What does spelling look like in your classroom? Do you assign a weekly list and test the students each Friday? Do you take off points for spelling in students' writing? Do you have to dry your struggling students' tears when returning weekly quizzes? What if there were a better way to help boost your spellers' skills and their confidence? These are the top five spelling strategies that work (and a few that don't!).
Let's be honest. The classrooms full of students we teach today are drastically different than those from 20, 10, and even three years ago! Our strategies for teaching spelling need to be drastically different, too! If you want to help develop great spellers, you may want to consider eliminating the following practices:
#1 Don't - Focusing Exclusively on Commonly Misspelled Words: Commonly misspelled words are hard to spell because they are just that-hard! Even if they aren't hard, they can be tricky. When tasked weekly with learning how to exclusively spell those tricky words, your students can easily become discouraged and frustrated and begin to believe the "I'm just not a good speller" lie. Instead, make sure your word lists are grade-level appropriate, like this example built for second graders. Similarly, if your lists are full of words that your students aren't likely to use in their writing or see in their reading, you may inadvertently be setting them up to struggle. Be mindful of including words that students will see and use frequently.
#2 Don't - Sending All Spelling Work Home as Homework: Because learning to spell is much more complicated than memorizing words, students need guidance and instruction.If your current strategy is to print a list of words, expect students to practice them all week, and then test them on Friday, you may want to rethink your strategy. Consider, instead, working spelling instruction or spelling stations into your ELA block and providing multiple opportunities for intentional practice throughout the week in addition to the practice students can do at home.
#3 Don't - Write, Write, and Write Again: While there is value in students writing words they are learning to spell, if your only strategy is to have students write a word ten times in ten different colors, you may inadvertently miss the mark. Multiple colors are fun! Using markers or colored pencils for homework is great! This mechanical method of practicing spelling, however, may need a makeover. In theory, we could copy the entire Declaration of Independence ten times in ten different colors and still not understand what some of the words mean, how to use them in context, or even remember what we wrote. Try using more brain-engaging strategies.
Why not use some of the following suggestions to help your students learn to spell well? These are five strategies that you can put into practice today to help your students have greater success in spelling:
#1 - Make Sure You Start Smart: All spelling words were not created equally. While you may want to jump right into sight words or words your students struggle with, in the long run, your students will be more successful if they learn to follow some patterns. Not all words in English follow rules, but many do. If you start with these types of words, your students will not only be able to learn more quickly and efficiently, but they will be able to use the "If I can spell _________, then I can spell _________" strategy.
Research suggests that you should focus on onsets (the consonant sounds at the beginning of a word) and then blends and digraphs. These tips for teaching blends offer great insights into not only what blends are but the order in which you can introduce them to your students. You might also want to introduce spelling words that follow a certain rule. This will give the students some context while they continue to learn more words throughout the year.
#2 - Sometimes Less is More: Although it can be tempting to create a long list filled with pattern words, sight words, and an academic vocabulary that we want our students to use in their writing, less is sometimes more. Rather than creating a list of 10-15 words each week, consider starting small and gradually adding more words as your students progress. Although students might be able to cram a long list of spelling words into their short-term memory banks long enough to pass a test, the chances of them remembering the words long enough to spell them correctly in their writing are slim to none. It's also important to revisit words throughout the year. We revisit math and literacy skills all the time, so why not do the same with spelling lists? This can help move those words from short-term memory to long-term memory.
If you're wondering where to start, this list of spelling lists by grade level has some great suggestions as you prepare to pick your weekly words.
#3 - Use Multiple Methods: When students are attempting to spell different words, a "sound it out" strategy can work! Developing this phonemic awareness is often the most basic approach when beginning to learn to spell or read. However, it's more than a one-step solution. Try taking that strategy a bit further by encouraging your students to adopt a number of other strategies. We'll use the word "sleep" as an example.
a. Stretch the Word: Stretching a word (saying it slowly, sound by sound) can be valuable when students are trying to hear and identify all the letters and sounds in a word. When stretching "sleep," students will hear "sssss-lllll-eeeee-pppp."
b. Split up the Sounds: Identify the number of sounds you hear. Our sample word, "sleep," would have /s/ at the beginning, /l/ in the middle, /e/ in the middle, and /p/ at the end.
c. Count the Sounds and Draw Blanks: Since the word "sleep" has four sounds, the students should draw four lines.
d. Fill in the Blanks and Show What You Know: Next, the students fill in the blanks with the sounds they know. At first, a student might write "s-l-e-p" as the predicted spelling. After looking at the word and remembering your spelling rules, they would know that another vowel must be added for the word to be pronounced with a long E. Whether the student can reach this conclusion on their own or needs assistance, it is a great teachable moment!
e. Write the Word: After correctly spelling the word, encourage your students to study and write it. Have them pay close attention to any tricky part of the word that might be problematic.
f. Make Meaning: Last but certainly not least, it's time to make meaning of the word that has just been spelled. Using spelling words in context is a great way to help make the new (and correctly spelled!) word stick. This could consist of drawing a picture, writing it in a sentence, or using it in conversation.
#4 - Honor Multiple Modalities: Students learn in a variety of different ways. Make sure that your spelling instruction honors that diversity! Your kinesthetic learners will benefit from clapping out their spelling words, making up hand motions to represent their meaning, tracing the words on sandpaper, or spelling them in Play-Doh.Auditory learners, on the other hand, may benefit from practicing with a recording device. Have them spell the words repeatedly into a voice recording app. Maybe they want to use different voices or use editing software and technology to change their voice. Finally, your visual learners will benefit from word walls, spelling journals, and illustrations that make the spelling and the meaning stick.
#5 - Practice: Practice doesn't make perfect, but it does make permanent. Perfect practice, on the other hand, does make perfect. As you strive to help your students succeed in spelling, make sure you give them plenty of opportunities to practice. Spelling games, puzzles, and workbooks can easily be personalized and printed so your students have fun and intentional practice opportunities.
As an educator that strives to prepare your students for the future, you recognize the importance of being able to spell well. Putting these strategies in place in your classroom will help ensure your students are successful communicators now and in the future (with or without spell check!).