Tips for Student Success with Word Searches in Your Word Study Routine

Are you implementing word searches into your word study routine? Have you found your students struggling with efficient strategies for finding words or just a lack of motivation overall? Well, I've got tips to help your students be more successful with their word search activity! 

Tips for Using Word Study Word Searches | Word Study Activities: Thinking about implementing word searches or word hunts into your word study routines? I've used "blind" word searches w my 4th grade/5th grade Words Their Way routine for years and have many ways I've found to help students become more successful. Word searches are perfect activity for word study notebooks and making word sorts more engaging.   #wordstudy     #wordstheirway    #growthmindset     #teaching     #4thgrade    #5thgrade     #spelling

As teachers have implemented the Words Their Way word study routine and incorporated a word search activity into their word study cycle, I've received a few questions about how to help students become more successful with the word search activity. 

I always have the same advice and tips, but I recently realized that I had not yet put these into a helpful blog post, so today's post is a bit of a review of why I love using word searches in my word study routine AND some helpful tips for student success (and perhaps your sanity!) as you implement word searches into your word study block.

If you are unfamiliar with my 7-8 day word study routine, you may want to start with this post first, then come back here to read the tips for implementing word searches!

Note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Read my full disclosure here.

Why I Love Word Searches for Word Study

If you are familiar with Words Their Way, then you know that a "blind sort" is an activity where students sort the words into categories (and write them down) as they hear the words called out. It's called BLIND because students are not looking at the words.

words their way word searches recording and sorting in word study notebook (2).png

One year, the idea of "blind searching" with a word search came to my mind. By "blind searching" through a word search without having a list of the words contained in the word search, students have a fun way of discovering the word patterns their current word sort will focus on.

 "WORD searching" is also an engaging, fun way for students to sharpen their ability to recognize words that ARE spelled correctly (which I've found is a major key to spelling improvement). When students find words in the word search, they record the words by sorting them into categories based on the look and/or the sounds in the word (just like when sorting their words with word sort activities!).

So, how do I get started with these at the beginning of the year and what are my tips for student success with blind word searches as an activity? 

First, know that these word searches are an opportunity to develop students' perseverance and growth mindsets. 

Most students will not be "good" at locating words in their word searches right away. They may become frustrated, seem unmotivated, and want to give up or complain about the activity.  I think this is the case for a few reasons: 

  1. Students are inexperienced with completing word searches. Word searches are not a typical routine in most classrooms--we may use them to fill time, for morning work on a field trip day, or leave with a sub, but in general, most teachers do not implement word searches regularly into their classrooms. This means that students have not become accustomed to searching for words and have not developed efficient strategies for doing so.

  2. In general, we know that children enjoy "instant gratification." This is not readily available when students first start their word search routine. Since they don't (in most cases of my word search routines) have a list of words to refer to, they don't get to check words off. To start, they have to stare at a rectangle of "alphabet soup" and try to locate a word.

  3. Because students are working on word searches based on their word study assessment level, many of the words they are searching for are words they do not usually spell correctly and word patterns that they may not recognize. Since the word list itself is a challenge for them, identifying correctly spelled words in the word search can also provide a challenge.

I'd love to help you make this "learning curve" and implementation less of a struggle and more enjoyable for yourself and your students. 

Model, Model, Model! 

At the beginning of the year, I choose one word list for modeling my word study routines and procedures. Using the same word list for all of my students at first (rather than jumping into students' differentiated word study levels) makes it easier for me to teach students my expectations for each step in their word study cycle. {It also makes it easier to move to a staggered word study routine later as I don't want to deal with the chaos of having students doing different activities on different days yet!} You'll be repeating yourself over and over to address the expectations of each routine if you don't take the time to model up front.

Choose a word list that you know is developmentally appropriate for your grade level--perhaps one that addresses a spelling "rule" in the English language--like dropping y to add -ies. If some of your students later go through this list again because that's where their level falls, it won't be a big deal! 

We go through the entire word study cycle with this shared word list, spending 2-3 days on word hunting with our word searches (making sure that students know the expectations of recording and sorting the words they find EACH TIME THEY FIND A NEW WORD).

Discuss Strategies for Locating Words

—>Use your interactive Whiteboard

I love to pull up the shared word search on my interactive whiteboard (perhaps on Day 2 of encouraging students to locate words on their own--that first day is a great opportunity for you to watch your students' perseverance levels and ability to handle something that is a bit "abstract" and challenging). I'd recommend NOT swooping in with strategies until you've given students a chance to see what they can do without your tips.

You can split your room in teams and take turns asking groups to share a word they see in the word search. You can highlight it or have a student come up and highlight it. Be sure to continue to use this opportunity to MODEL sorting and recording words when they are found.

