Word Building as a Tool for Beginning Reading Instruction -Orton Gillingham

What came first - the chicken or the egg?  This age-old question can easily be applied to reading instruction when we ask this pointed question: what comes first - reading or spelling?

Many educators believe that invented spelling is the main route to beginning reading success. As young children become familiar with the letter names and the sounds of the alphabet, and as they gain some rudimentary writing skills, they automatically begin to write letter symbols to represent sounds that they hear in words. Preschool children can be observed making shopping lists or writing notes to others in a preschool classroom. Their spelling is invented, and may only include the first sound hear in the target word, but this stage of literacy development represents the first level of phonetic understanding in the process of learning how to read.

Spelling and Reading: Mutually Reciprocal Skills!

The acts of spelling and reading are reciprocal skills. In spelling (encoding), we hear a whole word, we break it down into its individual sounds, and then we encode it, starting with the first sound, then the medial sound, and then the final sound.

In reading (decoding), we see a word, break it down into its individual sounds, and then blend the sounds together to figure out the whole word. If a child learns to read phonetically (vs. by memory and sight), his/her spelling skills will benefit. If a child learns to spell phonetically, his/her reading skills will benefit.  Phonetic reading and spelling, when taught simultaneously, will yield profound benefits in regard to literacy development.

What is Word Building:

Both The Montessori Method and The Orton Gillingham Approach utilize the instructional strategy of word building with a moveable alphabet of some sort, as an inherent tool for  literacy instruction. Word building is the act of sounding out and then spelling words with a moveable type of alphabet, which can be made out of paper, foam, or wood. Word Building boards are also available through Lil' Reading Scientists TM. Here are some links to moveable alphabets:

Why Word Building Works:

Word building with a moveable alphabet has many benefits for beginning readers.

  1. Word building helps students to learn to sound out words, sound by sound.
  2. Word building helps students to learn to sequence the sounds that are heard in a word, in the correct order.
  3. Word building helps to build spelling skills.
  4. Word building helps students to understand how letter symbols relate to letter sounds.
  5. Word building presents students with letter symbols, and allows students to choose which letters to use, without having to rely on memory for the alphabet symbols.
  6. the process of word building can circumvent the act of writing, if the student's fine motor is poor. Word building does not require the student to know how to form the alphabet letters.

Using Picture Prompts During Word Building Exercises:

I like to use picture prompts when word building with beginning readers. Picture prompts makes the act of word building more fun, and more age-appropriate for 4, 5, and 6 year olds. Within your chosen Orton Gillingham curricula, purchase (if available) or create pictures of the target words that you will word build, at your students' current level. The Lil' Reading Scientists' Picture Prompts for Word Building are available in two forms: digital and printable. Here are links to the Lil' Reading Scientists TM Picture Prompts for word building with the short vowels:

The digital Picture Prompts can be downloaded onto your tablet, ipad, laptop, or PC, and are used by scrolling to the picture of the target word that you desire. The printable Picture Prompts can be printed out and utilized in literacy centers, or can be used in large or small group instruction. Having several levels of picture prompts allows the teacher to differentiate instruction within groups.

The Montessori Method utilizes small objects for the word building process. Objects can be purchased in sets, organized by phonetic skill level. Here is a link to phonetic objects

Procedure for Word Building with CVC Words:

1. Utilize your chosen Orton Gillingham curriculum's Scope and Sequence, to guide the progression of the introduction of phonetic skills.

2. Gather the small objects, or print or download the Picture Prompts for word building.

3. Choose the first target word picture. Display the object or picture prompt.

4. Pointing to the object or picture, ask the student "What is this?"

5. The student responds with the target word. If the student doesn't respond correctly, give hints or teach the new vocabulary word.

6. Sound out the target word. Utilize your chosen Orton Gillingham curriculum's procedure for sounding out the target word (i.e.: Wilson tapping, fist pounding, Lil' Reading Scientists TM Phoneme Sequence Board .

