Tuesday / June 25

Connecting With Caregivers: How to Keep On Exploring Words Beyond 3:00 – and All Summer Long 

Why don’t they give spelling tests anymore?  *  How come teachers don’t correct student spelling? *  What can I do at home?  *  Should I buy one of those workbooks this summer?  

I have been asked these questions more times than I can count. It makes perfect sense. When it comes to instructional methods and word study… the times, they are a’changing. Caregivers remember what spelling and vocabulary looked like when they were in school, and are not privy to the same learning opportunities we, as educators, are afforded. We regularly read professional texts, peruse respected blogs, and discuss pedagogy with other knowledgeable experts. That’s why it is so important for us  (teachers, administrators, and coaches) to serve as a conduit, connecting current ideas and and explaining classroom practices to our students’ caregivers — our partners in children’s learning. Here are three ideas that yield buy in and intend to ignite the imagination of families:  

Share the “Why”

As the world changes, instruction also needs to change. We know the importance of a well-rounded approach to word study that encompasses more than short-term memorization of spelling words. We also hear and read the statistics linking early vocabulary and secondary achievement, elementary literacy skills with high school graduation rates, and word knowledge to later-in-life opportunities (see, for instance, Baker, Simmons, & Kame’enui, 1997; Bowker, 1998; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Dell’Antonia, 2012; Kame enui & Baumann, 2012). And we know more than ever about how our brains learn new information, retain it, and retrieve it when needed. When we share they “why” behind (any) instructional shifts, demonstrating how current practices reflect all we know about facilitating learning today, we solidify home-school partnerships and bolster community relationships. There are a few relatively simple ways to do this: 

  • Draft or share a letter (or email, Twitter post, etc) to share a piece of research and how that is reflected in our word study instruction. 
  • If permissible, take photos and/or short videos of students engaged in word study learning- and explain the purpose (why) behind that practice. Share through traditional or digital newsletters, apps like Remind, or when permissible and preferred, classroom social media accounts. 
  • Invite caregivers into the classroom so they can see word study in action and learn about word study — from the students themselves. Wondering what this might look like? See the schedule of an example open-classroom celebration above.  
  • If an in-class event proves challenging, students can record short videos of themselves talking about their word study routines. Videos can be safely posted and accessed asynchronously by caregivers at a time and place that fits their busy schedules.

Suggest High-Impact Tweaks of Everyday Occurrences

Although I may be a “seasoned” educator who does have the content know-how, I also know that the last person my children want teaching them is ME. And when I momentarily forget this and offer unsolicited advice, my son and daughter are quite quick to remind me! Let’s aim to better prepare family members and loved ones to support learning, without feeling the pressure to instruct. I have found that caregivers often appreciate hearing about playful, easy-to-infuse ways to support word learning outside of school that do not feel like… school. There are infinite ideas that require no prep, no special equipment or materials, and can be done in the midst of the daily hustle and bustle of school day afternoons and evenings. Here are a three low-pressure ideas to share with home partners: 

  • Provide access to all kinds of books and texts. Make frequent trips to the library. Read to, with, and beside your child as frequently as possible. Build a habit of noticing and thinking about words while reading. Afterward, support budding vocabularies by talking about and using some of these new and interesting words.  
  • Talk together while in the car, on the bus, or on the subway or train. Don’t shy away from using more sophisticated words in your conversations. Explain the meaning of new words using more familiar language and share different times and places where these words might be used.  
  • Play games together—“word-themed” games are fun and functional! There are a ton of different family-friendly games (like Bananagrams, shown in the photo above) that highlight and showcase words. Pictionary and charades are always options that remind us “no purchase is necessary” to have some family word fun.  

Provide Additional Ideas To Ignite and Support Playful Word Exploring

There are lighthearted methods of encouraging word exploring at home — that do not involve assigning homework, distributing packets, or dispensing login information. When we find feasible and reasonable ways to guide caregivers, we enable excitement around and interest in words to flourish, even when students are not in school. Because the pace of summer is often a bit slower (and we know so much about the impact of the “summer slide”) the end of the year is the perfect time to share home ideas that have the power to energize inquiry around words. Here are family tested and approved ideas to jumpstart imaginations of what could be done at home: 

  • Encourage caregivers to create word-makerspace opportunities! At home, children can create and build letters and words with commonly-found household items. This kind of constructive play is enjoyed by many students throughout and beyond the early elementary grades. Depending on availability, preferences, and/or allergies, a few options include sidewalk chalk, shaving cream, whipped cream, sand, magnetic letters, toy building bricks, and cereal. Sticks, pebbles, and other (free) materials found out in nature provide even more variety and sensory experiences while word building—the options are infinite! 
  • Suggest ways to blend words and movement. Word explorers might sing the alphabet song, spell out words, or separate the sounds in words while running, skipping, hopscotching, jump roping, shooting hoops, or throwing, catching, or passing a ball with a home partner. In the photo above, an upper-elementary student is hula hooping while practicing spelling different words.  
  • Because families spend so much time coming and going, invite them to try playing a word-themed version of “Keep-It-Up” while tying shoes and putting on coats, driving in the car, or commuting to an appointment or practice.  Family members can pose a word-themed challenges like How many words can we think of that ___ (e.g., start with /st/, rhyme with splat, have an apostrophe, start with a particular prefix, have a specific root, are examples of homophones, have multiple meanings, end with a particular suffix, etc.). Those participating try to keep the pattern going as long as possible. 

I feel it is important to note that I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically believe in the importance of rest, relaxation, and the pursuit of one’s interests outside of school. Let’s support caregivers in this process… while also awakening the possibilities for word play that feels lively- and possible. Click here for 6 different (downloadable and reproducible) versions (in English and Spanish) of the After-Hours Activities Letters included as part of Word Study That Sticks, Best Practices K-6 and soon-to-be-released The Word Study That Sticks Companion. Both these texts provide plenty of other ideas, resources, and tools to connect home and school. After all, we are better together!  


Baker, S. K., Simmons, D. C., & Kame’enui, E. J. (1997). Vocabulary acquisition: Research bases. In D. C. Simmons & E. J. Kame’enui (Eds.), What reading research tells us about children with diverse learning needs: Bases and basics. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge. 

Bowker, 1998;  

Cunningham, A E., & Stanovich, K.E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33(6), 934-945. 

Dell’antonia, K.J. (2012, March 19). The link between reading level and dropout rates. [Blog post]. Retrieved from 

Kame enui, E.J., & Baumann, J.F. (2012). Vocabulary instruction, second edition: Research to practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. 

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. She has published The Word Study That Sticks and The Word Study That Sticks Companion with Corwin.

Follow her on Twitter @pamkou and discover her blogs on

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