Word Families: The Pros and Cons

Word Families: The Pros and Cons- All About Reading

You’ve probably noticed that kids’ brains like to discover patterns.

Maybe you’ve seen your child create a pattern with toy cars or blocks, or even with her breakfast cereal.

The neat thing is that you can use this natural inclination toward patterns to your child’s advantage by using word families as you teach reading and spelling.

Word families are groups of words that follow a similar pattern. Grouping similar words is an excellent way to teach a large number of words in a relatively short period of time. For example, when we teach the EE vowel team in All About Reading Level 2, we teach words like tree, feet, and deep in the same word list. And when we teach the GN phonogram in All About Spelling Level 5, the word list includes design, resign, and assignment.

Word Families - the pros & cons - All About Learning Press

With word families, the number of words your child can master increases significantly.

Instead of learning one or two words per spelling pattern, your child can learn eight to twenty-five words without much additional effort, making it an efficient way to learn. And the recall of individual words is improved because similar words are stored together in the student’s brain. That’s all great news.

But there’s bad news, too.

If you stop there—just teaching word lists grouped by word families—you will be severely disappointed in your teaching efforts.

Why? Because if you use word families incorrectly, students may end up just following the “pattern” of that particular lesson, blindly zipping through the spelling words without really learning them. What you intended to be educational and insightful becomes an exercise in following patterns—and the time you spent teaching spelling goes down the drain because your child can’t actually spell those words outside of the neatly organized list.

Another downfall of overemphasizing word families is the risk that your child will pay too much attention to the ends of words, skipping over the first part of the word to get to the answer. Instead, we want the student’s eye to start at the beginning of the word and move to the end of the word. Encouraging his eye to start at the end of the word and then jump back to the beginning of the word is reinforcing incorrect eye movement. We don’t want to reinforce dyslexic tendencies. That’s why All About Reading and All About Spelling don’t ask students to do activities such as “write all the spelling words that end in –an” or “read all the words that end in –est.”

That said, after the student has learned the word pan, it is a good thing if he realizes that he can also spell the words van and ran. Just keep the emphasis on moving the eyes from left to right.

Word Families - the pros & cons - All About Learning Press

Now that you know the pros and cons of using word families, what should you do?

You want the benefits of teaching related words at the same time, but you also want your child to be able to spell correctly outside of spelling class and away from the neatly organized lists.

Let me introduce you to our “thinking approach to word families.”

All About Spelling and All About Reading provide a fail-proof system to prevent your child from mechanically following the patterns as he learns to read and spell. It’s a simple system, and it’s built right into the lesson plans.

Just as it’s important to drill random math facts to ensure mastery, it’s essential to mix up spelling words with different patterns after they have been learned. The idea is to keep your child’s mind on the reading and spelling of the words and not on the simple repetition of a pattern.

Our system for breaking up patterns and improving retention is three-pronged:

  1. Every lesson begins with a short review of previously taught Word Cards. The cards are shuffled so that words with different patterns are presented in different orders, and the words from the same family are no longer grouped together.
  2. Each lesson ends with fluency practice (reading) or sentence dictation (spelling) which both feature a wide variety of previously learned words containing various spelling patterns.

    Word Families - the pros & cons - All About Learning Press
  3. In reading, the short stories emphasize the newly taught pattern while mixing in a natural balance of other words. And in spelling, beginning in Level 3, the Writing Station feature requires your student to write original sentences using suggested words with a variety of spelling patterns.

With our “thinking approach to word families,” your child will steadily grow in reading and spelling ability and confidence. And with our step-by-step lesson plans, everything is laid out for you so you don’t have to wonder if you are doing the right thing. Just sit back and watch our method work for you and your child!

Would your child benefit from this “thinking approach to word families”?

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Amy K


It looks like All About Learning Press has all the tools necessary to continue to open the door to reading for a dyslexic child who is working hard through the Orton-Gillingham process. I’m looking forward to giving it a try!

Let us know if we can help in any way!



I suspect that brighter children with reading/spelling struggles are even more likely to take word families as pattern exercises rather than spelling practice.

Word Families are great for children who understand rhyme. If a child doesn’t understand rhyme when they are beginning to learn to read, this can be a very frustrating method to teaching reading. Many parents think that children will automatically understand and catch on to rhyme. The truth is, some do and some don’t. For many reading programs, understanding rhyme is a prerequisite. If your child doesn’t understand rhyme, it is wise to make sure to choose a reading program that isn’t entirely based upon rhyme and word families as some are. My oldest daughter, now in middle school, is a gifted reader and read well from an early age, but she didn’t understand rhyme until first grade. Ironically, she is now a natural poet and has a unique and advanced grasp of words and using them in how she communicates.

You are spot on that many people assume that children naturally pick up rhyming and other phonological awareness skills. However, many children need to be taught these skills.

It’s not just in the context of word families that a weakness in phonological awareness causes problems, however. Children that struggle to hear rhymes and other things like the beginning or ending sound in words will often struggle to be able to blend sounds together to form a word.

All About Reading Pre-reading Level specifically and explicitly teaches rhyming and other phonological awareness skills for just this purpose. Most students do the Pre-reading Level in preschool or kindergarten, but occasionally an older child will benefit from the phonological awareness work before moving into Level 1. My own son did the Pre-reading Level in 4 months at 6 years old, and he went from struggling to sound out very simple words to find it easy and jumping ahead in reading.



Thanks! Good info. :)



We like word families. But we like mixing word families to practice them, kind of like you suggest.



I agree with your line of thinking! :-) Thank you!



