The Dolch Sight Words list was developed by Dr. Edward Dolch in the 1930s and 40s. An educator by trade, Dr. Dolch analyzed the children’s books of that era and identified the most frequently occurring words, such as came, get, walk, when, brown, will, could, and thank. As a Title I reading specialist, I spent a fair amount of time encouraging struggling third grade readers to memorize dozens of ‘sight words’ from Dolch’s famous list.
But defining ‘sight words’ as words on Dr. Dolch’s list doesn’t do justice to what ‘sight words’ really are, or more importantly, how they function in the process of reading. As I’ve come to a new understanding of sight words, I have come to a new understanding of how best practice spelling instruction greatly increases the rate at which words (not just Dolch words but all words) can be learned and stored in the critical lexicon or word dictionary of the mind.
In my last post I said that research shows that mature readers read words in four ways: by decoding, by predicting, by analogy, and by sight. Unlike reading words by decoding, analogy, and prediction, reading words by sight does not involve some round about way of figuring out a word or some aspect of part-to-whole reading (sound-letter, patterns, roots, affixes, etc.). Rather, reading words by sight is about knowing a word immediately, no matter its length. When we read a word by sight, we pull it directly, in its entirety, from memory. The truly amazing part is that when we read by sight, each word we see immediately and effortlessly activates in our memory the word’s spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. These components are not experienced piece by piece. Rather, they are experienced as one wonderful bundle of looking-saying-understanding.
To draw an analogy, look at the picture.
When “cat” popped into your mind, that knowledge didn’t slowly blossom or come to you in pieces, first as your seeing a set of eyes, some whiskers, a nose, and a pair of ears, and then coupling that with the thought that it is some kind of animal, it’s a mammal, and so on. Rather, it came to you all at once, instantly, directly. This is because a cat is identifiable by sight. We perceive it and understand it just like we instantly perceive and identify (or read) words such as dog, fish, and cucumber. By the way, the picture is of our cat Pawpurr, now almost 22 years old!
So aside from Pawpurr the cat, how does all of this relate to spelling? According to Linnea Ehri and Sandra McCormick, the processes that are at the heart of sight word learning are connection-forming processes. “Connections are formed that link the written forms of the words to their pronunciations and meanings," they say. "This information is stored in the reader’s mental dictionary or lexicon... These connections are formed out of readers’ general knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that recur in many words.” (p. 341). In other words, connections between letter units (graphemes) that symbolize sound units (phonemes), help us store words in memory. Now think: what subject teaches children to make connections between sound units (phonemes) and letter units (graphemes)? What subject helps children connect more complex sound units to more complex letter patterns? What subject connects meaning units (morphemes) with letter patterns, both long and short? It’s spelling, of course.
Because they are so well spoken, I’ll quote Ehri and McCormick once again: “Spelling of words are like maps that visually lay out their phonological forms. Skilled readers are able to compute these mapping relations very quickly when they read words…When readers acquire working knowledge of the alphabetic spelling system, they can build a lexicon of sight words easily as they enounter new words in their reading” (p. 343).
Spelling is important because it builds the mental dictionary that a reader uses every time he or she reads. The more words a child has stored in her mental dictionary, the better the chance that she will be able to add more words through reading and to read more fluently. So it makes sense to teach spelling, it makes sense to teach it regularly, and it makes sense to connect spelling to reading and reading to spelling.
One mistake I made as an educator was to try and cram Dolch sight words into the heads of struggling readers without giving them more practice on noticing and then generalizing the specific patterns found in each word. In other words, I should have taught not only the sight word brown, but I also should have connected it to down, gown, town, frown, clown, and even downtown. Then I should have given my students opportunities to notice how these words work, spell these words, and read these words alone and in sentences.
By teaching connections, strategies, and activities in spelling, we can help all students build a robust brain dictionary, critical for reading success.
Ehri, L. & McCormick, S. (2013). Phases of Word Learning: Implications for Instruction With Delayed and Disabled Readers. In D. E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading. (6th ed., pp. 339–361). Newark, DE: International Reading Association
As part of my summer reading, I've been tackling chapters from the sixth edition of Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (ILA, 2013), edited by Donna Alderman, Norman Unrau, and Robert Ruddell. The material is dense but fascinating. One chapter, Phases of Word Learning: Implications for Instruction With Delayed and Disabled Readers, is a favorite because it speaks to my current interest in how specific types of spelling instruction help struggling students become better readers. Authored by Linnea Ehri and Sandra McCormick, the chapter spends some time describing and explaining what the spelling-reading connection is and provides clues as to how we might use knowledge of this connection to help struggling readers.
According to Ehri and McCormick, any word encountered by a mature reader can be read in one of four ways: by decoding, by predicting, by analogy, and by sight.They also say that our goal as teachers is to enable students to read words in each (and every) one of these four ways. I agree. Carefully crafted spelling instruction can help us reach this goal, especially when it comes to reading by decoding, analogy, and sight. What exactly reading by sight is and how it connects to spelling is an especially absorbing and interesting topic, and this will be the focus of my next blog. Stay tuned! For now, however, I’ll say a bit about the connections between spelling and reading by decoding and analogy.
