Make Word Study (phonics, spelling, and vocabulary) a Game!

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D.

A few years ago, my four adult children were home for the holidays. Every evening after the dinner table was cleared and the dishes were done, we'd get out a board game and play for at least an hour. This was a great time to be together, to talk, to just have some shared fun. Once the kids had left and my wife and I were putting the games back into the closet, she remarked, "Tim, do you realize every game we played last week was a word game?!" We had played Scrabble, Boggle, Balderdash, Wheel of Fortune, and a few others.

As a person who works on helping children learn words, I was stunned! We had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as a family as we were examining, manipulating, and talking about words. If adults enjoy playing games that involve words, why wouldn't students? Indeed, children love games and word games may be a wonderful approach for helping children learn words and develop a fascination with words. Oh, and here's one more thing about word games — have you ever noticed that if you play a game regularly you tend to get better at it? We have a special name for it when you become better at something - it's called learning! Let's make at least part of our phonics and vocabulary instruction game-like for students.

What Games?

I'd like to share two of my favorite word games with you - Wordo and Word Ladders. Both are simple and easy to do with students of all ages. Moreover, students of all ages seem to love playing both of these games.


Wordo is simply a word study version of Bingo. It is a great way for students to practice and deepen their understanding of words they may be learning. In Wordo, every student is given a blank Wordo sheet or grid. The sheet can consist of 3×3 boxes for younger children, 4×4 or 5×5 for older students, and can easily be made using the "insert table" feature on any word processing program. See examples below


Of course, each Wordo sheet/grid should cover an entire 8 1/2 x 9 page of paper (Blank Wordo sheets are available at > Resources). Then, put on display words that you want students to learn or review. Be sure to put 3-5 more words on display than there are boxes on the Wordo sheet. Otherwise, multiple students are likely to win at the same time, especially with the 3×3 sheet. Students choose words from the display to enter onto their Wordo sheet.

Once all students' Wordo sheets are filled with words, it's time to play. As the teacher you randomly call out words from the display, definitions of the words, or other clues to the words (e.g., "a two-syllable word that begins with a consonant blend"). If students have the word on their sheet they place a mark or marker on the box containing the word. Once a student has a row, column, diagonal, or four corners filled with marks they call out "Wordo." The student's sheet is checked for accuracy and the sheets are then cleared for another game. Simple prizes can be awarded to students who win.

Wordo is a great way to review words from different content areas.   It is also a good way to motivate students to analyze the internal structure of words as well as their meaning.   

            Word Ladders

Word Ladders are a word-building game in which students are guided to build a series of words where each new word requires some manipulation of the previously made word. What makes it a game-like activity is that the first word and last word of the ladder are somehow connected. Here's an example of a word ladder that starts with the word "Storm" and words down. Students can either write the words or slide letter tiles around as they move down the ladder. As the teacher, you guide students in going from one word to the next by providing them with clues for each new word.

1.  Storm          Change 1 letter in "Storm" to make a place to shop.

2.  Store            Change 1 letter in "Store" to make a word that means to look intently at someone or something. 

3.  Stare            Change 1 letter in "Stare" to make a word that means 'to frighten."

4.  Scare           Change 1 letter in "Scare" to make a word that is the total number of points in a game. 

5.  Score           Change 1 letter in "Score" to make the land beside an ocean, sea, or lake.

6.  Shore           Take away 1 letter from "Shore" to make something you wear on your foot.

7.  Shoe            Change 1 letter in "Shoe" to make a word that means to display, expose, or uncover.

8.  Show           Change 1 letter in "Show" to make a word that when combined with the first word describes a winter weather event.

9.  Snow

Students find word ladders fun to engage in as they try to determine what the final word in the ladder will be. Equally important, as students move down the ladder from one word to the next they must coordinate the structural clues (Change 1 letter) with the meaning clue to write each new word. In essence, the activity requires students to engage in orthographic analyses or mapping as they make their words. Yet, because students are only asked to manipulate one or a few letters at a time, the activity is one that allows them to experience success. Research has demonstrated that this sort of guided word building can lead to significant improvements in students' phonemic awareness among younger students, word decoding, AND comprehension (McCandliss., Beck, Sandak, & Perfetti, 2003). If students are able to decode the words they encounter in their reading they are more likely to understand what it is they are reading.

Word study and wordplay can take a variety of forms. My hope in this blog is not to suggest to you that any one word study game is the answer to students' word learning challenges, but to suggest to all of you creative and artful teachers that when we make word study feel like a game we are much more likely to engage students in word learning and analysis and much more likely to develop in students a love for the study of words. Isn't that what teaching and learning are all about - not just teaching a set of literacy skills but encouraging students to love our language to be willing and able to engage in the study of our language.


Rasinski, T. (2005). Daily Word Ladders-Grades 2-4.  New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. (2005). Daily Word Ladders- Grades 4-6   New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. (2008). Daily Word Ladders- Grades 1-2.  New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. (2012). Daily Word Ladders – Phonics- Grades K-1   New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. & Cheesman-Smith, M.  (2019). Daily Word Ladders- Content Areas, Grades 2-4   New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. & Cheesman-Smith, M.  (2019). Daily Word Ladders- Content Areas, Grades 4-6.   New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. & Cheesman-Smith, M.  (2020). Daily Word Ladders- Idioms. Grades 4+.   New York:  Scholastic.


McCandliss, B., Beck, I., Sandak, R., & Perfetti, C. (2003).  Focusing attention on decoding for children with poor reading skills: Design and preliminary tests of the word building intervention.  Scientific Studies in Reading, 7, 75-104. 

The post Make Word Study (phonics, spelling, and vocabulary) a Game! appeared first on The Robb Review Blog.

Evan Robb: Distinguished Principal, TEDx Speaker, Author, and Horace Mann Educator of The Year Recipient

Bring Evan Robb to your next event.

Find out more information, including fees and availability.