Teaching about word families

Why do pupils need to know about word families?

Word families are groups of words that are related to each other in terms of their meanings or their forms or both, so the study of word families is the study of vocabulary. It reveals the complex network of associations among pupils’ existing vocabulary, which helps them to consolidate and appreciate that vocabulary. However, it also provides clues for helping them to extend their vocabulary quickly and efficiently, either by guessing new words to fit meanings that they want to express, or by guessing the meanings of unfamiliar words that they meet in reading.

Because of its focus on the relationships between the meaning of words, the study of word families is also an important aid to the development of thinking skills.

Relevance to NC requirements and NLS outcomes at KS3

In the NC for KS 3 & 4, the Writing outcomes include:


4. Pupils should be taught to:

    1. increase their knowledge of regular patterns of spelling, word families, roots of words and derivations, including stem, prefix, suffix, inflection
    2. apply their knowledge of word formation

NLS Framework for Years 7-9

Year 7

Word level

Spelling strategies:

To continue learning, constructing and checking spellings, pupils should be able to:

10. draw on analogies to known words, roots, derivations, word families, morphology and familiar spelling patterns;


To continue developing their vocabulary, pupils should be able to:

16. work out the meaning of unknown words using context, etymology, morphology, compound patterns and other qualities such as onomatopoeia;

19. investigate and apply lexical patterns, e.g. adding -ify to an adjective to create a verb;

Year 8

    1. devise their own ways to improve their spelling, building on strategies from Year 7 including:f. drawing on word structures, families and derivations;


7. review and develop their ability to:

      1. recognise links between words related by word families and roots;
        b. work out the meaning of unknown words using context, syntax, etymology, morphology and other factors;

Year 9

Word level

Spelling strategies

Pupils should be taught to:

4. address personal difficulties with words through strategies which include:

  • applying knowledge of word origins, families and morphology;
  • identifying common spelling patterns and conventions in their growing vocabulary.

Why is it important for teachers to know about word families in order to teach English to pupils at KS3?

As the NLS Framework recognises, word families are important at KS3 because of the way in which they can help pupils’ vocabulary to grow. As demands on their vocabulary become more taxing at KS3, knowledge about word families can help pupils recognise, and if necessary generate, related words.

Knowledge of word families can also help pupils with their spelling. If they already know how to spell word and are aware of the family links of wordy, it should be easy to remember (or work out) the latter’s spelling, rather than spelling it wirdy or wurdy. Words are easier to understand and use if their family context is known.

Both technical and general vocabulary should grow rapidly at KS3. By early adulthood an educated person has a vocabulary numbering many tens of thousands of distinct words. At a conservative estimate, a child learns an average of three new words a day, but the rate is probably higher than this during KS3 and KS4. This spurt at secondary level is largely due to the academic vocabulary that children meet during those years at school – not only technical terms such as photosynthesis, matrix and criterion, but also general intellectual terms like intellectual and term.

Moreover, research suggests that it is precisely at this level of development that pupils can benefit most from being trained to recognise word families.

Pupils’ strengths and weaknesses in this area

Vocabulary growth does not necessarily match a pupil’s age; some children’s vocabulary grows faster and further than that of others, so it is particularly important to give whatever help is available to slower learners and to extend the more able. The difference in pupils’ vocabulary is apparent in extracts like the following pair, both produced by Year 9 pupils:

Along long time ago there was this man who lived in the middle on nower out in the country side. There was no one except this little old man whose name was peter. The man liked living out there by himselph he got a bit lonely sometimes but he found something to do. Then one day he went round tideing the house and did all of his other jobs then when he had finished he thorght that he would have some lunch so he went to the frezer opened it it was empty. Opend the fridge it was empty and he realised that he had no food so he thorght to himself …

This pupil could be deliberately restricting the range of vocabulary used, for whatever purpose – or may not have a wide range. If the latter is true, the pupil needs whatever support and guidance teachers can provide in learning more vocabulary fast and efficiently. Work on word families can help this process.

When the plane crashed I was oblivious to all but one instinct: to survive. Expecting the plane to explode, I managed to climb out of the mangled wreckage and retreat to a safe distance. After several minutes when nothing had happened, I ventured back to the plane and found what I guessed to be a hatch. I looked in and to my horror found the bodies of the other passengers. Shielding my eyes from the sight and stepping carefully over the damage I searched desperately for any useful items. All I found was a hunting knife, a first aid kit and a watch. The time was 11.58 am.

Where a KS3 pupil uses more extensive vocabulary, as in this passage (where the ‘advanced’ words are underlined), there is a risk that such vocabulary may be chosen for its own sake rather than because it is exactly suited to context. There is also the risk of cliché (wreckage is often ‘mangled’). Even an able pupil who can control vocabulary competently, as here, still needs help to develop it further. Again, work on word families can help this process.

The value of developing a rich vocabulary – particularly important at KS3 – is that the wider your range, the greater your choice of words to fit a given context. A writer with a rich vocabulary can select words with precision, use technical terms correctly, and convey meaning exactly. Work on word families is a great help in broadening choice and encouraging precision.


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