Teaching Word Families to English Language Learners

Instructor: Lesley King

Lesley has taught ESOL for many years, holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, and a doctorate degree in Instructional Leadership.

In this lesson, you'll learn the definition of word families and gain insight into how to teach them to English language learners. You'll also have a chance to explore some examples of word families that can be used to enhance instruction.

What Are Word Families?

When we think of a family, we may think of groups of people who are related in some way or another; this same principle applies to families of words. Word families are words that are closely related based on letter patterns.

Word Families Are Like Real Families: They Are Related!

In many cases, word families consist of a common group of letters, where changing the first letter results in a new word with a completely different meaning. Word families also have similar sounds or rhyme, such as the words 'hike', 'bike', and 'like.' These words have similar letter patterns (ike), and when we change the first letter, we create a new word. Below are some additional examples of word families.

  • Love, dove, above
  • Best, rest, test, vest
  • Eye, lye, dye
  • Know, snow, blow
  • Pea, tea, sea

As you can see in the first example, we can both add and change letters to alter the meaning of a word, like in 'above.' This allows it to remain part of the word family.

How Can I Teach Word Families?

One way to teach students about word families is to show examples and discuss their meanings. After this, students can participate in fun activities while seeing how word families are built and relate to each other.

Stand! (whole group)

Hand each student a sheet of paper on which you've keyboarded or written a word. Be sure that all the entries belong to a word family, but not necessarily the same one. Write a word on the board that belongs to a word family, and ask students to stand if their word is part of that family. Then have the standing students come to the front of the class and explain the differences and similarities between their own and the word on the board.

Word Stem Posters (small group)

Prior to the start of this activity, introduce students to the concept of word stems, or groups of letters that remain the same within word families. Show some examples of stems and words, such as:

  • Audi: audio
  • Com: community
  • Extra: extraordinary
  • Multi: multiply
  • Tele: telephone

Arrange students in groups of three. Provide them with a large poster board or sheet of paper; they will also need markers. Have each group pick a person to record words.

Give each group a stem, and ask students to create as many words from it as they can. They can display their words on a drawing of a flower or as a web or word splash. Set a timer to make the activity more fun and competitive!

Build a Word Family (partners)

In this activity, students will build their own word families. Put students into pairs, and give them a list of stems. Have students build new words by adding a different letter or letters to their chosen stem, such as '_____ank.'

Stem Activity: Have Students Work in Pairs
two learners

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