Tim Rasinski is a renowned professor of literacy education whose research on reading fluency and word study has made him a literacy hero to many. Below, he shares his thoughts on how games can be used for word instruction. 

Last month I tried to make the case that word instruction – whether phonics, spelling, or vocabulary – can be made effective and engaging for all students by making it game-like in nature. (That is why I love the game-like approach that is embedded in VocabularySpellingCity). Just think of all the games we play as adults that are based on our knowledge of words in some way! Last month I shared WORDO, one of my all-time favorite word games for all grade levels.     

In this blog, I’d like to share another game that I actually had a hand in developing. I call the game Word Ladders. Other scholars who have written about this approach include giants in word study Isabel Beck and Patricia Cunningham.

Learn to play and download the FREE word game below!

How do you play?

Word Ladders is a game in which the teacher guides students to make a series of words that transform  from one word to another by changing, adding, subtracting, or rearranging one or more letters in the previous word. Teachers guide students in a number of ways. They can tell students what letters need to be changed, added, or subtracted; they can provide the meaning of each new word that is to be made, or they could simply pronounce for students each new word that they are to make. 

Here’s an example that I made just for you for the month of December to celebrate the holidays.   

Start with the word Present.

Present –  Subtract 3 letters to make the past tense of send.

Sent – Change 1 letter to make a period of six weeks before Easter.

Lent –  Change 1 letter to make a word that means twisted or dented.

Bent – Change 1 letter to make a word that means to defeat another and win.

Beat –  Subtract 1 letter to make a wager or guess that one thing will happen.

Bet – Change 1 letter to make a word that means to have gripped with your teeth.

Bit – Change 1 letter to make a word that means to have caught fire.

Lit  – Add 1 letter to make a word that means to raise up.

Lift  – Change 1 letter to make another word for present.


 It isn’t necessary for the first and last words to go together in some way. However, when I do make Word Ladders, it is a challenge that I make for myself and adds more to the game-like nature of the activity. Try to make a Word Ladder for your students and use the free printable Word Ladder game board to play in your class.

Download the Freebie: Word Ladders      


How will it help my students?

Word games, like Word Ladders, do help students. A study of an activity very similar to Word Ladders, conducted by Isabel Beck and colleagues, found that young struggling readers who engaged in this type of word study demonstrated significant improvements in phonemic awareness, word decoding, and comprehension over students who were in an alternative form of word study.

Young struggling readers who engaged in this type of word study demonstrated significant improvements in phonemic awareness, word decoding, and comprehension …

Perhaps the best evidence of the value of a games approach to word study comes from teachers and parents who actually use them. One teacher wrote the following review of one of my Word Ladder books.

If we do not do a word ladder every day, the students complain. They love them. They are easy to use and introduce words that my students do not generally see in their reading program. I teach in a life skills program and often the reading material is stilted and boring. These are lively and engaging.

A parent who homeschools her child wrote this after using one of my Word Ladder books:

I homeschool and bought this for my 8 yr. old who is in 3rd grade. She is advanced so I bought the 4-6 book, which turned out to be a perfect fit for her. She loves this workbook and even does extra pages for fun. If she is stuck on word, she gets out the dictionary and tries to find the new word…so she is working on vocab and dictionary practice, which is great.

Spelling, phonics, and vocabulary instruction is often boring for students and teachers when it’s governed by worksheets and drills that do not truly engage students in exploring words. Word Ladders and other game-like word study activities not only help students improve their word knowledge and reading, but they can also help students develop a fascination with words.

Use games to spice up your lessons, especially those that cover more challenging topics. After a tricky grammar lesson on the differences between linking verbs, action verbs, and helping verbs, reward your students with a game of Word Ladders that includes examples of each very type. Teach more challenging phonics topics like digraphs, consonant blends, and vowels by adding a game to break up the intense concentration time. Guide students through their spelling words by creating a Word Ladder from words taken from VocabularySpellingCity’s grade-level spelling lists, like this 2nd grade spelling word list.

I call people who love words “Lexophiles.” If you are not sure what that means, watch for my January blog post. Enjoy!

McCandliss, B., Beck, I., Sandak, R., & Perfetti, C. (2003).  Focusing attention on decoding for children with poor reading skills: Design and preliminary tests of the word building intervention.  Scientific Studies in Reading, 7, 75-104.  

Rasinski, T. V. (2005).  Daily Word Ladders, Grades 2-4.  New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. V. (2005).  Daily Word Ladders, Grades 4-6.  New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. V. (2008).  Daily Word Ladders, Grades 1-2.  New York:  Scholastic.

Rasinski, T. V. (2012).  Daily Word Ladders,  Grades K-1.  New York:  Scholastic.


Tim Rasinski is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University. His research on reading has been cited by the National Reading Panel and has been published in journals such as Reading Research QuarterlyThe Reading Teacher, Reading Psychology, and the Journal of Educational ResearchRead more about Rasinski here, or connect with him on Twitter @timrasinski1

For more from Tim Rasinski, continue to follow us for his exclusive VocabularySpellingCity blog series and be sure to watch a video recording of his webinar “Automaticity (Fluency) in Word Learning Improves Comprehension”

Rasinski’s research on word fluency is cited in the report, “Applying Best Practices For Effective Vocabulary Instruction,” written by VocabularySpellingCity in partnership with McREL International.

Word Games that Work: Beat Boredom with Game-Based Learning

One thought on “Word Games that Work: Beat Boredom with Game-Based Learning

  • December 7, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you for the sample Word Ladder Spelling Riddle: Present. Can you share with me where I can find more Word Ladders for 4th Graders?


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