Decoding and its connection to spelling
A decoding or word attack strategy enables a reader to read unfamiliar words. At its most basic level, decoding involves looking at letters, knowing their sounds, holding and blending those sounds in your mind, and then saying them in pronunciations that are recognized as real words. Now think about how spelling (encoding) works at its most basic level. It's the same thing, but in reverse. We teach students to say a word and “stretch it out to hear the sounds." Then we ask them to assign letters they know to the sounds they hear. Finally, we teach them to check their spelling by “reading through the word” to see if the letters they have written (and the sounds the letters make) blend back together to form the word they meant to write.
More advanced alphabetic knowledge is put into play when readers engage in more advanced decoding. For example, in advanced decoding readers recognize clusters of letters (gl, dr, tch, dge, er), affixes (pre, sub, ment, ful, ly), syllables (De, cem, ber), and spelling patterns (int, eed, oy, oint). Each of these clusters is paired with a cluster of individual sounds that are thought of as a whole. Once again, think about spelling instruction. In spelling, we ask children to think about a word part, syllable, or word family. Each family that is said, such as /ait/, is then paired with possible spellings, such as A-I-T, A-T-E, or E-I-G-H-T. Through spelling instruction we giving children the opportunity to understand how decoding works and we do it from the opposite end, so to speak. In effect, encoding becomes decoding and spelling becomes reading.
Analogy and its connection to spelling
Analogy is another way a reader might try to read an unfamiliar word. When a reader reads by analogy, she recognizes how the spelling of an unfamiliar word is similar to a word she already knowns. To read by analogy, a reader accesses in her memory a known word similar to the unknown she is trying to read. Then she changes her pronunciation of the known word to accommodate the new word. Consider the word dariole. If you used your knowledge of the word oriole to help you pronounce the new word, then you were reading by analogy. Student readers might not know the word cigarillo, but if they recognize the word cigar and think of the word brillo, they can use the strategies of sight and analogy to come up with the new word. By the way, a dariole (noun) is a French cooking term. It is a small, metal, flowerpot-shaped mold in which an individual portion is cooked and served.
When it comes to reading by analogy, the connections to spelling are strong. Spelling by analogy is an excellent strategy to teach children. Connect the spelling by analogy strategy to the reading by analogy strategy and you have done your teaching job well. Here’s what that connection might sound like in a classroom. “Let’s say I want to write the sentence ’The man yelled,”Halt!” And let's say I don’t know how to spell the word halt. What do I do? I stop and think. Do I know a word that sounds like halt? I know salt. And I know how to spell it. S-A-L-T. Words that sound alike are often spelled alike. Therefore, halt is probably spelled H-A-L-T. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the strategy of spelling by analogy. And by the way, the strategy of spelling by analogy is just like the strategy of reading by analogy. Let’s say I don't know how to read this word: H-A-L-T. What can I do? I can ask myself, Do I know any words that look like this word? Do I know a word that has almost the same spelling? I do! Salt. I can see this word in my mind and I know it looks almost like the word I’m trying to read. I know how to say salt, so I’ll just take off the /s/ sound of the S and put in the /h/ sound of the H. The word is halt. There, I just read it!”
The dictionary in the brain
When we teach spelling using master lists that contain many examples of words that share patterns, we help students notice how words relate to one another and we help grow the all important dictionary in the mind. Why is this dictionary important? It’s important because it’s a central part of the reading process, especially when students are reading by analogy and sight. Words that begin as spelling words - dew, crew, view, grew, stew, mildew - become words useful for reading the sentence: His nephew viewed the mildewed cashew with alarm.
Here in the mountains of western Pennsylvania spring is busting out all over, with dogwoods and honeysuckle blooming, peepers peeping in the wetlands, and returning hummingbirds busily buzzing about as they search for nectar to sip. Spring also signals the fast approaching end of the school year. So I encourage teachers reading this post to give one last spelling inventory before field trips and assemblies take over and you finally wave goodbye (happily, sadly, and/or thankfully) to the last kid as he skips out your classroom door.
I first wrote about spelling inventories back in September of 2015. Then I asked teachers to consider giving them to gather information that would help start the year. Now, I ask that you consider them as a bookend assessment that can help provide closure to your year, as well as kick start the next year for another teacher.
Spelling inventories are “big picture” assessments, designed to give teachers information about students’ broad knowledge of orthography, which is the spelling system of our English language. More specifically, they give information on students’ ability to apply the alphabetic principle, remember and use conventional spelling patterns, form words based on tense and spelling conventions, and apply word meaning, all in service to correctly spelling words as they write.
