Word Families: A Powerful Way to Strengthen Phonics Skills


Most of us would agree that English phonics is complex! Word families are a powerful tool to help our students internalize common phonics patterns, consolidate their decoding skills, and build greater reading fluency. How do we use them?

First, a quick review:

What are onsets and rimes?

An onset is the consonant(s) before the vowel(s) in a syllable:
/m/ in mind 
/str/ in street
Not all syllables have an onset (it and and do not have onsets).
A rime (A.K.A. a phonogram) is the first vowel in a syllable and whatever follows:
/ind/ in mind 
/eet/ in street
All syllables have a rime.

Pile of white notecards with word families lay on a table

Why should we use onsets and rimes in our word study instruction?

Onsets and rimes are important because:

  • they are the most psychologically accessible units of sound that may be mapped to a spelling pattern (Goswami, 1996).
  • rimes (also referred to as phonograms, chunks, or word families) are very consistent and reliable.
  • they can be used to teach children to decode by analogy by using a word they already know to figure out a word they don’t know (this is the strategy used by adult fluent readers).
  • about 500 easy to read, high frequency words can be derived from only 37 rimes (Wylie and Durrell, 1970).

Did you know that the chunk –ight can be used to spell over 90 English words?

What are the 37 most common rimes?


How do we use them?
One way is with word family cards. Here is what I do: I give each student who hasn’t mastered the word patterns a packet of cards attached to a 1-inch loose-leaf ring.  Each card contains a different word family (a list of words all containing the same word chunk/phonogram/rime). Students keep their word cards in their individual book bags or bins and practice reading them whenever they have a few minutes during the day. When students come to the guided reading table, they select a card/s to read to me. If they can read every word on the card quickly without hesitating to decode, I stamp the card. If they stumble on a word, I put a dot by the word and tell them to keep practicing. I require them to earn stamps on each card at least two times (on different days) before I consider the card to be mastered. They keep practicing the word cards until all have been mastered.

To make Word Family Cards for your students, follow these steps:

  1. Download and print the following document onto cardstock. 
  2. Download Word Family Cards.
  3. Cut each sheet into six sections.
  4. Punch a hole in each card.
  5. Place cards on a 1” looseleaf ring.

A Word of Caution
Word family lists can be a valuable part of our phonics instruction, but they should never be considered the sole focus.  While the phonograms do introduce our students to some highly reliable word patterns, they do not allow students to fully analyze words in their entirety. (Blevins, 2006)

Recommended Resource
Wiley Blevins’ Phonics A to Z has been an invaluable resource to me. It contains a wealth of information for any K-3 teacher who wants to improve his/her phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.  Included are ready-to-use assessments, word lists, background information, teaching strategies, games, and more!  For samples from this book click here.

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