Word study provides students with opportunities to investigate and understand the patterns in words. Knowledge of these patterns means that students needn't learn to spell one word at a time.
Take, for example, the difference between "hard c" (as in cat) and "soft c" (as in cell). After collecting many words containing the letter "c," students discover that "c" is usually hard when followed by consonants (as in clue and crayon) and the vowels "a," "o," and "u" (as in cat, cot, and cut). In contrast, "c" is usually soft when followed by "i", "e," and "y" (as in circus, celery, and cycle).
Of course, for every rule there are exceptions that threaten the rule. Students learn, though, that spelling patterns exist and that these patterns help to explain how to spell, read, and write words.
There are distinct stages in students' spelling development (Henderson, 1981). Students at different stages attend to and represent different features in their spelling (Templeton, 1991).
Word study is based on the notion that where a student is in his or her spelling development can serve as a guide for instruction. At the start of a word study program, teachers use a spelling inventory to determine which stage of spelling development each student is at and then groups students for instruction (Bear, et al., 2000). Once groups are created, teachers develop "differential instruction" based on the stage of development each group of students has achieved (Bear & Barone, 1989).