A different perspective than that of my experience teaching kids to read in school (I’m my former life) :)



We love your products and all of your ideas.



I think my kids will do well with this curriculum. Thanks! We are excited to try it out.



This curriculum sounds easy to use!

It is! I’ve been using it since 2009 (5 years before I started working here), and it is easy to use even with a handful of kids on different levels.



Thank you for this article. We are using AAR and AAS for the first time, and any additional helpful information is always welcomed.



Thank you for this helpful explanation. I am anxious to begin using both AAR and AAS.



So glad someone is reviewing these ideas for us. I am not a trained teacher and have no idea sometimes which methods are best! Thanks for this article!



This is so true! I have seen it happen with my son.
I think his got this but, when we return to the word not in that word family list he has a hard time to read or spell it. Thank you, for this post..

Thank you for sharing your experiences with word families and your son.



I was wondering about this as I see the samples from teachers come across my facebook feed. They seem like fun activities my kids would enjoy but I love the way AAR teaches the reading and I don’t want to hinder that.

I don’t think an occasionally outside activity would cause much harm, but if you focused a lot on word families you could run into the problems described in this post. Besides, the activities and such in AAR are so much fun, they you can repeat them again and again. And if that isn’t enough, the cards can be made into games with very little prep. Have you see our 8 Great Ways to Review Word Cards blog post?

sara beyda


Thanks this is wonderful!As a new home schooler, I purchased reading level 1 for my kids and after reading this I cant wait to purchase spelling too! My kids are so happy with these work books they want to jump ahead to the activities,I gotta coax them to slow down and not jump pages-they are flipping pages and looking whats next on the agenda!Keep it up Marie!

Isn’t this great? Who would have thought learning to read could be so much fun?

Thank you for sharing how much your kids are enjoying AAR 1.

Diana Barber


I LOVE this! I’ve been using word families, but I haven’t emphasized left to right usage. I also like the idea of revisiting them as shuffled cards. Thank you for your advice.



I completely agree with this theory. Thanks for creating an awesome curriculum. I have 3 students in AAS & AAR this year. I’m using a few Logic of English foundations supplements (Also LOEs Rhythm of Handwriting) to dove tail our reading and spelling lessons. It makes for a busy school day but I wouldn’t trade the high quality explicit teaching. I am so thankful for such amazing resources.



Enjoyed the post, thanks so much for the insight.



What great information!!!

Kristen Wilewski


I love the programs! Having 2 boys with dyslexia, these programs have been a godsend! And I have learned so much teaching them as I never had any trouble reading or spelling myself. Sometimes, however, in the spelling, we find a word that was presented in the earlier levels, that is causing a problem again and I can’t remember the rule that helps with it’s spelling since it was quite a while ago that we went over it. Is there a way to quickly find a review of older concepts? I may just copy the table of contents from each spelling level for now. Thanks again for two wonderful programs!

Well, the easiest way to find out what Step in which Level teaches a concept would be to pop us an email at support@allaboutlearningpress.com. Between using the programs with our own kids, and answering questions about it, we have a pretty good idea off the tops of our heads where everything is, and we also have all the Levels to double check before answering you.

Other than that, each Level has an index of words from that level in the back, and the index refers to the Step the word was introduced. Often using the index is quicker than using the Table of Contents. Also, each Level has a Scope and Sequence in the appendix that says what is covered in each Step. You don’t have to photocopy the Scope and Sequence or Table of Contents for each Level either; we have them available for download on our Spelling Lesson Samples page.

jennifer kallgren


Just as a helpful tip I have my kids make a quick list of rules we learned in each book when we finish a book to make it easy to refer to or look up rules later. It has been very helpful and the review is good for them to!



I always feel confident in following AAR and AAS to my children because it keeps our learning flow perfectly balanced in the pros.

I love how you worded this! “leaning flow perfectly balanced in the pros.” Yes, agree! Thank you.



We’ve just begun homeschooling this fall and my children, in grades 1 & 2, are absolutely loving the all about reading levels 1 & 2! It’s a time they look forward to each day :)



Great post. I have not found another curriculum that represents my beliefs about the subject so closely and clearly. We use both, AAR and AAS and they continue to surprise me with the thoughtful way the material is presented. Another negative about word lists is that there are many words that sound the same, but are not spelled in the same way. So, using word families without solid explanation of the rules and logic behind the spelling, makes it very easy (even logical) to assume that words that sound the same are spelled in the same way. And spelling goes down the drain right there. I would go as far as to say that today’s students are innocent victims of the word families approach, which does not teach real spelling and they are left with poor skills in that area.

Great point about the same sound but different spellings. Thank you for sharing.

Amanda Fowler


I’ve wondered a lot about word families (if was best to teach with them, or not to teach with them). I’ve always thought a mix of things is best. I enjoyed reading this, thanks for the post!



Very helpful. My kids love AAR AND AAS. Finishing up level 1 and 2. Thank you for an awesome program!



Very helpful! I have 3 using AAS this year– levels 1, 3, and 5 and we love it!



My boys love AAS! We love this curriculum.

banhi bepari


This is very helpful and interesting!

Cathey Cook


Hello Marie,
I am a retired special education teacher who is now working with my 8 year old grandson (who has dyslexia) using your AAR program. I very much appreciate your knowledgeable answers and blog posts. Thank you.



I haven’t incorporated word families into our learning much so far, but it is good for me to think about both the pros and cons. I had absolutely never thought about how focusing on word endings could encouraging the eyes to move from right to left instead of left to right! This post is very helpful. Thank you!

I’m glad you found this post helpful.

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