16 Apr 5 things to consider when choosing a whole school spelling program
Let’s be honest, teaching spelling explicitly has kind of fallen out of fashion in recent years. For a while there, we all got a little obsessive about writing composition, but overall composition is built up of word knowledge, sentence structure and text structure skills. Some of these skill areas include vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, paragraphing, linking, text structure and last, but definitely not least… spelling.
Why is spelling so important? If we think about all the things we ask students to write in a day and the time we give them to complete tasks, being able to spell automatically and fluently (without thinking and at speed) is essential for getting the job done. If conscious attention is required for spelling, little working memory is left to remember what you wanted to say and the order of the words and sentences. Children who find spelling challenging will often dull down their spoken vocabulary and use words they can spell, rather than higher level words they know. Their speed of handwriting can be significantly slowed as they labour over the spelling of each word. They are often unable to re-read their own work, making comprehension, let alone editing impossible. Poor spelling affects almost all levels and stages of writing composition.
Some argue that in the age of spell checkers spelling skills aren’t needed, but I’d be willing to bet those people never found themselves in a class with a student who is calling out in frustration “It doesn’t know what I’m trying to write!” Spell check can only help you if you have sufficient spelling skills to begin with, particularly when you are attempting a word in your vocabulary that you are not yet able to spell. Good spelling skills are required for fast and accurate expression and therefore, spelling is best thought of as a component of sound writing composition, rather than a separate skill.
Many children struggle with spelling for a variety of reasons; having English as an additional language or dialect (EALD), having dyslexia or dysgraphia, poor teaching and lack of access to literature.
For these at-risk students, it is likely a more direct approach that breaks English code down and studies each level will be needed for success. The difficulties weak spelling skills cause are not limited to school. Entrance demands now placed on almost every applicant most often include some level of spelling skill; CVs are often disregarded the moment a spelling or grammar mistake is spotted, mandatory English and Maths tests for entry-level jobs, entry exams for TAFE and apprenticeships etc. Even if schools feel spelling has become redundant, it seems the workforce does not.
Approaches to teaching spelling can be somewhat ad hoc within schools, with year levels using different programs or teachers choosing how and when they teach spelling at an individual level. It’s important we don’t leave any children behind when it comes to spelling proficiently and the best way to make sure there are no gaps left in children’s knowledge is an evidence-based whole school approach in which teachers work from the same scheme of work. Ask yourself these 5 questions before you make a choice about how to conduct spelling teaching in your school and you’ll be on the right track.
1. Does it follow a clear progression from year 1 to year 6?
This one is crucial. Teachers throughout the year levels need to be working from the same program so that gaps are systematically addressed in students’ knowledge. In order to teach at the ‘just right’ level for each child, teachers need to know where their students have come from and where they are going next. To achieve this, a whole school progression that specifies the order to teach English patterns is critical. It doesn’t really matter which progression you follow, provided you have one and that it’s evidence-based. Evidence shows that systematic, explicit teaching of spelling (including phonics) can have significant positive effects on student learning.
2. Does it include the study of phonics, morphology and etymology?
Also really important! English is morphophonemic, not phonetic as is often thought. This means our spelling system is informed by meaning, history and sounds, not just sounds. Students are often introduced to phonics early in their school life and they are expected to absorb higher level spelling through exposure. This can lead to a weak understanding of higher level phonic patterns such as ‘aw’ and ‘au’ making the /or/ sound. It also leads to students being ‘stuck’ using phonetic spelling when they should be thinking about meaningful units of prefixes, bases and suffixes (morphemes) and/or a word’s origin. For example, many people think the spelling of ‘two’ is a perfect example of how crazy and random English spelling is. It’s often taught as a ‘sight word’, a word that doesn’t make sense that you just have to memorise. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ‘w’ in ‘two’ is a historical link to it’s meaning relatives; twelve, twenty, twin, twice etc. Students need to be explicitly taught about the full range of influences on English spelling in order to spell higher level words accurately.
3. Do all teachers have expert levels of word knowledge?
One of the main reasons teachers can be reluctant to teach something, even when they know it is of benefit to the students is lack of confidence or subject-specific knowledge. Many primary trained teachers feel confident in the teaching of phonics, but far fewer teachers are confident in morphology and etymology. While programs are great, they can neither replace nor act as a substitute for deep content knowledge of the teacher. Whichever spelling program or progression you choose for your school, make sure a significant amount of PD takes place around word level knowledge. When teachers have in-depth word level knowledge, they are able to pass on the links and reasons behind our spelling system, giving students a full understanding of the influences on spelling.
4. Are students allowed to work at the level that is right for them?
Spelling programs need to have a clear progression, but this doesn’t mean that children should be forced to work at a particular level despite their current knowledge. It is important to assess where each child is in their spelling knowledge and assign appropriate lists from that point. A simple way to achieve this is to conduct a beginning of term, whole class spelling test where students write a few words from each spelling pattern in the chosen progression and then assess which patterns they are yet to learn. The teacher can then assess where in the program students need to work from and customise lists to suit their needs. Flexible grouping can help with this. This involves the teacher making note of which patterns students are yet to learn, and then calling together groups that need to learn specific patterns during spelling instruction time. This individualises instruction making sure each student is working on patterns they need to consolidate and maximises instruction time by ensuring they also don’t cover content they’ve already consolidated.
5. Is there sufficient time built in for revision and repetition?
Most children will pick up spelling skills without too much trouble. However, for the bottom 20-40%, it will be significantly harder. In our eagerness to progress our students as fast as we possibly can, we sometimes over crowd spelling programs and rush the students through them. This can have disastrous consequences for at-risk students, so make sure time is left for consolidation and revision. It can seem counter-productive but assigning fewer words in lists and revising more often can increase the number of words a student can spell confidently. Why? Because memory occurs better when there’s less overload. Consolidating the spelling of 8 words a week is better than attempting 20 and scoring 2 because you had too many words to remember. It speeds the rate of learning to 8 words per week, rather than limiting it to 2 shakily mastered words, and preserves the student’s self-esteem in the process. Kids are more likely to engage when their score is 8/8 rather than 2/20. Maintaining the child’s willingness to try is critical for success, especially for struggling students for whom most classroom tasks require a great deal more effort than for their peers.
And the most important one for luck – MAKE SURE IT’S EVIDENCE-BASED. To make the biggest impact, it is important that which even program or approach you choose, that it has strong backing of scientific research into the best practices for teaching. See the Five-From-Five website, Learning Difficulties Australia website or the International Dyslexia Association website for details:
I’d love to hear your thought and comments below. Let me know how innovating your schools’ spelling program is going for you.
You might also find my Free Individualised Education Program (IEP) template useful.