Word Ladders

Research studies over the last 40 years tell us that the strongest reading results come from phonemic awareness paired with systematic phonics. Phonemic awareness is the awareness of the individual speech sounds in spoken words. For example, the word cat has three phonemes: /k/ /a/ t/. The word eight has two phonemes: /ā/ /t/. If we change the first sound in eight to /ĭ/, we get the word it. These are examples of phonemic awareness tasks.

Phonics involves connecting the graphemes (letters) in written words to the phonemes (sounds) these letters represent. Reading words in an alphabetic language like English requires a phonetic approach. This phonics approach requires phonemic awareness skills like blending, segmenting, isolating, and manipulating to access the words in our language. Phonics instruction should be explicit and systematic. It should follow a logical scope and sequence of skills from simple to complex. This Structured Literacy approach helps ALL students and follows the science of reading.

Connecting Phonemic Awareness and Phonics?

But phonemic awareness and phonics should not be practiced in isolation. So, how do we connect phonemic awareness and phonics? There are many activities to connect the two, but today we will discuss the power of word ladders (sometimes referred to as word chains). This simple tool requires phonemic awareness skills such as segmenting, isolating, manipulating, and blending in order to change the word one phoneme at a time.

Word Ladders with Phonemes

Word ladders can utilize letters or just sounds. If your students are not yet ready to manipulate at the grapheme-level, you can use puff balls or disks to have them create word ladders. For example, watch this video in which a student manipulates the PHONEMES in words dictated by the teacher.

You can also see this in the pictures below as step-by-step directions:

  1. Teacher dictates the word mask. The student repeats it and taps a puff ball for each phoneme. In this word there are four phonemes: /m/ /a/ /s/ /k/.

2. Teacher says, “If that is mask, show me mast.” Student repeats the word, taps the puff balls again and isolates which phoneme needs to be manipulated. In this case, the student knows it is the last phoneme (from /k/ to /t/).

3. The student switches out the puff ball representing the /k/ sound for a new one representing the /t/ sound. She then taps each puff ball again as she says each sound. Lastly, she uses her finger to blend the sounds together.

**Once a puff ball is “subbed out,” it returns to the top with no given sound. It can then be substituted on the next word for any sound.

Word Ladders with Graphemes

Word ladders use the same approach as the above phonemic awareness manipulation activity. However word ladders require students to change the spelling of a word (with graphemes!) by one phoneme at a time. Spelling and reading words in this manner helps students master the letter-sound correspondences. It also teaches students to attend to all letter-sounds in a left-to-right manner. No more guessing at the first letter or using picture clues to figure out the word. Students will be attuned to all the phonemes and graphemes in the words they encounter.

You can watch this video to see how a student writes the word ladders AND how she builds up a word with just puff balls!

When creating or using Word Ladders, it is important to follow a systematic approach. You will first want to assess your students to isolate their needs. Start with the simpler skills first and progress to the more complex skills.

  1. The simplest task is to change the same phoneme throughout the activity. This is a great place to start with students. The beginning phoneme is usually the easiest to manipulate.

2. The next step would be to change the final sounds and medial sounds (with three phonemes). Below is an example of manipulating all three (but still only one phoneme at at time).

3. Next you can move to building words from one phoneme and then taking phonemes/graphemes away. These addition and deletion skills require higher-level phonemic awareness.

4. The most complex step is to work with words that have more phonemes. This gives the students opportunities to manipulate more phonemes. You can also use words with long vowel spellings so that students have to attend to more sophisticated spelling changes.

When used as part of a Structured Literacy approach, word ladders can be an engaging and worthwhile activity for your students!

Student Examples:

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