Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School

The word-level

If students are to be fluent writers, they need to be proficient at the word level. They have to have an age-appropriate store of words in long term memory that they can effortlessly recall, and sufficient phoneme-grapheme and morphemic knowledge to tackle unfamiliar words.

At the basis of this is phonological awareness. As students mature, phonological awareness becomes a less reliable predictor of literacy success, but if it is not developed to a proficient level, the chances of writing fluency are greatly reduced. This is because writing is a step by step, sequential activity. It relies on putting one grapheme in front of the other according to the phonemes perceived in the word until the word is unitized in long term memory. Even after words are unitized, the ability to check and correct letter strings in writing relies to some degree on phonemic proficiency.

Of course, phonemes matching graphemes are only part of the story in writing. There are multiple ways to spell many sounds, so orthographic awareness at the word level is essential too. This is why teaching the conventions of the writing system, that is, the rules which govern spelling, is an essential part of word-level instruction.

English spelling is an elegant, rule-based writing system, ideal for conveying both sound and meaning. It is not a mishmash of random patterns invented to confuse people. Please don’t buy into that myth and please don’t allow others to spread it, especially to children who are already fragile in their confidence.

Mastery of the system won’t occur in a culture that says it’s not possible. It is, but it relies on teacher knowledge at the phonemic, graphemic, morphemic, semantic and syntactic level.

If word study is embedded across subject areas, so much the better.

Taking the plunge towards rich word study is daunting. It takes a whole school system and well-trained teachers to provide the momentum needed to get all children proficient at the word level.

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