Given at the end of the year, a spelling inventory is an easy and efficient way to gain information about what your class generally knows about how words work, as well as what your class has mastered over the course of the year. It also provides specific diagnostic information that can be used to help individual students in specific ways. Finally, it helps you to understand your students’ overall reading and writing achievement. Because she states things succinctly (it took me four tries to correctly spell that word, by the way), I’ll quote Marcia Invernizzi: “…qualitative spelling inventories assess children’s developmental spelling knowledge that in large measure determines the quality of their reading and writing” (Invernizzi, p.17). Thus, spelling inventories go a long way in explaining how and why children read and write as they do.
If you pass along the information you gain from giving an inventory, teachers in the next grade up will surely thank you, for the information provides insight into the skills of the students who will roll through their door next year. For example, if you're a second grade teacher who gives an inventory next week, you may find that five students still have not fully mastered the hearing, reproduction, and spelling of the short /a/, /i/, and /e/ sounds. Or if you're a fifth grade teacher, you may find that six students lack control of the ture and sure spellings for the /cher/ and /zhur/ sounds found in words like capture, posture, treasure, and leisure. Once you have this information, pass it along to the third grade and six grade teachers. And take a moment to reflect on the scores and decide if there’s something different you want to do with your instruction and activities next year.
There are many inventories out there, including Sylvia Green’s Primary and Elementary Word Analysis (Green, 2016), which functions as both a spelling inventory and a phonics inventory, Richard Gentry’s Monster Test (Gentry, 2007), most appropriate for kindergarten children but also used during the first half of first grade, and complex primary and intermediate elementary inventories from the Words Their Way spelling program (Bear, et al, 2015), among others. Of course, you can simply go to the “File Cabinet” tab of this web site and download one of the inventories I have created! At the bottom of this post you can see pieces of two of them.
I created spelling inventories for my upcoming book, Super Spellers: Seven Steps to Transforming Your Spelling Instruction (Stenhouse, fall of 2017). Feel free to download any or all of them. Then assess your students with one. You can even report back to me on how the inventory worked for you. Operators are standing by to take your call! (Okay, not really, but it is fun to say).
By the way, when compared to other inventories, my inventories have the added advantage of coming in two distinct forms. Also, the long form inventory words are cross-referenced with the seven syllable types. Finally, my short form inventories are super easy to score, and they come in two forms, one for the whole class and one for the individual.
To wrap things up, the reasons for giving any specific spelling inventory are generally the same: determining the encoding skills of students, finding out what word features students have control of, determining the spelling stage of each student, and crafting classroom instruction that meets students at their developmental levels. Regardless of which inventory you start with, you can always move to a more or less complex one that fits your level of knowledge and comfort.
I encourage you to find a spelling inventory that you like and understand and then give it to all of your students before the end of the school year. Best of luck with you spelling instruction and your end of the year activities, and keep your eyes on the prize of summer vacation!
Like the swallows of Capistrano, National Poetry Month has returned, along with this spring's flowers, showers, and long evening hours. Springtime and poetry go together like daffodils and sunlight. Robert Frost wrote of spring in A Prayer in Springtime (Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today…), as did William Shakespeare in the poem Spring, (When daisies pied, and violets blue, And lady-smocks all silver-white, and cuckoo-buds of yellow hue do paint the meadows with delight…). Many other top notch poets have waxed poetically of spring, too.
I have never written a springtime poem, but then again I am not a “real” poet, merely a clever rhymer with an odd sense of humor and occasional flashes of insight. At the moment, I have little time for even witty word play, but I did want to contribute something for National Poetry Month, and so I dug though my computer files and found a number of kid poems that didn’t make it into my 2010 children’s poetry book, The Delicious Chocolate Donut (And Other Off-Kilter Poems). When I read the poems, I could see why they didn’t make it. Suffering from weak rhymes, clunky rhythms, and subject matter too weird for popular consumption, these poor poems were analogous to the Charlie-in-the-Box and the Spotted Elephant on the Isle of Misfit Toys.
Upon second thought, though, a few poems seemed worthy of something more than perpetual banishment in the “unused” folder of my digital filing cabinet. And because spring is a season of rebirth and renewal, I figured, hey, why not uncover a few of them, give them a little light and love and polish, and put them up on the blog? So here they are, giving regular readers of this blog (are there any out there?) a break from my usual spelling posts and providing teachers looking for weird, off-kilter poems with those very things.
Feel free to copy and use them in any way you want. You can also download a PDF of the four poems from the file cabinet of this web site. Creatively labeled “Four New Poems,” they’re sitting in the right hand column at the top.
A brief word of explanation about the poems is in order. The first was inspired by Sundays dinners cooked by my mother-in-law, Betty Good. For years and years, almost every Sunday, Betty (a home economics teacher) prepared a delicious and extensive old school Sunday dinner (not supper) for her family, consisting of meat (often turkey), potatoes, gravy, two or three vegetables from the garden, rolls, salad, and dessert (typically cake and/or pie and/or ice cream). I have very fond memories of those dinners. This poem is written for two or more voices, which kids love to read and teachers love to have on hand. The second poem for little ones and is meant to be accompanied by lots of motion and activity. The third poem is simply odd, as is the fourth and last poem, which features a fun illustration by Mike Owens, the talented illustrator/animator who illustrated my Delicious Chocolate Donut collection.