7. Ask the student "What is the first sound you hear in (target word)?" Iterate the first sound.

8. The student responds with the correct sound, or the teacher models the first sound.

9. The teacher says "Find the letter that says (initial sound)".  "Put it here".

10. The teacher says "What is the next sound that you hear in (target word)?" Iterate the medial vowel.

11. The student responds verbally with the correct medial vowel, or the teacher models it.

12. The teacher says "Find the letter that says (medial vowel), and put it here".

13. The student finds the medial vowel letter and places it in the correct spot.

14. The teacher says "What's the last sound that you hear in (target word)?"

15. The student responds with the correct final sound, or the teacher models it.

16. The student responds verbally and then selects the final letter and places it in the correct position.

17. The teacher asks the student to point to the letters and say each sound, and then blend them together.

18. The student says each sound while pointing to each letter. Then the student blends the sounds together to say the whole word, while swiping his finger across the bottom of the word, from left to right.

19. Word building can be followed by the act of the student writing each word that has been covered in that day's lesson.

Variations in Word Building:

Pre-selected Alphabet

  1. Teachers can limit the number of letters that the student has to work with, by giving the student only the letters that he/she will need for the selected target words.
  2. Pre-selecting the letters is beneficial for students jut beginning to word build.
  3. Pre-selecting the letters is beneficial for students who do not know all the vowel sounds, or all of the consonants.

Chaining with Vowels and Consonants:

1. The teacher can teach students how to substitute just one letter (consonant or

vowel), to change the word.

2. Ask the student: "How can you change the word 'cat' to the word 'cot'?"

3. Ask the student to sound out the new word (cot), and then to change one letter to

make the new word.  picture here

Corresponding Worksheets:

  1. Some OG curriculums come with corresponding worksheets that can be done after word building is complete.
  2. Corresponding worksheets help students to process the new information which they have gained through word building.
  3. Students can  practice writing, spelling, and letter formation through the use of corresponding worksheets.
  4. All of the Lil' Reading Scientists TM Orton Gillingham Kits contain corresponding worksheets. Here are the links for the Short Vowel Kits:

Using a Color-Coded Alphabet:

  1. Using a color-coded alphabet helps students to learn the differences between letter and letter cluster types (such as short  vowels, long vowels, consonants, digraphs, blends, welded/chunked sounds such as -ing, vowel teams, and Bossy R clusters. Each letter type should be a different color. Here is a link to the Lil' Reading Scientists TM Color Coded Advanced Word Building Board.
  2. Using a color coded alphabet helps students to see the differences in the different syllable types (closed, open, VCE, Bossy R, Vowel Teams, and the CLE syllable type). If the letter clusters are color coded, the syllable type is much more evident than if all of the letters are the same color.

Writing the Words After Word Building:

  1. Teachers are encouraged to have the students write the words with pencil and paper, after they have built them with moveable letters.
  2. Writing the words helps students to practice their handwriting skills.
  3. Writing the words helps the student to practice their encoding skills.
  4. Additional exposure to encoding within the same lesson allows the students to overlearn the skills involved in spelling, letter-sound sequencing, and sounding out words.
  5. For students who have poor fine motor skills: allow them to use rubber stamps to write their target words after word building.

links to writing materials

Ways to Store Your Picture Prompts or Phonetic Objects:

Word Building Picture Prompts can be easily stored in several different ways, for quick access when you need them. Here are some ideas for storage:

  1. Hole punch the Picture Prompts and put them in an easel with rings. This way, the easel can also be used during word building exercises.

link easel

2. Put your Picture Prompts in these clean boxes, by Level, for safe storage.

link boxes

3. Put your phonetic objects in these clear boxes, by phonetic skill level, for safe keeping.

link boxes 


In summary, word building exercises assist students in the beginning reading process, by teaching them to encode CVC words. Encoding CVC words is the very foundation of strong reading skills. Word building exercises benefit phonetic reading skills, especially when taught simultaneously with phonetic reading instruction. Word building is often utilized in the Orton Gillingham Approach, as well as in Montessori language programs. Students enjoy word building lessons, especially when picture prompts are used. A color coded moveable alphabet can set the stage for later instruction with letter types and syllable types. Overall, phonetic word building activities can greatly enhance young children's literacy development.

Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDI, is a certified Reading Specialist and Dyslexia Interventionist. She is the Past VP of Education of the NJ International Dyslexia Association, and is an avid advocate of students with reading difficulties. She is the Founder and Creator of the Lil' Reading Scientists TM Orton Gillingham curriculum, which is available here: link website, and on Teachers Pay Teachers, here: link website.