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Making Words: Hands-on Fun

Updated on August 19, 2014

My copy of Making Words is falling apart. It has surely seen some use over the years. I've carried out hands-on lessons in the classroom and on tutoring gigs. I even recommended the book recently to a homeschooling mom... not that the recommendation caused wear and tear on my particular copy.

Making Words is a word study resource with a game element. It is part of the Four Blocks system, which promotes a "balanced diet" of guided and independent reading, writing, and 'working with words. (You might think of it as the "my plate" of literacy.)

Making Words is based on recognizing patterns in words. One thing I like about the approach: It's fun! In a standard lesson, students start with a group of letters. All of the letters go together to form a mystery word: one that's long and tricky to guess. But little kids don't start by guessing that great big word -- oh, no! In fact, they start by making very short words. Thus they get to see how big words are built from little ones. The teacher cues them by telling them to add one more letter, rearrange the letters they have, or take them all off their work area and begin anew.

There's learning built into even simple rituals. Giving children the 'clue' that a word has four letters does more than help them get the right answer. As author Dorothy Hall notes, this forces them to think about the letters they don't hear. (Aren't a lot of words longer than those phonetic representations primary school kids like to make?)

In the classic version, all the children make words at their seats, and one child comes up each round to make the word for the whole group. At the end of the lesson, children sort their words into categories based on letter patterns. Then they extend their learning -- they are asked to imagine that they're writing and need to spell some word that sounds similar, but has a different beginning sound (or onset). Aha! Transfer!

I first used the program when teaching a second and third grade combo at a charter school. It succeeded in engaging a diverse group. There were advanced learners who were very focused on finding that mystery word, and who could barely control the impulse to blurt it out. Even the children who needed support wanted to come up and make words for the group.

Making Words vs. Words Their Way

Making Words isn't the only program that involves pattern making and manipulation of letters or words. Also well known is Words Their Way. There are some key differences between the two programs. Words Their Way is based on sorting whole words, not rearranging letters. The curriculum is leveled and sequential; children are plugged into a particular level based on their developmental spelling stage. Words Their Way is a good choice for someone who has ESL and special education assistants in the room during language arts block (plenty of adults to sit with small groups and help them stay motivated).

But the Words Their Way daily routines lack the game element. The sorting can become monotonous and not feel 'their way' at all. Since children manipulate whole words, they have to cut out a new group of words each week. For some kids, this is no problem. For others, it's tedious or downright difficult.

There is not as much formal assessment built into Four Blocks, but a sensitive teacher can learn a lot about individual students from how they tackle the task of constructing words. Making Words is designed to be multi-level. There are multiple letter patterns introduced (or reviewed) in each lesson, and not all children will get the same thing out of the activity. The teacher walks the room, observing and helping individuals.

Both approaches have their pluses. Words Their Way includes a wealth of material about 'spelling stages', and if you explore the curriculum in an in-depth way, you will find games and activities to break the monotony. I think it's easier, though, for a teacher or parent to pick up a copy of Making Words, invest a little time, and make word study engaging.

I can see Words Their Way working well in a classroom where children are used to selecting work activities and using materials Montessori-style. Making Words, meanwhile, is great for the teacher who holds attention well in a whole group setting. Clues and guessing: This can turn into a rollicking good time! (It's not that I've never seen revelry associated with Words Their Way, but it's generally a less task-oriented hilarity, and more difficult to reign in.)

Live from the Classroom

It's not just kids who benefit from experiencing things with more than one of their senses. This video series shows Making Words in action: from passing out materials to extending and transferring. 

Grade Level Resources

There have been a lot of takes on Making Words over the years; potentially they can meet a lot of different needs. Some books are designed for particular grade levels. Early editions were put out by Carson Dellosa, more recent ones by Pearson (a company I associate with academic rigor).

Making Words: Lessons for Home or School (Grade 2)
Making Words: Lessons for Home or School (Grade 2)

The lessons in this 2nd grade resource are, by and large, easier than the original 'Making Words' book, which was targeted for grades one through three. This book has worksheets for children to write their words after making them. One group of children that I used the lessons with found them unengaging and a bit beneath them. This can be a handy resource, though, for those who need extra support. (Bonus: It's gotten inexpensive.)

Making Words Second Grade: 100 Hands-On Lessons for Phonemic Awareness, Phonics and Spelling
Making Words Second Grade: 100 Hands-On Lessons for Phonemic Awareness, Phonics and Spelling

The new edition of the grade level 'Making Words' has several improvements. The words grow longer and the lessons notably more difficult as the book progresses, providing a bigger challenge for little people. There is a brief assessment after every ten lessons. There are no longer reproducible sheets for the children to fill out. Children are not expected to record all the words, but instead write their 'transfer' words on a paper or whiteboard at the end.


Photo Gallery

There are many variations. I like using sticky notes for one-on-one or 'on the fly'. Mini Post-its for kids, big Post-its stuck to the whiteboard!
There are many variations. I like using sticky notes for one-on-one or 'on the fly'. Mini Post-its for kids, big Post-its stuck to the whiteboard!

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