Word Families: Reading in "Chunks"

What Are They?

First Grader Sounding Out Word Families

Word families are groups of words that share the same ending pattern, such as "hat", "mat", and "cat". Words in a family will always rhyme; however, not all rhyming words belong to the same word family. "Hair" and "care" both rhyme, but come from different families.

What Kids Need to Learn

Children will need to learn to recognize the "chunks" that make up many different word patterns. For example, in the words "shake", "take", and "make", kids will learn to recognize the "ake" as a whole chunk, instead of needing to sound out the letters individually.

Putting It In Context

In kindergarten, children learned the alphabet and how to sound out words letter by letter. In first grade, they learn to see word sounds in chunks and patterned groups, so they recognize parts of the word faster and can read more fluently. In second grade, children will tackle some of the harder families of words, and the easier ones will become automatic.

Why It Is Important

  1. When children begin to read, they must sound out every letter. This is slow and breaks up the flow of the words, making it hard to figure out the meaning. When learning families of words, children are able to read familiar patterns of letters quickly and fluently.
  2. When kids progress past these simple words, the patterns, or chunks, that they learn now will continue to help them to decipher longer words.
  3. Word family patterns help children's spelling. They are able to recognize spelling patterns and apply these to other words of the same family.

Challenges Kids Might Face

Some children may have trouble perceiving or remembering word patterns and insist on sounding out every letter, every time. Others may confuse similar patterns, such as -air and -are, especially if these are taught too close together.

One common problem when moving beyond the simple decoding of words is that often there are several words in a word family that are rarely used, and children may not know what they mean. This is especially true for language learners. To learn the "-ark" family, for example, kids are taught the words: mark, bark, dark, spark, shark, lark. "Lark" is rare even for most adults (unless they are bird watchers, or enjoy cavorting on a mountaintop) and when words are meaningless to kids, learning is less secure.

How to Help Kids Who Are Struggling

Teaching Reading
  1. Present each word family one at a time; don't mix them up until children have begun to master those patterns.
  2. Start with short vowel families like -ap, and wait till later to move on to long vowel families like -ape. Allow some time between the two.
  3. Do not introduce confusing word patterns near each other. Wait until children are extremely strong in one, such as -ail, before introducing the very similar -ale.
  4. Many rhyming books are perfect for showing kids spelling and sound patterns. Have kids look through books or nursery rhymes to find words from the same family.
  5. Introduce them in logical sets, so children have less to remember. For example, learning -at, -an, and -ack words near each other will help them remember the short /a/ sound and apply it to similar patterns.
  6. Give kids one word and ask them to try and think of other words from the same pattern. For language learners, you might encourage all guesses and write "real" words in one column and "silly" words in another. This way, they get to practice using the pattern without worrying about whether it is a real word.

Remember--every child learns differently. Doing word family activities and playing word family games are a great way to involve kids' whole bodies to reach kids of many different learning styles, and help struggling learners.

But don't put all your eggs in one basket; spend time on other reading strategies as well, and you will be likely to find the thing that most helps your child read.


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“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself. ”
~John Dewey