How Do You Differentiate for Spelling/Word Work?

differentiation etymology morphology orthography phonics phonology spelling word study word work Dec 05, 2023

Lit Bits is where I provide brief responses to literacy instruction questions. Teachers submit their questions anonymously, and in response, I create a short video accompanied by a blog post. You can fill out this form and submit any question about any element of literacy, and I might answer it here on the Lit Bits blog and in my video segments on the Elm Tree Education YouTube channel.

Question: Spelling/word work- how to differentiate with a new curriculum that does not differentiate?

A caveat to start

It's hard when you know you need to be responsive to the learners in front of you but don't have the curriculum materials. When I don't specifically know your context, there might be some things I'm unable to address in this week's Lit Bit. So, if you have a situation you want to problem-solve together, schedule a complimentary 30-minute call with me, and let's think about how you can be more responsive to your learners because we know that's necessary for your instruction.

That said, my attempt to answer the question follows with some generalities that I hope are helpful.

Let's define a few things first

As always, I strive to set the groundwork of a common language before diving in. So what follows are some definitions of words under the "spelling instruction umbrella." 

Spelling - the process of taking a language and putting it into a writing system. We often think of spelling as just writing words with the correct letters in the proper order, but the actual definition is that it represents our language in written form.

Word Study -  in addition to learning the letters associated with the sounds in a word, you also think about what the words mean, the pronunciation, the origins of the word, and the relationships with other words. It's a deeper dive than just being able to spell the word. 

Word Work -  the activities completed in service of word study. After the explicit instruction in word study, these activities are assigned to students to try some things on and use different learning modes. Many of these activities are hands-on. Possible activities include word hunts, word sorts, dictation of sentences with the words that have the patterns you've been studying, word building (the Making Words program is an example), word chains, and word ladders (sound substitution, deletion, or addition to make new words with some vocabulary practice built-in). This is the time to bring some fun into your word study instruction. 

Phonology - the study of the sound system within a language and the relationships within it. This includes talking about rhyme, syllables, accent patterns, and phonemes (the smallest sound unit in a language). When you see programs that differentiate, it's often based on studying all the letter and letter combinations (graphemes) that spell a single phoneme. For example, the graphemes a a_e, ai, ay, ea, eigh all spell the /ā/ phoneme. 

Morphology - the study of meaningful word units (morphemes) such as prefixes, bases, roots, and suffixes. That knowledge of those units helps you not only spell but also understand an unknown word and build vocabulary when you see those units in other words. For instance, understanding the suffix -ology, which denotes "the study of," provides insight into the meaning of morphology. The root morph signifies "form" or "shape." Consequently, morphology can be defined as "the study of form or shape." However, it is essential to consider the context. In biology, morphology examines the form and structure of living organisms, while in linguistics, it explores the form and structure of word components, whether in isolation or combination. (More on this in a bit.)

Orthographic knowledge - the knowledge of spelling patterns of English words. For example, we know that we never put the grapheme ck together at the beginning of a word. 

Etymology - the study of the history and the origins of words. In English, we have several influences on our language. We start with a relatively heavy Anglo-Saxon layer but then have some Greek and Latin. We're also adding French, Spanish, German, and other languages. Etymology can help when particular graphemes make different phonemes. For example, we usually teach children that the digraph ch represents a /ch/ sound. However, knowing that the word chef, where we do not say the /ch/ sound for ch, is French might help some students realize that's why it makes a /sh/ sound when that word has a ch at the beginning. 

"English just doesn't make sense."

I'll be the first to admit that I was a teacher who didn't know some of the orthographic knowledge or etymology of words, so when we would come to one that didn't follow the pattern, my default was to say that it was an "oddball" and just something you had to learn to spell. However, if you dig a little deeper and learn more about the linguistics of our language, it does make sense. Especially when you know where the words are coming from and that sometimes we're borrowing somebody else's phonetic system, not necessarily our own.

Don't forget semantics

As with my example of the word morphology above, you must have some semantic knowledge (word and phrase meanings). It's foundational to spelling. The meaning will affect what words we choose to use, where we put them in a sentence, and how they might be spelled. This especially comes into play when we think about homophones (words with the same phonemes but different graphemes and meanings). For example, the homophones deer and dear are spelled differently and mean different things.  

How we make learning to spell unnecessarily hard


“The traditional weekly spelling test is not an instructive assessment-- it simply has become a routine embedded into the teaching psyche of many.” 

International Literacy Association: Literacy Research Panel, 2019

I'm sure many of you had spelling tests in elementary school, where you got a list of words on Monday, and then you memorized them for the test on Friday. Then maybe or maybe not, you could transfer that knowledge to your authentic writing.

This practice of sending home a random list of words on Monday and testing students on Friday is not helping students. Especially because half the time, when we give those words to kids, they don't even know what they mean. We haven't done explicit teaching, so it's more an assessment of their memorization ability. 

