We’re about halfway through our third language arts block of the year. I’m realizing that first grade is definitely a language arts heavy year and I just love it. We’ll move on to math week after next, but for now I’m enjoying all the work with letters. Word families is what this block is all about.
If you read my blog post about our first language arts block, you know I LOVE to geek out over the minute details. I’m a happy teacher when there’s a real method to the madness.
Why Word Families Now?
When I was in my Art of Teaching conference in Sacramento this summer, I learned that the typical third language arts block (after the consonants and vowels are introduced) is all about sight words. As I tried to wrap my head around the idea of teaching my students sight words, before having taught them the lower case letters, it just didn’t make sense. When they “see” these “sight” words in books, they’ll all be in lower case. Having learned them by sight in upper case won’t really help them when it comes to reading.
This thought further reinforced my thinking to introduce the lower case letters earlier, as well. I remember that when my own children were learning to read, the unfamiliarity of the lower case letters was a big barrier. At the beginning of the year I had in mind that I might teach the lower case and upper case at the same time, but when it came down to it, there were so many other rhythms and habits we had to give our attention to, I decided to play it a little conservative and just bring the upper case on their own.
Word Families vs. Sight Words
The other motivator behind this decision was that I figured that the word families would be far easier for my students to recognize and identify because they are all about the sounds not about what the letters look like. Quite a few of my students are still working on identifying letters and their sounds, but almost all of them can hear the similarity between cat and bat.
The word families also gave me a nice framework for methodically introducing both the long and short sounds of the vowels. Here’s the basic format I’m following for each vowel.
- Introduce the idea that each vowel makes two different sounds, with an image reminder for each sound.
- Study a word family with the long vowel sound (this is usually more recognizable to the children.)
- Study a word family with the short vowel sound.
First Grade Skills
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The Letter E
So, for example, for the letter E, we learned that the letter E makes two sounds. First there is the /ee/ sound as in TREE (if I were to do it again I would choose an image that has the /ee/ sound at the beginning.) Second, there is the /e/ sound as in ELEPHANT. We completed a main lesson book page with the letter E at the top and a tree and elephant (with their words) underneath. (I left my book at school, so I’ll come back and fill in photos later.)
Next, we explored a word family with the sound /ee/. This sound is far more recognizable for the children then the /e/ sound (as in elephant). For this we studied the _eel family. I shared an example of a word in the _eel family and asked the students if they could think of any words that sounded like _eel.
This was harder than I expected it to be. One child was thrown off by the meaning of the word “eel” and thought of another sea creature. Another child thought of another word he knew that started with E. It took some steering, but we eventually came to it and children were suggesting words. Some of the things I did to help get them going in the right direction . . .
- I wrote lots of _eel’s on the board and asked them to suggest a letter to fill in, then we read the letter.
- Suggested letters were on the board and when I pointed to one of them we made its sound and then followed it with “eel”
- I suggested students try using the first letter of their name to see if it worked with _eel
- Nonsense words were fine for now. In studying this family, for example, we had lots of nonsense words that sound like real words — deel, meel and seel all made it onto our list.
Vowel Sound Images
In my resources, I found several different ways to give image reminders of the short vowel sounds. Here are some of them.
A as in AT or APPLE
E as in LEG or ELEPHANT
I as in IT or ITCH
O as in OCTOPUS
U as in UP or UMBRELLA
For the long vowel sounds, I’m also using images.
A is in DAY
E as in TREE
I as in PIE
O as in TOE
U as in UNICORN (We’re not focusing much on the long U sound. I find it a little confusing because it is sometimes /yoo/ and sometimes /oo/.)
Other Thoughts from my Notes
Stories — I had in mind that maybe I could work in a word from the word family of the day into whatever story I was telling. I ended up feeling like this would be too much of a stretch and it would only tangentially relate to the word family. It felt forced, so I gave it up. I’m still telling a story every day, but we’re not doing any work from the story. We’re just enjoying the stories on their own.
Which Families? — When I was preparing I made a long list of word families from a list of the most common word families that I found online. I then categorized those families identifying them as either long vowel sounds, short vowel sounds or “oddballs.” We’re only using one or two of each sound, but it’s nice to know I have large collection of families to choose from in the future.
Consonant-Vowel-Consonant — I noted that using CVC families are best to start, but I haven’t stuck to that very carefully. I also wanted to make sure I chose families that had lots of words the children would think of.
Lower Case — The lower case letters are coming in a very matter-of-fact way, without much imagination, other than to say that they are the little brothers or sisters of the upper case letters. I’m bringing 3 or 4 of them at a time, we’re writing them on the capital letter pages in our first main lesson books and by the end of the block I’ll have the full alphabet, upper and lower case, on the wall for reference.
Which Word Families to Use?
There are lots of options, of course, and I strongly suggest this Reading Rockets website for suggestions on how to work with the word families. Here are the ones I ended up settling on.
A — __at, __an, __ay
E — __eel, __en, __ell
I — __ide, __ill, __in, __it
O — __oon, __op
U — __un, __ug
I’m having a great time with this block and it’s amazing how quickly we are approaching reading! Exciting stuff!