How many of you are good spellers? Honestly, because according to statistics, there are a lot of people out there who are thankful for spellcheck on the computer. I occasionally use spellcheck, but I am fortunate to be a pretty good speller. How did I get this way? Should I thank my 1st grade teacher who placed a huge emphasis on spelling tests every Friday (that’s another debate for another time), or should I also thank my parents who made me write my words 10x each before I could play outside?
I really never thought about these questions in my teacher preparation courses in college. First of all, student teachers draw upon their own school experiences in the beginning. I don’t know about you, but I was used to the procedure of getting the spelling list of 20 words on Monday and then testing those words on Friday. I do remember doing spelling activities in class like writing the words 3 x each or writing definitions for every word from the dictionary. For me, I always HATED these activities, because I already knew how to spell 75% of the words. Most of the time, I would score a 100% on the test by Friday. I really never saw or worked with those words again.
Well, after my first year of teaching (this is when you start to feel more comfortable with teaching outside the text), I noticed I had a group of low and high spellers – extremes. The same group of students would BOMB their spelling tests, and the same group of students would ACE their spelling tests. I inferred that the group of students who BOMBED the spelling test just didn’t study, because I was doing my part as a teacher of introducing the spelling pattern and incorporating spelling centers in the classroom.
BUT sigh, my whole philosophy of “being a good speller = great study habits” was shot out the door when I became a mother! PLEASE DON’T MISUNDERSTAND ME THOUGH, I STILL BELIEVE STUDYING IS IMPORTANT. It was just frustrating to study the same words over and over, and my child still struggled. In addition, how many times had my child spelled the words 100% correct at home and then performed poorly on the classroom spelling test. I just didn’t get it!
Then, as a teacher I started to do some research on spelling…not Facebook post kind-of-research, but reading various meta-analysis on spelling. What did I discover?? The traditional way of teaching spelling WAS and IS not working. So, what – according to research and not tradition – works better? I wanted to know for my students and for my own kids.
WORD STUDY! What is the difference? A word study program is a cohesive approach that addresses word recognition, vocabulary, and phonics as well as spelling (Zutell, 1992). Word study involves students dissecting, investigating, and UNDERSTANDING the pattern of words. A visual of what this might look like IN THE CLASSROOM is:
1. introducing the word pattern
2. providing a list of words that meet that pattern
3. color-coding the pattern
4. sorting the words into word sorts and
5. participating in activities to reinforce the pattern.
The students should become so familiar with the word patterns and exceptions to the rule (as English is famous for) that they can recognize those spelling patterns in other words; therefore, there is a meaningful connection and application to writing. As stated by Leipzigo (2000), in order to implement word study effectively, teachers and students alike must become word detectives, engaged in an ongoing attempt to make sense of word patterns and their relationships to one another. Spelling “rules” are not dictated by the teacher for students to memorize. Rather, spelling patterns and generalizations are discovered by students.
Another crucial component of word study is to recognize that spelling is developmental. This is why some students BOMB the spelling test. They are not developmentally ready or have the prior knowledge to recognize the spelling pattern. Therefore, teachers should differentiate word study in the classroom by creating word study groups. A teacher can administer a spelling inventory to determine a student’s strengths and weaknesses. I personally use “Words Their Way” as an assessment tool, and I use the books as well. There are ready-made tests and sorts…love ready-made!
Now, you are saying in your head…ummm, get real. When do I have time to meet the needs of so many word study/spelling groups in my classroom? My advice – start with baby steps. For example, I am currently at a new school still learning the ropes. Therefore, after I administered the spelling inventory, I made the decision to have a word study group for my struggling spellers/readers only. However, even though I use the curriculum spelling words for my other students, I still implement the “word study” approach to learn the words. I have made spelling word cards for each list and each student to color code, sort, and manipulate. We participate in more meaningful word study/spelling activities such as writing a spelling story, completing spelling pyramids, highlighting vowels, etc. Also, parents have a list of various researched and effective activities they can do at home with their child BEYOND the writing the word 10x each.
So, I’m not perfect (definitely not), and I’m still learning myself. After some more experience at my new school, I hope to get back to differentiating word study/spelling for my high students as well. Also, I still believe spelling tests are crucial to assess whether or not my kids are getting it, but they don’t have to be every Friday. Students may take more than a week to study their words. However, maybe I should change my terminology from “spelling tests” to “word study tests.”
If you would like more information on “Words Their Way,” you can visit:
1. Research at http://www.pearsonschool.com/index.cfm?locator=PS181e.
2. Products at http://www.amazon.com.
3. Activities at http://www.pinterest.com/kimiquin/words-their-way/.