Revisited: Word Families

This is a re-post of one of my first blogs. I am even more convinced of the usefulness of word families than I was one year ago because I have continued to use them with our struggling reader. Here’s a new curriculum we’ve been enjoying, and there are more ideas throughout this “word families” post.


Recently my youngest son, Mr. N, wanted to build words with the letter combination “-ag.” As I searched my mind for words that he could make to create an “-ag” word family, I had a hard time finding any with positive connotations. Starting alphabetically with “bag” (maybe we should just bag it!), I continued in my mind with “c–,” “d–,” “f–,” –no, none of those would work for their own reasons. I could suggest “gag” to him, “hag,” “lag,” “nag.” Wait! I thought. How is it that, in the English language, this combination of “a” plus “g” results in so many unhappy words? Gag reflex, old hag, lag time, don’t nag! Surely, there had to be a more child-friendly, upbeat word family, one that would be more musical sounding, too!

We moved on to more gentle rhyming sounds: “ran, “ “fan,” “tan;” “cat,” “sat,” “mat.” In a sense, word families are nothing more than sets of words that rhyme, and isn’t that the tried-and-true pre-reading advice? “Play rhyming games with your children so they are ready to learn to read.” In the case of my youngest son, playing with word families comes naturally.

I hadn’t given word families much thought, however, until it came time last fall to teach our middle son to read. Mr. C has the most difficulty with words of our three boys, which first prompted me to think about using word families, that is, familiar rimes with multiple onsets [1], for learning to read. He was going to need repetition and practice in a way our oldest son hadn’t when he learned to read. I looked into file folder games, worksheets, and electronic learning toys for help. My husband started the practice of letting Mr. C earn time playing video games if he could write down ten words by memory or by sounding them out. When Mr. C comes asking for help to think of those words, he and I find a word he already knows, and I dictate as many words as possible in the same word family: “back,” “black,” “stack,” “hack,” “rack,” and so on. When I think about it, it is not surprising that the spelling curriculum I gravitated to for our oldest son, Mr. P, also uses word families to develop spelling skills. Take a brick and add another… “end,” “bend,” “lend,” “blend,” “tend,” “extend”– we want words to be easier, more related to one another, more relevant in our daily use, don’t we?

We do. We want words to be a rich resource for our lives through the blessings of reading and writing, and the accompanying entrance to thoughts beyond and higher than our own. My husband, a software developer, works with computer languages which have their own kind of words, and longs to write a novel. I, a sometimes linguist, was completing a dissertation on second language learners’ attempts to place words correctly in German sentences when I married him. We are now educating our 3 boys at home, each of whom has a different level of relationship to words, and each headed toward his own ultimate level of like or satisfaction or meta-thought about them. Yes, we are also a word family– a family who likes words and needs words, even though some members of the family still consider the written word a battle to be fought or a task to be done.

But words are a worthy task, a worthy battle, and word families are a wonderful way to work and play with words. Even the “-ag” family has its redeeming members, I realized, as we finally made “wag.” What a friendly word! Yet we continue our efforts so that, eventually, we will move beyond the rhyming and on to the reading and connecting of words and thoughts, lest the tail wag the dog and not the other way around.


Here are a few specific resources used around our house for practice in word families:

  • Hot Dots Phonics Flash Cards: Word Families, by Educational Insights
  • Kumon workbooks, such as My Book of Rhyming Words & Phrases
  • LeapFrog TAG Reader and books
  • The Mailbox: The Idea Magazine for Teachers, kindergarten and first grade levels
  • Sequential Spelling series, Don McCabe/AVKO Educational Research Foundation


[1] The term rime refers to the part of a word family word which stays the same, such as “-ag.” Onset refers to the first letter(s) of a word which change in rhyming (i.e. word family) words, thereby making a new word.

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