Using a Student-Driven Word Search in a Classroom Setting

by Cherlyn Covington and Andrea Jackson; Seatack Elementary School, Virginia Beach Public Schools

How many times have you carefully reviewed preselected vocabulary words from a given reading selection? After each review, you proceeded to plan prereading activities around this list of "must know" words. You quickly discovered that many of the words required little or no review for your students to gain meaning from the text. In fact, you probably would have compiled a totally different list. Based on the initial reading of the selection, you found yourself having to reteach a different set of words.

I can't begin to count the number of times this has happened to me. Finally, after concluding the most recent theme in my curriculum-based anthology, I decided to take another approach.

With the new reading selection, my third-grade students determined the words for study during the word search activity. This student-driven word search was used as a prereading strategy to teach students to identify and learn unknown words in a selection prior to the initial reading (Gravois & Gickling, 2002). As I had suspected, many of the curriculum preselected words did not appear on my students' word search lists. The student-driven word search helped me better assess my students' needs for the reading selection. I used the word search list to plan prereading activities, thereby creating an environment that was on everyone's instructional level.

To my delight, during the first reading, my students seemed to handle the selection with more confidence and ease than with previous selections. I noticed an improvement in their overall fluency rates, and the students appeared to give better initial retellings and responses. They would point out specific words from their searches as the words appeared in the text. Other teachers have tried this activity in their classrooms and have experienced similar results.

To complete the student-driven word search activity, follow these steps:

Step 1

Distribute a sheet of paper and instruct students to fold the paper in half to create two columns by the fold. Explain that the immediate objective is for each student to scan a given selection and record any words he/she is unable to read (decode) in the left column. Give students a brief period of time (3-4 minutes) to complete this task.

Step 2

Have each student rescan the selection. This time the objective is to record any words he/she is unable to understand (know the meaning of) in the right column. Again, give students a brief period of time to complete this task.

Step 3

Divide the class into small groups of three to four students. Distribute a large sheet of chart paper to each group. The group members should be given time to record all unknown words from their individual lists on the left side of the chart. All unknown (meaning) words should be recorded on the right side of the chart. Remind groups that the words only need to be recorded once, even if several people contributed the same word.

Step 4

Allow group members to work together as a team to unlock unknown words and their meanings. The team members assist each other in decoding words and deciphering meanings. Encourage team members to "demonstrate" or "explain" how they unlock a word or clarify its meaning. Instruct team members to circle any words they were unable to read or explain from their list.

Step 5

Give each team time to share words from their search that they were able to unlock and determine the meaning. All circled words from each group's chart should be recorded on one large whole-group chart.

Step 6

Guide the whole class in a word study/vocabulary development activity to help students become familiar with the circled words listed on the whole-group chart. This activity will help ensure that the initial reading is on the students' instructional level.


Gravois, T., & Gickling, E. (2002). Best practices in curriculum-based assessment. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology (pp.1-13). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

Additional Resource

Considerations Packet by Dale Pennell (2001). A word about vocabulary. Visit our website at /ttac for a complete listing of Considerations Packets.

Date: September /October 2003