Using Word Building for Phonics Instruction

Word building is a critical phonics activity. Students will develop word awareness skills as they explore and play with letter sounds to build words.  Make sure to download the letter building cards and word building activities in this post.

One thing I love about teaching is that there is always the opportunity to learn, grow and become better.  This past year I have spent a lot of time reading the work of Wiley Blevins.  I’ve learned so much about phonics instruction and come to realize that there are aspects of the way I taught phonics that I would now change and improve.  

One of my main takeaways from Blevins’ book, A Fresh Look at Phonics, is the importance of providing students with lots of opportunities for review and repetition in order to ensure they actually master the skills that we teach!   

I realized that in my own teaching (and I confess!) I was guilty of exposing my students to a phonics skill, taking them through my weekly word study routine, and then moving onto the next skill the following week.  I’m afraid I wasn’t giving them enough practice to ensure mastery. 

Even if you know you need to provide this extra practice, it can be a challenge to come up with activities that effectively meet your needs. In his book Phonics from A to Z, Wiley Blevins suggests using word sorts and word building activities as a way to allow students to explore and play with letter sounds.  

In my last blog post I shared all about word sorts, so today I’m excited to provide you with information about word building activities and share some resources to help get you started with these critical routines.

What are Word Building Activities?

In word building, students are given a set of letter cards and asked to create a series of words in a specified sequence.  Usually, each new word varies by only one sound-spelling from the previous word.  For example, students may build the following words in sequence:  sat, hat, hop, mop.  Each new word varies from the one before it by only one sound-spelling.  

There are two types of word building activities, each with their own instructional purpose.  

  1. Word Building: Blending Focus  In this type of word building students are asked to make a word, such as cat.  Then they would be asked to change the letter c to s and read the new word formed.  The goal here is for them to blend, or sound out the new word. You can include many words with the new target phonics skill and also include previously taught skills. 
  1. Word Building:  Word Awareness Focus  Here, students are asked to make a word such as cat, and then told to change it to hat.  This requires a lot more thinking than blending-focused work.   Students have to think about how the two words are different and which sound must be changed in order to form the new one.  

Both of these word-building activities can be done with the same set of words, so incorporating both into your week gives your students good practice and saves you planning time! 

Word Building Routines

The routine for word building is simple!  First, introduce the task by naming it and explaining the purpose.  

Next, MODEL!  Place letter cards in a pocket cart to form the first word you are building.  Model sounding out the word.  As you build new words, be sure to include the new target sound-spelling as well as words with review sound-spellings.  Use minimal contrasts to ensure students fully analyze the words and notice their unique differences.  For example, sat/hat, mop/map, mad/made, cot/coat.

Download a set of these large letter cards for your pocket chart here!

Finally, provide opportunities for guided and independent practice.   Continue to change one or more letters in a word and have students chorally blend the new word formed.  

Make sure to have a word list prepared before the lesson in order to keep on track with the focus skill and review skills previously taught.

If you are working on word awareness (instead of blending) tell students what the next word is in the sequence and have them form it on their own.  After giving them time, form the new word on the pocket chart and model your thinking aloud. 

If you have fairly strong word building and word sorts routines in place, an engaging exercise to continue the development of word awareness is Word Ladders.  

Word ladders are a fun and challenging word activity for students, and a great one to use towards the end of the week once they have had a lot of exposure to the word pattern. Since word ladders are self-checking they are perfect to use in an independent literacy center.

Phonics Word Building Activities

Today I’m thrilled to share with you my very own Phonics Word Building Activities!  These DIFFERENTIATED activities are both printable and digital so you can use them in the classroom or for distance learning with Google Classroom & Seesaw! 

Students will listen to the AUDIO directions (from yours truly!) and then build words in a specified sequence. Each new word only varies by one sound spelling from the previous word. Students press the audio button to hear me state the word to build, blend the phonemes of the word, say the word again, and use it in a sentence to develop vocabulary.  

This resource includes: 

  • 31 teacher-directed digital word building lessons
  • 31 printable word building lessons
  • master word list

Each of the 31 lessons focuses on one phonetic pattern: 

  • Short Vowel (CVC) Words
  • Digraphs
  • Blends
  • Long Vowels
  • Diphthongs
  • R-Controlled Vowels
  • Complex Vowels

Get started now by downloading your FREE phonics word building activities here: 

Word Ladders

This resource includes both printable and digital word ladders that require students to think critically to figure out the next word to build, using letter or picture clues for support!  Students will change just one letter to build a new word.

Included in this resource are 42 word activities- enough to last you the entire year! 

Included Phonics Patterns:

  • CVC Words
  • Digraphs
  • Blends
  • Long Vowels
  • Diphthongs
  • R-Controlled Vowels
  • Complex Vowels

Both of the Phonics Word Building activities and the Word Ladders provide students explicit and systematic practice.  All of the activities in both of the resources are based on Wiley Blevins’ recommended scope and sequence for K-2 students.  You can be confident that they are developmentally appropriate and provide the scaffolding students need for mastery.  


One of the major pitfalls with some word sorts is that they often require a lot of small pieces of paper, letter cuts, or word cards.  They can take a long time to prep, distribute, and collect! 

But NOT these activities! The printable pieces require very few cuts for students. There will be NO TIME wasted dealing with materials!

The digital versions have been PRELOADED for you.  With 1 click you add them to your Seesaw library or Google Drive and then you can assign them to your students for remote learning or individual centers!

Another BONUS is that the structure of each activity in both of these resources remains the same. This saves you from having to explain and model every time you assign one!  Once your students have successfully completed one, you can be sure they’ll be able to independently work through the rest at whatever pace you assign them! 

I hope the Phonics Word Building Activities and the Word Ladders I’ve shared today will help you provide your students with meaningful practice that will help them to develop their word awareness and master their phonics skills!  


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