Some of us have been approaching spelling from a phonics approach–teaching a grapheme a week or something similar. However, we might leave out meaning, orthographic knowledge, morphology, or etymology when talking only about phonological knowledge. Your word study instruction should have a wide array of skills because these are all the resources we need to become proficient readers and writers. If there is a high transfer level, this supports students in reading and spelling other words. 

Finally, traditional spelling tests are not instructional. Teachers don't administer these assessments and then tweak instruction based on the results. Traditionally, those assessments highlight what students didn't memorize over the week, and the teacher is copy-editing. There was no actual teaching involved. 

The goal is fluency

"Spelling, or orthographic knowledge, provides the underlying foundation for the rapid and efficient encoding and decoding of words, allowing individuals more room for thinking and planning as they write and read."  Stages, Phases, Repertoires, and Waves: Learning to Spell and Read Words (Templeton, 2020)

Sometimes, in traditional spelling instruction, we do not focus as much on the reading (or, as I said before, the meaning) of words. However, having them work on decoding (reading) and encoding (writing) simultaneously makes so much sense because they're the same patterns that they need to know to read and write the words. Yet, spelling work (word study) is too often at a completely different time. It's not embedded in the reading, and we don't necessarily give them time to practice it in authentic writing pieces.

Students need this time to be integrated to see the connections and start building up more automaticity (fluency) with reading and writing. Very rarely are poor spellers good readers because they go hand in hand. 

Two Popular Approaches for Differentiating Spelling Instruction

There are more than two approaches to spelling instruction, but the two most popular are the Spelling Stage and the Repertoire Theory. These two theories have more similarities than differences, and you could likely use a combination of both to serve your students best.

Spelling Stage 

Many of you are probably familiar with the spelling stage theory, where spelling stages progress. You assess and analyze errors to see where kids are on that progression. You look to see the highest stage they have mastery of and start your instruction in the stage after that. This would be the popular "Words Their Way" approach from Johnston, Bear, Invernizzi, and Templeton that you've likely heard about (or used) before. 

Words Their Way has a spelling inventory, and there is the Morrison-McCall Spelling List, but you could also look at student writing samples and see what they are misspelling. Regardless of a formal or informal assessment, it would be best if you had something to analyze for errors. 

Then, group students for differentiated instruction based on their stage: Emergent, Letter Name, Within Word Pattern, Syllables and Affixes, and Derivational Relations.

One of the arguments against this approach is that some kids get stuck in a stage and aren't exposed to some of the morphology and etymology work important for learning grade-level content.  

Repertoire Theory 

Like the Spelling Stages, it starts with an assessment—either an inventory or looking at a student's writing samples. However, how you analyze the errors is a little different. You begin by considering the phonology and not putting them in a particular spelling stage but to think if the word error is phonetically plausible, but just not how this word is spelled. They look to see how many morphemes are spelled correctly and if they demonstrate a knowledge of letter patterns (orthography). While you don't analyze for etymology because you aren't inside the student's brain, it is good to note whether etymology could help spell this word.  

With this approach, you might have kids grouped based on what repertoire needs to be supported: phonology, morphology, orthography, or etymology. However, I would say that the phonology group could have various needs, which might make for more sub-groups. 

That's why I believe in a marriage between the two. Use the spelling stages for grouping, but you are also intentionally putting all four of the repertoires in explicitly in your instruction–maybe emphasizing certain ones if you see that knowledge lacking as a resource the student is utilizing.  

If you combine these two, you'll see much more growth in reading and writing. And again, not doing it in a siloed time. This should be all part of a literacy block. 


If you are looking for a curriculum resource for differentiated spelling instruction, I suggest using Words Their Way. One of Words Their Way's trickier parts is managing all the materials and the groups, but it is differentiated. 

Some of you may be groaning to think of using Words Their Way because you've tried it before and didn't have much success. However, I think many teachers, myself included, used Words Their Way without much explicit instruction or having it connect in other ways to reading and writing that was happening in the classroom. I often found that because it was a lot to manage, sometimes some groups got handed their word list sort to cut and sort and didn't receive the explicit instruction they needed. I also didn't spend much time talking about morphology (unless I had kids in the higher stages), orthography, or etymology.  

So, if you have tried Words Their Way before, maybe it's not a bad idea to pull your stuff out again, but with a different lens and a different way to approach it this time. If you've never used Words Their Way, you can order from Amazon (instead of going through a curriculum publisher). 

You could also develop something on your own with a curriculum you may already have that has a continuum of rules to introduce, and you could put kids into different spots on that continuum based on your analysis. However, that might be more work than you can put into it. 


If you are someone who feels like you still don't know how you would pull this off in your classroom, then please book a free Zoom call with me. We can talk about your students, your schedule, and your materials. Your first session is always on the house, so go here if you want to schedule a time to chat.  

What other thoughts do you have about spelling instruction? Share them with me through the contact page, or find me on social media and comment on the thread regarding this post!

Have any other questions about reading or writing instruction? Submit them for the chance to have them answered by me in a future Lit Bits blog post and video segment. 


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