Syllable types provide an easy way to manage the dozens of word features presented in a typical spelling scope and sequence. So let's look at syllable types!
Usually, a spelling scope and sequence is organized loosely around the developmental stages of spelling and the word features associated with each stage. For example, the scope and sequences used with 1st graders, who are developing the ability to match letters to the sounds they hear, typically concentrate on CVC patterns, consonant blends, digraphs, and CVe patterns. In contrast, a scope and sequence for third graders, who are developing the ability to notice and use patterns in words, usually contains lessons on frequent and infrequent vowel sounds and spellings, inflectional endings (where plurals and tenses are formed), and special consonant spellings like soft c and soft g, as well as suffixes, prefixes and homophones. As the stages of spelling development progress, more and more spelling features are added. Take a minute to look over the scope and sequence of any spelling program, grades one to five, and you will see dozens of spelling features listed.
Because these many features are not organized into a few broad, easy to understand and teach categories, they can present real difficulties for both teachers and students. First, a weakly organized scope makes it harder for teachers to answer these questions: what features have my students mastered, which features need to be retaught, which features do my students have control of when they write, and which features are my students seeing and controlling when they decode as they read?
Second, when teachers have an overwhelming number of spelling features to think about, they may lose sight of these big picture reasons for teaching spelling: spelling is for building the brain dictionary, spelling is to enable fluent writing, spelling is for strengthening decoding, and so on.
Third, a focus on the minute details (dozens of features) gives teachers and students the false notion that English spellings are unruly, nonsensical, or impossible to predict. Finally, a weekly stream of loosely categorized features makes spelling harder for children to learn and teachers to teach. For example, if you were asked to teach third graders to recall, in any order, the numbers and letters of these two sets - [2, 7, 3, 5, 1, 6, 8, 4] and [B, e, h, T, e, h, C, n, g, e, a] –would it be easiest teach and remember them as unorganized strings of numbers and letters or would you teach them as organized groups: 2468-1357 and Be The Change? Obviously, the latter.
It pays to organize, through categorization, large sets of information into smaller subsets. Fortunately for us, a handy method for categorizing spelling exists. It’s called syllable types. Syllable types are an overarching instructional strategy. How so? They categorize all syllables into seven categories, thus reining in the number of spelling features and the breadth of a typical spelling scope and sequence. With only seven types of patterns to think about, your spelling instruction can be more focused and powerful. And when children master the knowledge and use of the syllable types, they have a master plan (a strategy) for decoding during reading and encoding during spelling.
I regularly talk with teachers who gush enthusiastically about using syllable types to teach phonics and spelling in their classrooms. I think we all get so excited about them because syllable types draw attention to all that lies at the heart of spelling: sound, pattern, and meaning. And when students’ attention is drawn to the heart of the matter, they are in a much better position to use strategies, to build a dictionary in their brains, and to become more fluent readers and writers.
Teaching spelling via syllable types drives home the encoding-decoding, spelling-reading connection. It allows you to completely align your phonics scope and sequence with your spelling scope and sequence. Equally important, it improves a struggling student’s ability to read and spell multisyllabic words because it is one tool (breaking words into syllables) that provides repeated practice in two areas, spelling (encoding) and reading (decoding).
One thing before I move on: Researchers and writers present differing views on spelling nomenclature. For example, some folks call ar, ir, and or patterns “vowel-r syllables,” while others call them “r-controlled syllables.” Likewise, there are differences in opinion about how to classify patterns such as ore (store) and air (stair). Are they r-controlled? Or is one a vowel-consonant-e syllable and the other a vowel team syllable? I mention differences of opinion because I present syllable types as seven in number, while spelling experts such as Louisa Moats and Barbara Wilson present them as six. But in the grand scheme of spelling and reading, these differences are minor. The important point is to organize spelling features into categories of syllable types and then teach them well, over time, in spelling, reading, and writing.
Teach what a syllable is
If you are going to organize your spelling around syllable types, I suggest you first teach what a syllable is. Begin with the idea that a syllable is a word or a part of a word that has at least one vowel in it. The vowel in every syllable causes your chin to drop when you say the vowel sound. Once your students have basic understanding of what a syllable is (a word or a word part that causes a chin to drop because it has at least one vowel in it), introduce the syllable types.
Variations on a theme
Of course, nothing is ever easy in teaching. For example, ind and ild are closed syllables, but they are exceptions to the rule because they make a long vowel sound (bind, find, mild, wild). For each syllable type, there are exceptions. Now you may be thinking, “Exceptions in each category? Spelling is so confusing!” While I cannot deny that exceptions add complexity to the simplicity of just seven syllable types, I would maintain that when you tell students “we are going to group all of our spelling patterns into seven basic types,” you have focused a sprawling topic, making it much easier to understand and making it much easier for children to notice commonalities and differences between its many parts.
