word game!” She was right. We had played Scrabble, Boggle, Wheel of Fortune, Taboo, Quiddler, Scrabble Slam, and several others. In each of the games knowledge of some aspect of words was essential to success. Most important, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as we played these family games. Yet, at the same time we were stretching our knowledge of and proficiency in words.

Why can’t word study be more of a game than a list of words for recitation? I think we need to take a new look at how we teach words in our classrooms. The more we make word study into a game-like activity, the more engaging students will be in word study, and the more enthusiastic they will be about words. And, for those of you who like to play games such as Text Twist or Words With Friends, have you noticed that is you play these games regularly you get better at them. We have a special name for when somebody gets better at something – -it’s called learning! As students engage in word play activities on a regular basis they will indeed get better at the activities, they will be learning words and developing in themselves a fascination with words that will go well beyond the classroom.

One word play activity that I will take some credit in developing is called Word Ladders. It is an activity in which students start with one word and are guided by their teacher to add, subtract, or change letters in the first word to make a series of new words. The teacher guides the students by giving them hints about the meaning of the new words they are making. In my word ladders the first and last words are often somehow related, and this is what turns it into a game-like activity. Here’s a word ladder that you can do with your students this month.

April Start with the word April, take away the r and rearrange the remaining letter to make another word for a bucket.

Pail Take away one letter to make another word for a friend.

Pal Change one letter to make the name of a dog or cat’s foot.

Paw Change one letter to make a word that is the past tense of “see” or a tool for cutting wood.

Saw Change the vowel to make another name for a female pig; or a word that means to plant seeds.

Sow Add one letter to make the opposite of fast.

Slow Change one letter to make a word that describes when you want to demonstrate or reveal something to someone.

Show Add three letters to the end of “show” to make a word that describes the kind of weather we often get in April


April showers bring May flowers!

Now challenge your students to make a similar word ladder that start with May and ends with flowers.

When we turn word study into word play, I think we will go a long way to turn our students and ourselves into lexophiles and word nerds! I look forward to sharing with you many more approaches for making word play an integral part of your literacy curriculum at the Literacy for All Conference later this year.

Rasinski, T. V. (2005). Daily Word Ladders, Grades 2-4. New York: Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. V. (2005). Daily Word Ladders, Grades 4-6. New York: Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. V. (2008). Daily Word Ladders, Grades 1-2. New York: Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. V. (2012). Daily Word Ladders, Grades K-1: Word Study Activities that Target Key Phonics Skills. New York: Scholastic.


4 thoughts on “Let’s Move from Word Study to Word Play!

  1. One thing that strikes me as problematic about this is that by teaching them using these word ladders, we are falsely, and maybe even accidentally, teaching them that these words are related. Why not instead do something like teach word families (real word families, not rhyming families) via word ladders so they can start making the connection to the extreme importance of morphology in English, as I am sure you know that English is morphophonemic and not syllabic. So, we can give them sign and then have them add -al and see what they get. Eventually at the end of the ladder they may have a word related to sign that they never thought of like de + sign + ate + ion. In that ladder that could have: sign, signal, unsigned, design, designation, resign, signify and so many more. By the end of that word they have noticed several different morphemes and how they interact to change pronunciation AND meaning. What fun would that be and it teaches the real connections between words.


  2. A Response from Tim Rasinsky:
    Thanks for a great response to my blog posting.

    I hope that my blog entry did not suggest that word play and word games are the only way to teach students about words.My main point was that we need to try to make word study as engaging and authentic as possible for students.We want them to learn to love words.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that word study should also include helping students notice patterns in words. We know that our brains are pattern detectors so having students take advantage of word families (rimes) and morphological patterns makes excellent sense. I have written a book (Greek and Latin Roots, Keys to Building Vocabulary) and articles (The Latin–Greek Connection. The Reading Teacher, 6, 133–141) on the use morphological word families. If students learn, for example, that terra means land, they have a clue that will help them figure out the meaning to words such as terrace, territory, extraterrestrial, terra cotta, subterranean, terrain and many more.

    Creating word ladders that use morphemes to build words is an interesting concept and one that is certainly worth exploring more. One of things we do with students is called word spokes. At the center of the spoke is a morphological pattern (e.g. sub = under) and radiating out from the center are words that contain the pattern (e.g. submarine, subway, subtract, substitute, etc.). Whatever we can do to make word study more engaging for our students and that tap into word patterns is certainly worth the effort.


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