Illegitimate Word Families

In some of my recent articles, we talked about morphological families: families whose members share a common meaning and structure. We talked about morphological families like BED, BEDS, BEDDING; CAT, CATS, CATTY; DO, DOING, DOES, DONE, UNDONE; FAST, FASTER, FASTEST; and I showed you how students can use scientific investigations and tools to help them understand these families.
More importantly, we saw how doing this kind of word study (how working with morphological families) would do powerful things for your students: It would teach them how to investigate things scientifically; it would help them see that the written language is highly organized and orderly; it would build their vocabularies; it would deepen and broaden their understanding of words and the world; it would increase their spelling skills; and it would teach them a system of inquiry that would serve them for the rest of their lives.
Many beginning reading programs require schools to purchase huge piles of worksheets and activity packets to help children “learn phonics” by working with a completely made up kind of family called “word families.” What is a “word family,” you might ask? Good question. A word family, according to these reading programs, is a group of words that rhyme and have the same spelling patterns. That’s it.
BAN, CAN, and FAN are said to belong to the _AN family, while NEST, WEST, and BEST are said to belong to the __EST family, and so on. Many reading programs (and their advocates) suggest that “children who understand these families have an easier time learning to spell and decode.” Hmmm. Let’s take a look at how  “word family” practice (also called “phonics family” practice) looks in a typical “word family” phonics lesson, shall we?
During “phonics activities,” the teacher generally introduces a “word chunk” (e.g., AN as in FAN) and helps her students think of words that contain this chunk (BAN, CAN, DAN, FAN, MAN, PAN, RAN, SCAN, PLAN etc.). After this, she introduces activities that require students to complete worksheets or play games to help them “understand” the word “chunk” and its “family.” Here, for example, are some possible activities for the “AN family.”
When children finish working with “the AN family,” the teacher may have her students work with additional “short A families,” such as the AT, AM, AB, AG, AP, and AD families, and the students will “come to understand” these families by practicing in similar ways. After this, her students may work with the AND, ANT, AMP, and AST families, or perhaps they will return to those “short A families” after first working with some “short E families” (e.g., the ED, EN, EST, or ENT families). It’s really hard to say because the sequence of instruction is different for different  programs, and different programs include different “word families” in their study units. In all such reading programs, however, learners must work with hundreds of “families” for a number of years while consuming massive piles of resources.
Are these phonics activities the best use of a learner’s time? That’s my question. Do these “phonics families” and their parent “word chunks” help students understand our writing system? Are “word chunks” meaningful units that can and should be studied?
Unlike graphemes (written units that represent phonemes), which cannot be further divided, word “chunks” are nothing more than compounds of two or more legitimate graphemes. Word “chunks” are phony units, not real units. They aren’t really units of all.
Since word chunks can all be further divided, and since children need to know that they can be further divided, why create them in the first place? Won’t treating word chunks as though they are units hinder a child’s ability to become phonemically aware? Yes. Might “word-chunk reading” prevent learners from engaging in the kind of critical thinking that is needed for accurate and efficient decoding? Yes. Can’t the word CAN, for example, be analyzed into C-A-N? Yes. Isn’t it written with three English graphemes, each of which represent a phoneme (/k/-/a/,/n/) in the spoken word “can?” Yes.
The word CAN is not written with a C grapheme and an AN “chunk.” That’s crazy talk. And it’s crazy making. Treating word chunks as units requires us to break Occam’s principle of parsimony (“Occam’s Rule”), which says that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Children should be helped to understand this useful problem-solving principle, not helped to ignore it. Learners should be encouraged to apply scientific rules, not break them.
A second problem with studying “short A families,” “-UNK families,” “__EST families,” and every other phony phonics family that big publishing companies would love to shove under our classroom doors, is none of these “word families” are actually true families.
The English language does include families, yes, but these are legitimate families: families whose members are meaningfully related:
  • etymological families (words that share a historical root);
  • morphological families (words that share a root and a morphological base)
  • semantic families (words that share a meaning, but not a root or base).
When it comes to helping students understand how the language works, a study of etymological, morphological, and semantic families may be useful. But a study of “phonics families” is not. These illegitimate families have nothing to contribute and may interfere with a child’s ability to understand how true language families work.
Instead of having students practice CAT, FAT, HAT, BAT, why not have them study CAT, CATS, CATTY; FAT, FATTER, FATTEST, FATTEN; HAT, HATS, HATTER; BAT, BATTER, BATTED, BATTING, etc.? Why not study real families: ones that consist of words that are related in meaning? By studying morphological families, we can help our students make useful generalizations about our writing system, all of which can then be applied to thousands of additional words. We can help them think critically and learn commonly used spelling conventions, and we can help them build study skills in the process. Why not explicitly teach these conventions by discussing them whenever they appear in new words? Don’t learners deserve to know this logical and highly-useful information?
In the first year of language instruction, Riggs students learn and use many useful facts that may be applied to a study of morphological families. For example:
  • The plural of most nouns is formed by adding S [CAT/CATS];
  • We double the final consonant when adding a vowel-suffix to a one-syllable word that ends with one short vowel and one consonant [BAT/BATTING, BATTER, BATTED]?
  • Silent-final-e is dropped when adding a vowel suffix [HOPE/HOPING, HOPED; FINE/FINER, FINEST]
This is the kind of study we should be doing with all beginning readers. It’s the kind of work that helps them grasp the fact that English words are built with morphemes (bases and affixes) and graphemes, not “chunks.” It’s the kind that builds grapho-phonemic awareness, not “an understanding of word families” (whatever that means).
If you are teaching in a classical school, you are probably familiar with the ancient Latin maxim multum non multa (“much not many”) and know that this is one of the pedagogical principles that come down to us in the tradition of classical education. Can you see how working with illegitimate word families is a perfect negative example of this maxim, this traditional teaching principle? Working with hundreds of different word “chunks” and “word families” has children working with many but not much, doesn’t it? It violates the paradoxically-worded “less is more” principle. It has children doing a great number of fluffy phonics activities in place of solid language work. Avoid it.
Instead of taking children into shallow exercises that require them to manipulate trivial and imaginary “word chunks” to build trivial and imaginary “families,” why not help them dive deeply into the study of English graphemes and morphemes? And why not do this in ways that help them study and apply the conventions by which the English writing system is governed?
Since it is possible to help beginners study the English language and think critically about its writing system, why not just do it?
As teachers of young learners—or of any learners—do we really want to work with insipid and mind-numbing “word chunks?” I don’t. Word chunks significantly multiply the number of elements that students must study, and they prevent them from seeing significant, elementary truths about how the written language works. If we break “word chunks” down to the point where they are not further reducible, we’ll get a much deeper understanding of the relationship between graphemes and phonemes.
Let’s encourage young learners to think critically. Let’s help them ask scientific questions and seek true answers. Since all word “chunks” can be reduced to smaller graphemic elements, that is what children should be helped to understand about our language. Reading programs that include “chunks” and their phony families have got things backward. “Word chunks” should be analyzed, not built upon. Slice them apart with Occam’s razor. 