To further illustrate this point, the figure below shows the thirty-seven high-frequency phonograms, often used by 1st grade teachers to teach phonics and spelling, grouped by syllable type. You can see how each falls into one of three syllable types: closed, VCe, and vowel team.
By the way, this sequence of syllable types – closed, VCe, and vowel team – is an appropriate sequence of instruction for students in grade one, keeping in mind that those who do not master the closed syllable type will need to be instructed until they do. Open syllables and r-controlled syllables can be added in the second grade sequence. By the end of third grade, students will be ready to begin to organize spelling words around all seven types.
Use syllable types across space and time
The seven categories of syllable types can be taught by teachers and used by students between and across grade levels. They give an entire school one organizing principal, thus providing a common language for all teachers of reading, writing, and spelling. At the same time, syllable types provide an organizing framework that all students can use to better understand the workings of spelling features in every spelling stage, from consonants, digraphs, and short vowels in the early alphabetic stage, to long vowel teams and variant vowel teams in the patterns within words stage, to roots, affixes, and inflected endings in the meaning stage.
It seems to me that any strategy, routine, or method of organization that crosses classrooms and grade levels holds forth the possibility of greater and longer lasting student learning. Simply put, when students experience and use a strategy, routine, or method year after year from a multitude of teachers, they are much more likely to master that strategy, routine, or method and consistently apply it in variety of settings. If a school were to embrace the teaching of syllable types, by the time students got to fourth grade they would have had three years of exposure to the this organizing principle, surely a strong foundation.
Even in the final stage of spelling development, where the focus is meaning rather than pattern, syllable patterns can still be referenced and explored. For example, the figure below shows how multisyllabic words are made up of combinations of syllable types. As syllable types are introduced over time – in a classroom, between classrooms, and between grades – students can explore longer and longer words made from a mixture of short syllable types. This exploration of and exposure to multisyllabic words increases their ability to successfully read and write hundreds, if not thousands of words.
My August and September 2016 blogs were devoted to the idea of teaching children strategies for spelling unknown words. Specifically I discussed spelling by analogy (using a word that you know as template for spelling a word you don’t know) and spelling by sound (hear the sounds, assign letters and patterns that make those sounds). Today's offering is See the Word Inside Your Head, the strategy accomplished spellers use most often.
Some children develop the ability to “see a word inside their head” naturally. Others do not. To encourage students to build and use a repository of stored words in their brains, teach them to study spelling words using the steps given below. Then, when it comes time to spell words independently during writing (or on a test), remind students to use these steps: see the word in your mind, write the word, and check the word. As teachers, we hope that by intentionally using “see-write-check,” students will later generalize the strategy into the automatic ability to visualize a word, write it down, and then check it against the word stored in their brain dictionary.
I have seen variations of the “see the word” strategy in core-reading programs for a couple of decades now. My most recent encounter with it was while perusing the stand-along spelling program Spelling Connections, published by Zaner-Bloser. Spelling Connections presents a three-step strategy for studying spelling words. Here is my two-step variation.
1. Say-See, Hide-See
Here is an example of how I might model my use of this strategy and use a think aloud to explain its workings:
An easily constructed “flip folder” provides opportunities for students to practice the strategy “see the word in your head.” The activity, which can be done independently or with a buddy, is designed for instant error correction. A student spells a word and then checks it for correctness. If the word is misspelled, the student corrects it before moving on to the next word.
To make a flip folder, you need a manila folder, a marker, a set of word cards, and stack of blank slips of paper. The activity’s routine mirrors the two-step word study strategy outlined above. Here is a brief description of the routine, which is also presented in the pictures below.
Word ladders (also known as word-links, laddergrams, and doublets) involve morphing one word into another by changing one letter, or set of letters, at a time. Each change creates a new word, and each new word is a rung on the ladder. Starting with the word at the bottom of the ladder, it may take a speller five, six, or seven or more words to reach the target at the top. In this way, a HEN is changed into a FOX: hen, pen, pin, fin, fix, fox!
I first heard of word ladders, and began using them, while teaching in 3rd grade classrooms. Later I learned Tim Rasinski made them popular with his Daily Word Ladders books for teachers (Rasinski, 2012; 2008). But while researching my upcoming Stenhouse book, Super Spellers, I discovered Lewis Carroll was the one who invented them!
Carroll, best known as the author of Alice in Wonderland, was also an eminent mathematician and a renowned puzzle creator. In 1877 he created a word puzzle that he dubbed the doublet, a name likely inspired by the witches’ incantation in MacBeth: “Double, double, toil and trouble.” Vanity Fair published Carroll’s doublets in 1879 and they quickly became all the rage. Below are five of his doublets (can you solve them?). Also shown is a word ladder that is actually climbable! While visiting a botanical garden in New Zealand, my wife, Beth, and I climbed these etched granite steps, took a picture from the top, and wrote down the solution to the doublet BODY and SOUL in our scrapbook.