Be sure students have their own word search copies out, are marking the words other students are noting, and recording and sorting the words as they are found.

When students get stuck, ask them what strategies you all could use to find new words. Some ideas: 

  1. Look in quadrants where fewer words have been located.

  2. Look at the words that have already been found. What patterns do you notice? Are there strings of letters that the words have in common (like -ies)? Can we look for more words with that pattern?

  3. If we are looking for words that start with a certain letter or that have a certain pattern, we can be systematic in how we search for new words. This means that we go slowly, line-by-line looking for that string of letters. (So, if we are searching for -ies, we start by finding all of the "i"'s and then looking all around that letter to see if we've found a new word). --This tip may seem common sense to us as experienced word searchers, but I have found that not all students have a systematic way of organizing their searching efforts.

After discussing some strategies, if your students come to a stopping point again, you can give them the first letter of a word you see and encourage them to look up down, left, right, sideways until they identify a word.


In the very beginning of launching a word search routine and later as much as I’m able when I start my groups, I walk around and help students who are having a hard time finding words--I may give them the first letter of a word I see (circle it lightly or highlight it) and let them figure out the rest. This builds confidence and also helps students see what their word pattern might be. After students find 2-3 words, they begin to see a pattern and know to look for more words that have those word patterns. This seems to give them a confidence boost to start moving along. (Students will also start to pick up on the fact that the title I have provided for the word search gives a clue to what it's focus will be).

"Can we work with partners?"

Working alongside a partner may be a great scaffold for some students. I may let students work side by side another student that's working on the same level. Students know that they may not copy one another, but they can tell each other what words they find. Rather than saying where a word is located, you can train students to say, "I found 'babies'." If the other student has trouble finding that word, the student can prompt with  the general location of the word, "It was close to the top/in the top left," etc.

The problem with three-letter words

Haha!  Did you know that three-letter words can be a problem? If your students are not on the lower levels of WTW and do not have word lists that contain 3-letter words, I recommend telling them that they should not be marking 2 or 3 letter words. Small words pop-up incidentally when word search puzzles are generated, so it's important to give students this tip. 

You can tell students that the words they are supposed to find are rarely 3-letter words. (If students are in the letter-name phase, you can let them know they may have a few three letter words, or all, depending on the sort). I tell students that if they highlight or mark a lot of small words, it makes it harder for them to find the words that they are supposed to find, so I discourage marking 2-3 letter random words.

Three letter words can also be key to finding new words--so, students don't need to ignore three-letter words, they just need to make sure they explore them and only mark them when included in a larger word. When my students ask me about a three-letter word they have found, I encourage them to look around the word in all directions to see if it is connected to a larger word. (Sometimes it is and that's awesome!)

Completion is NOT the Goal

My last tip today is a note about completion. While my 7-day word study cycle includes at least two 15-20 minute blocks for students to work on their word searches, I personally do not get hung up on whether or not students find all 20+ words in their word searches. When students come to the table to meet with me, they generally start by opening to their word searches and seeing if they can find more words. This gives me a minute to help everyone else get settled.

I usually start the meeting by having students go around and share the words they have found. We sort them on a whiteboard or chart paper while they are sharing the words. Believe it or not, this is really motivating, and while I expect students to listen as we share and sort words, they are also working hard to locate them in their word searches. (I am sure to pause to give them a chance to do this). I believe this share time helps motivate students to be productive when they are working on their word searches independently. They know they will get to share how many words they found when we meet together and they love being a student who found a word no one else has found yet. 

If you have not purchased the Words Their Way Word Sorts books, I highly recommend checking them out. You can check out the 3rd Edition Word Sort books, released in 2018 here:

Letter and Picture Sorts for Emergent Spellers

Word Sorts for Letter-Name Alphabetic Spellers

Word Sorts for Within Word Pattern Spellers

Word Sorts for Syllables and Affixes Spellers

Word Sorts for Derivational Relations Spellers

SHOP THE RESOURCES: (Please check the release date of your Word Sort books before making any purchases)



Have you explored the tips in my 4-Part word study series? 

I've shared my love of word study and the Words their Way word sort books that I've used in my classroom for many years. In my 4 part blog series about word study, you can learn about my word study routine, the inside scoop on how I really make my schedule work, more tips and suggestions for your word study activities, and how I differentiate for my struggling and advanced spellers.  Check them out below!

My Seven Day Word Study Routine

My Two Best Tips for Making Any Word Study Routine Work

Additional Tips and Suggestions for Word Study

Differentiating Your Word Study Routine

this is the alt text
this is the alt text
this is the alt text
this is the alt text
this is the alt text