Saturday, March 31, 2012

To Spell or Not to Spell - Is that a Question?

            As an elementary teacher in public school, I always had my lesson plans for Spelling.  All of the other teachers in the school did, as well.  Some teachers were so creative that there were questions if the kids were actually learning anything, while others simply had the kids write the words 5 times each, every day.  Every Monday, we all handed out our Spelling list, and every Friday we all gave tests.  You know the tests – say the word, use it in a sentence, say the word again, and wait for the slowest kids to finish with the word while the faster ones finished before the sentence was out of my mouth. 

            Then we got a new principal who announced that he didn’t want to see anyone wasting 30 minutes on Spelling tests, nor did he want to see anyone spending time on teaching Spelling in the classroom. 

            Shocked, we all looked at each other. Was it possible to have a day of school with no Spelling?  For the first month, we all tried to sneak Spelling lessons in (okay, some tried much longer than a month).  Students were instructed to hide their Spelling work if the principal did walk into the classroom when they were working on their prerequisite “5 times each.”  Some teachers even went so far as to ask the school secretary to “buzz” their classroom on the PA when the principal left the building on Fridays so they could give their tests. 

            Why would the principal say such a thing?  Wasn’t Spelling required for instruction?  Actually, not really.  Kids are either good spellers or they are bad spellers – at least, that is what every teacher was told.  Spelling is also an easy subject to teach, since you just give the assignment and then the students can work for a full 20 – 30 minutes independently, without any instruction.  It frees up time for the teacher, but for the student, simply writing the words 5 times each is “busy work” – something that keeps the kids busy, but doesn’t have much quality instruction.

            I started looked at patterns between “naturally good spellers” and “bad spellers.”  “Good spellers” were also good readers.  It was not exclusive – I found one or two exceptions to that rule, but not many.  So then I started looking for correlations between the two skills – spelling and reading.  What I found changed my mindset about Spelling and Reading both.

            Words have patterns.  These patterns can and should be recognized, and that is the secret to an excellent Spelling and Reading program.  Most pre-made spelling lists have spelling patterns included, which are why those words were put together into the list in the first place. You will also find a few words which do not fit into any patterns, and those can be recognized, as well.  You can use the same set of words in your spelling and reading fluency work to help your child learn to spell AND read faster. In using spelling patterns, it is easy to create your own spelling list.

            For example, diagraphs like “sw” are a spelling and reading pattern.  In the list, you could include words like sweet, swing, sweat, swell, swallow, sweater.  In doing the daily work, do more than just write the words.  Make your assignments so that your children can identify patterns in the words, as well as using the words in sentences or in other assignments. 

            Also, hearing the word and writing it is not necessarily the best method of taking a test.  At the same time our principal told us not to include Spelling in our daily assignments, we also got a new reading program which had a different type of test for spelling.  It listed each word four ways, only one of which was spelled correctly.  The child had to circle the correct spelling.  Here is an example of this type of spelling test:

1)        swete             sweet             swet               swiet
2)        sweng            sweing           sweeng          swing

3)        sweater         sweter           sweetr           sweiter

            This is actually a very effective method of testing, though many teachers complained that it was too easy.  It actually can be very difficult to locate the words if the child does not know how to spell the word well.  And, it only takes about five minutes for the slowest student, instead of the 30 minutes that the old way would require.  Most of all, the students seemed to enjoy taking this type of test, whereas only certain students liked the other type of test.

            So what types of spelling activities would be appropriate?  I do think it would be appropriate to write the words three to five times each one day per list, to allow the child time to recognize the words which they are studying that week.  However, I would not have them do that more than once.  Here are some alternate Spelling activities which can be incorporated into your reading program to help with spelling:

*  Oral spelling:  (with multiple children, they can say it together).  Say the word, clap while saying each letter of the word, and say the word again, go to the next word.  This should be done DAILY.

*   Colored Patterns:  Use two colored pencils, pens, or crayons to write the words with a particular spelling pattern. One or two times each is enough.

     -  spelling patterns (for example, “sw” blue, the rest of the word red:  sweet)

     -  vowel-consonant patterns (vowels blue, consonants red:  sweet)

*      Locate the word in another book.  Copy the sentence where the word is used.

*      Write the definition of 5 – 10 of the words

*     Use 5 – 10 of the words in a sentence or write a story with them

*     Sort words by spelling patterns for that week

*      Word Games

        - crossword puzzles

        - word searches

        - write the words in a printed coloring book and then color over them

        - use magnetic letters to spell the words

         - place magnetic or printed letters around the room and have child search for the letters to spell a word that is called out. 

        -  use “wiki stix” or play dough “snakes” to form the letters of the words

*  Activities:
         - Spelling Kickball game (“pitcher” calls out a spelling word when she throws a slow rolling ball, which kicker must spell correctly before he kicks)

         - Spelling Dance (child must use her arms and legs to form each letter of a spelling word)

            Spelling can easily be incorporated into a reading program, and it can be used as a “mental break” from traditional schoolwork.  Spelling may be taught as a part of reading, and spelling tests are really not even required.  Patterning is what is needed for your child to become a good speller.  If you can find ways that your child will remember the patterns and look for them in other sources outside of your schoolroom, he or she will quickly become a “naturally good speller.”


  1. I like your suggestions. They're multi-sensory which can really have a big impact on a student's learning and memory. Have you ever checked out Orton-Gullingham Multi-Sensory approaches. They offer workshop frequently around the country. you might be interested in checking it out if you've not already.

  2. No, I haven't heard of Orton-Gullingham. I used multi-sensory activities intentionally, though, because I know different tasks to learn. Thanks.