Word ladders help children notice sounds, especially inner vowels. To change one word into another, students must listen to sounds and decide on letters. Unlike Carroll, who gave puzzlers no clues regarding the ladder rungs, you can explicitly tell your students what each word on a rung is. Over time, as young children and struggling readers write each word in the ladder, they notice patterns within words and between words. If desired, you can also discuss the meaning of the words that make up a ladder. In this way, SPELLING becomes VOCABULARY!
There are plenty of word ladder activities available for purchase from Tim Rasinski and others. Below you can see one of Carroll’s classic doublets (with its solution), plus one I dreamed up: turn a CHORE into something you LIKE. But you can create these word sequences yourself. While I like to create ladders in the spirit of Carroll’s doublets, the words on either end don’t have to be tied together by a common theme. Also, once students become accomplished at completing word ladders, you can put them to work making their own. It’s a real accomplishment when a child authors a word ladder that becomes part of a literacy center.
I have used word ladder activities with large groups of kids, but I also have guided children through them in small groups during guided reading time, where I used a word ladder as a word study activity. Once children can competently recreate the routine on their own, they can complete word ladders with a buddy during independent work time.
I suggest you have students write their word ladder sequences on paper. A whiteboard or iPad will work but the written words need to be relatively small. Paper is probably best if your ladder is longer than five or six words. Students should never erase the previous word. The point is to create a sequence that students can look through to see the relationships between the words.
Let’s say you created a word ladder that changes hen into fox through the sequence I outlined in the first paragraph. To teach this word ladder, start with the word hen. Say the word and have the kids repeat it back to you. You may even want to have the students stretch that word and zap it so they can hear the sounds in the word. I think highlighting inner vowel sounds is especially important because I’ve found that these are the sounds hardest for students to hear, reproduce, and associate with correct letter combinations. After students have written their starting word, you write the word and have your students check their spelling against yours. Next, follow this little routine:
Here is an example of what a teacher might say during a word ladder designed to focus on pattern and meaning, rather than just individual sounds and letters. The words come from one of my ladders: make a CHICK CHEEP (the solution is chick, chin, chip, lip, leap, cheap, cheep). After a teacher briefly reviews the ee and ea vowel teams, and after she leads the class through the first four words (chick, chin, chip, lip), her instruction might sound like the following:
Once you start moving into this type of word ladder, Patricia Cunningham’s Making Words books become a wonderful resource. There are probably a dozen or more of these books on the market, and they address many grade levels. While not exactly word ladders, each lesson follows the basic process of swapping sounds and letters in and out of words to make new words. Each Making Words lesson draws on the letters of a relatively long target word, such as oatmeal, to create sets of smaller words that follow patterns, such as eat, meat, team, meal, ate, mate, late, and so on.
Word ladders and making word activities are not only opportunities for children to hear sounds, assign letters, notice patterns, and think about meaning. They are also opportunities for you to conduct formative assessment. As you walk among the working students, notice who is confused about patterns or sounds and who is not. Explore their thinking process by saying, “Tell me why you put this letter here” and asking, “What pattern are you thinking about right now?” Carry a clipboard and piece of paper with you and you can take note of the children who require re-teaching, as well as list the areas in which they need additional instruction
Slow is not a bad thing, nor is focused. Sure, slowpoke is an unflattering description, and focused can be synonymous with single-minded. But when we look at slow and focused through the lens of instruction, we understand that slowing down and focusing provide us with a chance to thoroughly teach material and give our students opportunities to master critical skills. Adopting a slower pace and a more targeted curriculum allows for richness and depth in lessons. And a slow and focused mindset gives both teacher and students the opportunity to enjoy the learning process.
When it comes to making changes in spelling instruction, a fine place to start is tightening your spelling sequence. Some spelling sequences are simply too long, with too many weekly lessons. The longer the sequence of lessons (25 weeks, 27 weeks, 30 weeks), the more you are forced move quickly to cover all the material. My suggestion is to modify your sequence by strategically condensing its number of weeks or steps. Having fewer lessons gives you time to reteach concepts and patterns when children haven’t mastered them in the first cycle of instruction. When you have space in your sequence to accommodate re-teaching, you won’t need to push kids into a new concept when they have yet to master the previous one.
The chart at the end of this post shows a sequence with fewer lessons. I reduced the number of weekly lessons by doubling up on vowel-consonant-e lessons (which allows me to teach how vowel sounds compare and contrast), taking out a lesson that is thoroughly covered in third grade (oi/oy), deleting the schwa lesson, combining ch, tch, and ph into one lesson, and throwing out a lesson that teaches an infrequent spelling pattern (ar, e.g. parable).
After you’ve tightened the sequence, narrow the scope. Look over the spelling concepts introduced each week and consider reducing how many you teach in each lesson. If you see a lesson that teaches five or six spelling patterns, identify the low-frequency spelling patterns and take them out.
