Word Ladders: A Powerful Tool That’s So Easy it’s Silly

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Have you ever heard of word chains or word ladders? They are such an easy and low prep way to build in phoneme blending, segmenting and manipulation during your structured literacy small groups.

What’s the difference in word chains or word ladders?

Well… there isn’t a difference! Both word chains and word ladders are lists of words that are arranged so each subsequent word is changed by one phoneme. Here’s an example…

So when do you use word chains? I love to use these during the phonological awareness OR word work portion of my reading group lessons.

Why do I separate them? Well… it depends on whether I will be having students attach graphemes (written letters) or not.

If the students are still working on the blending, segmenting or manipulation with just sounds I won’t have them write the graphemes and it would fall into phonological awareness work.

If my students are ready to add the graphemes I like to add this to word work since they’ll be writing/manipulating magnetic letters and attaching symbols to the sounds.

Here are 4 ways to use word ladders:

  1. Beginning sounds: Have students focus on changing the beginning sounds in words. This would be the most basic version of using word ladders, and it’s where you should start if students have not had exposure or cannot manipulate beginning sounds.
    • Ex: cat -> mat
  2. Ending sounds: This is the next stop on the word ladder journey. Students focus on changing the ending sounds of words.
    • Ex: dog -> dot
  3. Medial sounds: This layer continues to add complexity as students word to change the medial (middle) sound of words.
    • Ex: cub -> cab
  4. Combination: This is the most complex and challenging way to use word ladders with your students. Instead of focusing on changing the same sound position each time (beginning, ending or medial) you jump between them. For example, you might start by changing a beginning sound, then change a medial sound and finally change an ending sound.
    • Ex: hat -> bat -> bag -> bug

A few things to note…

Word ladders are easily differentiated! You can start with 2 sound words, but I prefer to use 3 sound (CVC) words as our baseline.

From there you can add digraphs, initial blends, final blends, vowel teams… the sky is the limit!

Here are where I love to grab FREE word ladder lists:

I hope you find as much value in using this awesome tool as much as I do!

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