thank you for this . ..

thank you for this . .. historically we can trace "word families" back at least 150 years in early phonics books . . but it was never the primary teaching . .. it is useful as a later exercise for teaching rhyming . . . the struggle I face as an ESL teacher is that the books are full of this . . and people think it is the norm. I am adapting a traditional approach for ESL in China .. . while I agree wholeheartedly with your viewpoint, it would add credibility if you could cite scholarly sources to support your viewpoint. the opposing view is full of "scholarship" to support their view. . . I believe ultimately that pushing word families is basically just another form of sight reading which distracts from the original, time proven techniques of phonics teaching.

Hi Keith. You are welcome. I

Hi Keith. You are welcome. I’m glad the post was useful to you. You mention that you struggle as an ESL teacher because it’s hard to avoid books that are filled with word families. Don't you just hate that? Have you considered avoiding books altogether for a while? I mean, have you considered having your students read nothing but their own correctly-spelled graphemes, words, and sentences until they've had time to learn what you must teach them if they are to read real books? (See my blog post, “Are Decodable Texts Ruining Your Students” for more on this topic and for a list of beginning books that might work for your students.) This might be the most efficient use of your (and their) time. As another idea of something substantial that your students might be able to read (and learn from), have you taken a look at the Riggs Institute’s “Basic Spelling and Usage Dictionary” (see our catalog)? Filled with primary-level words and sentences for reading practice, this Riggs resource is an extremely powerful tool in the hands of any teacher of beginning reading. Perfect for ESL students, it contains 2154 main entries, many of which include one or more of its 2678 included variants (e.g., CATCHES, CAUGHT, CATCHING, and CATCHER are shown with CATCH). Since the entries in this dictionary include easy-to-read illustrative sentences and/or whimsical illustrations (or both), your students will be delighted by this book! As long as they know their Riggs phonograms and a few spelling rules and have learned how to blend (see Riggs’ “Teacher’s Edition” for how to teach these skills things quickly, explicitly, and well), your students will be able to read the sentences in this book independently. Kids love to work with this book! And teachers are amazed by the way this book can contribute to their students’ understanding of the structure of English words and sentences. Many teachers use the dictionary to generate personalized writing assignments for their students (working with tenses, plurals, etc.), and these writing assignments can help their vocabulary and grammar levels grow by leaps and bounds. Highly recommended! You will love it!

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