I believe in pruning low-frequency spelling patterns for two crucial reasons. First, there is much to teach and little time to teach it. Why spend valuable time teaching patterns that students don’t often encounter? Many vowel patterns occur infrequently. In fact, the ie spelling of the long i vowel sound and the oar spelling of /or/ occur in fewer than 2% of words with those sounds! So why teach the oar spelling when a second grader might encounter it in oar and board and that’s about it? And why teach the ie pattern when pie is the only word a second grader might write? Teach the correct spelling of these words if and when you need to, not as part of your regular spelling instruction.
Second, presenting fewer unknowns in any given lesson is best instructional practice. Teachers often analyze a complex task in order to fully understand it and effectively present it. Once the discrete steps are understood, the task can be taught using the law of one unknown: present one unknown piece of learning, have students practice it, assess students for its mastery, and once it is mastered, move on. But when it comes to spelling, teachers often teach four, five, six, or more spelling patterns or concepts per week. While we probably can’t afford to teach only one unknown pattern,we also shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pushed into presenting more than two to younger children and three or four to older ones. If we present too many patterns or concepts at once, students fail to learn, become frustrated, and may give up. Lessening the cognitive load by presenting fewer spelling concepts in each lesson allows us to build success for students, thereby strengthening the cycle of success, motivation, and learning.
In the chart below you can see how I took a 27-step second grade sequence, reduced the number of steps to 21, and then reduced the number of spelling patterns presented in eight of those remaining steps. With a scope and sequence like this, you can move from “memorize-and-move-on” instruction to transformed instruction that produces more enjoyable lessons, gives kids a real shot at spelling mastery, and bolsters the reading and writing skills of struggling learners.
If you’ve been following my spelling posts, you’ll know that for the last year I’ve been encouraging teachers to teach students how to spell, not what to spell. Teaching how to spell means moving away from a one-size-fits-all program and towards a philosophy of differentiation. It means showing kids how to think about words by teaching lessons focused on sound, pattern, and meaning. It means teaching students strategies that they can use to spell unknown words. And it means teaching broadly applicable principles of spelling, rather than dozens of narrowly applicable spelling rules.
Simply said, spelling rules do little to help children understand how words work. When they have numerous variations and exceptions, they can’t be applied to unknown words. Finally, traditional spelling rules can lead to confusion and spelling errors. Consider these two popular rules: “I before E except after C,” and “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.”
“I before E except after C” only applies to words in which the ie combination functions as a vowel digraph that clearly makes a long E sound. For example, the following words can be spelled using I before E: piece, niece, chief, thief, yield, and field. Meanwhile, the words deceit, ceiling, and receive provide the exception to the first half of the rule.
But in dozens of other words, the rule fails more than it succeeds! For example, I before E does not work in words such as weigh, sleigh, eight, freight, beige, and vein, or in words such as foreign, forfeit, heifer, and height. Nor does it apply to words in which an adjacent I and E (or E and I) aren’t a digraph, such as in deity and science and their various derivations (deify, deification, prescience, scientific, and so on). Finally, even when a vowel digraph makes the long E sound, there are exceptions to “I before E” Here I am thinking of seize, weird, either, neither, protein, and caffeine, among others. In the end, because “I before E” has so many exceptions, it is rendered mostly useless as a rule.
If you want to teach children how to determine if they should have the E first or the I, I’d suggest you start with a broadly applicable principle: certain vowel team patterns are almost always pronounced the same way. This means you should teach the eigh pattern because it almost always says Long A (sleigh, weigh, eight, weight, neigh, neighbor), you should teach the ief pattern because it almost always says EEF (thief, grief, brief, debrief, belief, disbelief), and you should teach the ield pattern because it almost always says EELD (field, yield, wield, shield, Garfield, windshield). Teach your students these patterns and then give them many opportunities to spell, write, and read these patterns in many different settings. The more they spell, read, and write words with patterns, the more they will enter these words into the dictionaries in their brains.
Now let’s consider “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” Like “I before E except after C,” the “two vowels go walking” rule does little to nothing to help students develop an understanding of spelling patterns within words. How does it teach kids to read or spell the following words, all of which have “two vowels walking:” vein, great, height, their, spread, spoil, pear, noun, piece, heard, rough, and moon?
Why not teach this much more useful principle: a sound’s position often determines its spelling. Often, there are many spellings for one vowel sound. Thus, vowel spellings can seem horribly complicated. But when you teach students to be guided by sound position, vowel spellings become more predictable. For example, the /ou/ sound can be spelled ou or ow. Before students have committed whole words like cloud, clown, outer, and flower to the dictionaries in their brains, they need a way to decide how to spell the /ou/ sound. Is it clowd or cloud?
