Tuesday / June 25

3 Ready-To-Go Ways to Infuse Word Study into the Content Areas

Both knowledge and paint have no use until applied. I’ve always liked this adage, perhaps because as a teacher and a parent, I see firsthand that knowledge… is not enough. Application is everything or to use the trendy term du jour, transfer, is the hallmark of success.

In the classroom, when a student demonstrates the ability to select and apply knowledge in a new context, fully on his or her own, we celebrate true independence. And the more we see it over time and across the curriculum the more we are assured. For example, when a reader deep in a character study unit begins to talk about the obstacles and traits of a historical figure in social studies class, we do cartwheels. Learning stuck!

Despite these moments of transfer, word study somehow seems to stay isolated, never blowing like sunflower seeds and germinating across the content areas, forever relegated to a mere few minutes of attention each day. Is it any wonder we may not see students consistently applying, transferring, or even remembering what they know about words and how they work? We’re empowered by our knowledge of words when we find opportunities to use this know-how across subject areas. This intentional effort to infuse word study into each part of the day yields results: through repeated exposure, high-quality modeling, regular practice, and shared expectations, students develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of words. And this learning sticks!

Here are a few of my favorite efficient ways to keep word study in the loop as part of what we do all day long:

Get students talking with learned words and patterns.

The students I have worked with have greatly enjoyed “Conver-stations.” During this learning routine, students visit different stations, each with its own text and conversational task. At each station is a “visual nudge” for students to use both Tier III content area vocabulary and word study pattern words.

For example, if we were studying global warming in science and social studies, at one station, students might view a short video clip and then discuss their learning, thoughts, feelings, reactions, and wonders with one another. I would have a small mix of content area words and word study pattern words out (perhaps on index cards), and students would be challenged to use both content area lingo and word study pattern words in meaningful and appropriate ways.

At a second station, students would work to comprehend a visual text like bar, line, and circle graphs providing information on average temperatures over the last century. Again, students would have a visual reminder to use content area lingo and word study pattern words to use during their conversation around the graphs.

A third station would have students reading two different articles and again infusing identified vocabulary and studied words into their small-group debrief. And, at a fourth station, students would be presented with an open-ended debatable question and asked to synthesize their learning, choose a viewpoint, and defend this perspective. And yes, while debating, they have to use both content vocabulary and word study pattern words!

This authentic and integrated focus on words and content helps word learning extend beyond word study.

Sixth-graders at a Conver-station while studying ancient civilizations.

Get students writing with learned words and patterns.

Let’s face it. While we want students to integrate, extend, and apply word learning while writing, it does not always happen. Because literacy is infused into every subject area, students have endless opportunities to practice using learned words and apply their word learning to spell words conventionally! When this is not yet automatic for students, I model it and invite them to “dip in” just a bit.

Interactive writing is a fabulous structure to nurture this habit. Here, students help the teacher compose a piece of writing by providing ideas that the teacher records. Every so often, the teacher pauses, models thinking aloud, and invites a student volunteer to come up and do a small portion of the writing. This provides the perfect opportunity to think about and practice applying word learning.

For example, let’s say the class has been working toward using recorded observations to build thinking after science labs. The teacher might take jotted observations from a recent lab and model using observations to grow and support a theory. Through discussion, students generate ideas and tell the teacher what to write. The teacher writes… but then when a content area vocabulary word or word study pattern word comes up, the teacher invites all students to try to apply their word know-how. One student is asked to actually come write that word conventionally.

Through this type of experience, students begin to see that even when the focus is science content, we can still remember and apply word learning: and this makes our ideas clear, understandable, and trustworthy.

Interactive writing in math: error analysis involving elapsed time and additional practice with recently explored word study patterns.

Get students to see the connections between how they explore words in word study and how they explore vocabulary in the content areas. 

In Word Study That Sticks, I share more than 50  best-practice ways to explore words during word study time. These learning routines focus on more than phonemic awareness, phonics, and spelling patterns. They also help students better understand meanings — because when it comes to words and meanings, there is always more than meets the eye.

Students become comfortable, confident, and fluent with these engaging routines. When time is limited and we are trying to make the most of every minute, it makes good sense to also have students use these research-backed “meaning routines” to study content area vocabulary. We do not need to spend time teaching new methods! Students can apply their knowledge of these learning routines all day long. By using familiar practices, students can focus more time and energy on the content specific to each subject area. It is a win-win!

This elementary student created word riddles with science vocabulary.

Philosophers, authors, and artists have shared brilliant and eloquent insights on applying knowledge. Yet, I always seem to come back to my first-grade teacher. Whenever we added a thought or shared an idea, she would prompt us to continue by interjecting, “And soooo…” circling her hand forward like the waves rolling in. At that age when idea-lightbulbs were flashing a mile a minute, she encouraged us to say more, think more, and seek connections. Eventually, her cheerful coaching became internalized and we found ways to use, apply, and extend what we knew. Almost forty years later, I still hear her voice inside my head. When I get ready to teach, I think about how I can encourage students to find multiple ways to connect, infuse, and extend concepts, strategies, and ideas (in and out of school). By freeing word study from its 10-minutes-most-days prison, we empower students in more ways that we may first imagine.

Looking for more ideas like these? Word Study That Sticks includes multiple chapters filled with quick, easy, and meaningful ways to infuse word study into reading, writing, math, social studies, and science. The lessons, ideas, and examples of student work will help you feel excited and ready to take word work to the next level!

Written by

Pam Koutrakos is a former classroom teacher and currently provides professional learning in literacy as a member of the Gravity Goldberg, LLC team. She received a Masters in Education from William Paterson University, and also has expertise in psychology, special education, and early childhood education. Loved by students and revered by colleagues because of her positive outlook and empathy, Pam is honored to have her work reach a wider, national community of teachers through this book and her publications in various online education sites. Follow her on Twitter @pamkou and discover her blogs on

Latest comments

  • Enjoyed looking tһrough this, very gоod stuff, thаnk you.

  • Thank you for writing and sharing this wonderful and informative article! The spark went off and I’ve realized that my students in the LLD class could use their word study list across other areas as well.

    • I am so excited to hear that this post sparked some extra excitement around words. Please let me know how things go! Happy word exploring.

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