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Multicultural group of middle school students working on phonics and word study

Word study: For adolescents who read at a very low level

Many adolescents who read at a low level struggle with decoding multisyllabic and unusual words, recognizing common words by sight, reading and writing words that have irregular spellings, and identifying families of words that share common roots. Providing targeted word study instruction can help these students become more proficient.

Though members of the National Reading Panel and various researchers  have said that the existing research does not support giving adolescents the same kinds of phonics instruction that one would give to much younger students, this does not mean that we should disregard phonemic awareness and phonics as a core issue. In fact, we should determine the level of phonemic ability if there is any doubt.

However, many adolescents who read at a low level struggle not with basic phonics but with the slightly more difficult work of decoding multisyllabic and/or unusual words, recognizing common words by sight, reading and writing words that have irregular spellings, and identifying families of words that share common roots.1

Targeted “word study” instruction has been shown to move struggling adolescent readers to higher level of proficiency.

Word study instruction: the basics

Show students how to break multisyllabic words into recognizable parts.

Often, when confronted by a long and unfamiliar word, students will sound out one syllable and then guess the rest. Coming across the word "transition," for example, they might read "trans"… "um, trans-lation." Encourage them to slow down when reading such words, and model your own reading strategies, showing them how you sound out each part of the word and then blend them together.

Give students lots of practice reading and writing commonly-used words that defy regular spelling patterns.

For example, words such as were, where, have, give, said, could, again, and been. Don't just have students memorize word lists, though — they'll have an easier time learning and remembering words that they see and use regularly. Highlight such words in reading passages and books, assign students to use them in their own writing, and ask them to keep track of the words they've mastered.

Teach students common root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

Students often need to be shown, explicitly, that many of the words they read share common prefixes (such as pre-, pro-, and auto-), suffixes (such as -ology, -ous, and -ism), and roots (such as -ped, used in "pedal" and "pedestrian").

Keep it short and sweet.

While struggling readers may benefit from word study, that doesn't mean you should turn the class into a protracted word study workshop. Rather, while word study should be regular and frequent, it should be limited to relatively brief sessions (closer to ten or fifteen minutes than an hour at a time). And when it comes to learning new words, less is more — teach students 5-10 words at a time, rather than overwhelming them with 20-30.

Keep it relevant.

As much as possible, word study should be linked to course content, so that students have a reason to learn and use the given words. It should be treated as just one part of a larger effort to engage students in discussing interesting books and other materials and in writing and expressing their own ideas.

Make it fun.

The goal of word study isn't just to memorize words and word patterns but to help students to develop "word consciousness," a term that experts use to describe a curious and playful attitude toward language. In the long run, kids who learn to enjoy words — having fun with rhymes, puns, word play, and the use of rare and unusual words — will learn far more than those who are forced to memorize word lists and complete dry workbook exercises.

More resources

The ReadWriteThink website (created by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers) has a number of useful resources on this topic, including word lists, classroom activities, and reference materials for teachers and students.

The International Reading Association offers various resources in this area, including word study cards (for grades 3-8). has many useful lists, explanations, and background information about common prefixes, suffixes, and root words. has various lists and resources related to irregular words, root words, and more.

And here are a few other good sources for lists of common prefixes and suffixes, root words, and frequently used irregular words.


1Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Murray, C. S., & Kosanovich, M. (2008). Effective instruction for adolescent struggling readers: A practice brief. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.