We can help kids figure out which spelling to use by teaching them to think about where they hear the sound in a word. In this instance, you might tell your students that if the /ou/ sound is heard at the beginning of a syllable, spell it ou. Then give them examples (ouch, out, oust, and ounce). If /ou/ is heard at the end of a syllable, spell it ow (as in cow, now, chow, eyebrow, powder, and flower). And if /ou/ is in the middle of a syllable, use ou (as in mouse, loud, bounce, joust, and grouch). Finally, teach them an exception to the middle position: if you hear /ou/ in the middle of a one-syllable word and the vowel sound is followed by a /n/ or /l/ sound, then spell it ow (as in brown, gown, howl, and growl).
Other vowel spellings that can be determined by sound position include oi and oy, ai and ay, and long vowel sounds at the end of a syllabe in multi-syllable words (most are open syllables, which are simply spelled with one vowel, as in hero, ego, fever, ivy, vital, pilot, navy, favor, bacon, radio, and potato). Using the position of a sound in a word also works for consonant spellings. Thus, when you hear the /f/, /l/, or /s/ sound after a short vowel sound in a one-syllable word, you double the f, l, or s letter (as in fluff, bill, and glass).
The main point: a few principles are easier to remember and more broadly applicable than many exception-ridden rules.
Like the Look-Touch-Say activity I discussed in September, Word Dictation and Sentence Dictation are activities that give students opportunities to listen to known and unknown words, apply strategies to spell them, analyze mistakes, and notice the sounds, patterns, and meanings of words. These activities can be done whole group, small group, or with a buddy, and the means of writing the words can vary: old school paper and pencil, individual white boards, or digital tablets.
Finding words for dictation is easy if you create a master spelling list that includes many words that follow a few sounds, patterns, or meaning parts. Keep the dictation session brief, maybe six or seven minutes long, and allow a little time for discussion during the instant error correction phase. Here’s an example of what this activity looks and sounds like when I teach it to students who have white boards for writing.
When dictating unknown words, I use a little chant to reinforce the idea that words follow patterns and a strategy for spelling is to use a known word to spell an unknown word (spelling by analogy). The chant is simply, “If you can spell ___, you can spell ___.” Thus, when I ask children to spell the word bruise, I might say, “The next word is bruise. If you can spell cruise, you can bruise.” Likewise, “The next spelling word is bruising. If you can spell cruising, you can spell bruising.”
In sentence dictation, students write a sentence that’s completely decodable based on what they’ve previously learned in spelling. I began using this activity in heterogeneously grouped classrooms after I had done it for a year with my Wilson Reading intervention groups. I think it’s an effective activity for two reasons. First, it gives kids the opportunity to apply spelling strategies across a string of words. Second, it asks children to listen closely to entire sentences and then remember what was said. I think you’ll agree that listening and remembering is a skill many children (and adults, too) need to practice!
In April and May of last year, I taught spelling for three weeks in a second grade classroom. One of the weeks focused on two long vowel sounds: long I spelled i_e and long U spelled u_e. To help the students understand how adding a letter e to a CVC word can create a long vowel sound, I took the class through a sentence dictation activity. The words in each sentence came from my spelling master list, not from their take-home list. Because the students had never heard the words before, they had to apply sound and pattern knowledge to spell them, which is the point of using “unstudied” words.
I started the sentence dictation by saying, “I say a sentence, we say the sentence together, you say the sentence, and then you write the sentence. I say, we say, you say, you write! Get ready, here’s the sentence: I spin the slim flute. Say it with me: I spin the slim flute. Now you say it.”
Every student said the sentence – I could see every mouth moving – but I still wasn’t sure they were all saying the right words. So I repeated the sentence more time and had them repeat it. Next, after saying, “You write it,” I walked through the class and monitored their progress. As students wrote, I noticed some of them pausing to repeat the sentence under their breaths. I also noticed that almost all of the children were spelling the words correctly. Good for them!
Sentence dictation can take many forms. It can be a regular part of your spelling instruction or it can be done once or twice a month. You can have children write with paper and pencil, with white board and marker, or with computer tables and a writing program. You can incorporate the activity into your weekly spelling test. I used to do it as an opportunity to earn a bonus point. Any student who spelled the entire dictated sentence correctly and included correct capitalization and punctuation received a bonus point, which offset any misspelled test word.
If you feel the need to find sentences, programs such Recipe for Reading, Wilson Language, and Step By Step Learning, have them. Sentences can be made more memorable if they are goofy, and Step By Step Learning has word cards called Silly Sentence Cards. But I think you can make your own sentences. To create a sentence or two doesn’t take much time, and with a little extra effort you can create ones that are amusing to elementary-age kids. Here are sentences using long U words from the master list I created in my upcoming spelling book for Stenhouse Publishing:
June was rude when she threw a cashew.
When he sat on a juice box, my nephew bruised his butt.
But why shoulder the burden of writing sentences? Put the work on the shoulders of the kids! Challenge your students to craft silly sentences from their list of spelling words and submit them to you. Then look them over, reject any with incorrect mechanics, put the rest in a pile, and randomly draw two. Read these to the class during sentence dictation or for a spelling test bonus point. The children who are picked will be thrilled.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.