Reading about Reading
I’ve been traveling a lot lately. Luckily, while standing around in airports and sitting on planes, I’ve had a very interesting book to read, namely Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can be Done About It. Fairly technical in many places, opinionated in parts, and sure to be controversial, it’s also a fascinating, informative, and fun read about reading, especially for anyone who is a language nerd (like me).
The book’s author, Mark Seidenberg, a University of Wisconsin cognitive neuroscientist, writes in a voice that is both humorous and authoritative. He says he has been studying reading “since the disco era” and I believe him. His deep knowledge is apparent and disco isn’t the only 70s cultural reference he drops.
The first two thirds of the book address the history of language development (including reading and writing) and the science of how we read (and why reading is more difficult for some than others). There are many points to ponder, including 1) the reasons why reading is much more difficult than speaking, and 2) the 10,000 year old evolutionary pathway our brains may have taken (moving from face recognition to symbol recognition) to get to the point where reading occurs.
The last third of the book is devoted to Mark Seidenberg’s takes on a number of educational issues that impact whether or not children in America learn to read. This section of the book is already creating some controversy. For a taste of this, as well as for a sad reminder of how the digital age has made it so easy to post ideological, ill-informed, and nonsensical opinions, rants, and whines, see the Customer Reviews for this book on Amazon. As for this reader, I’m ambivalent about some of Seidenberg’s viewpoints (I feel like I need to know more) and I debate others (I think his critique of balanced literacy probably suffers from a lack exposure to current-day reading classrooms that are staffed by highly trained and knowledgeable teachers who do engage in the literacy best practices that Seidenberg thinks should be taught). However, I am in agreement with a few of his critiques, especially the one concerning how American elementary school teachers are prepared for classroom jobs (the process is lacking) and what the field of education can do to improve it.
Anyway, controversy and opinions aside, there are dozens of science-based points in the book that are really interesting to think about. Here are three of my favorites, culled from my top ten:
For the remainder of this post, I’m going to ponder the first point: the basic process for learning to read is a statistical one. More specifically, I’m going to consider sight words, a subject I’ve written about before.
No Sight Words
No Sight Words is a subheading in the book’s chapter entitled Reading, The Eternal Triangle. The subheading sets the stage for this idea: because a reader’s brain statistically processes words, sounds, and meanings (encountered daily, over weeks and months), sight words aren’t really learned through memorization. To quote the book (page 143): “Words with atypical pronunciations such as HAVE and GIVE are usually treated as sight words that must be memorized. However, HAVE’s pronunciation is not arbitrary; it overlaps with HAD, HAS, HAVING, HAVEN’T, HIVE, and other words. Thus, what the child learns about words such as HAVE is relevant to many other words in which the vowel has an atypical pronunciation…”
Just to be clear, because we don’t end English language words in U or V, teachers know that words like HAVE and BLUE, GIVE and TRUE end with an E. It’s a convention of English spelling. Seidenberg doesn’t dispute this. Rather, he focuses on how the brain works during reading. That brain’s process for coming to a point in which it can read a word is not a process of remembering and applying a spelling principle (although this might help a speller spell the word correctly). Nor is it a process of strict memorization, in which a child repeatedly looks at the word HAVE in isolation until it is remembered. Rather, the brain’s process for reading HAVE is one of looking at and hearing many different words, analyzing their word features and pronunciations, applying weights to these features, and then, over time, coming to recognize (reading) the word as “have.” In the end, the word has become wholly encoded in the brain dictionary or lexicon, ready for instant recall for spelling and, more importantly, ready for instant recognition for reading (by sight, as it were). None of this is done consciously, at least not by beginning readers.
My understanding of the statistical nature of learning to read a word (such as HAVE) is this: Certain letter feature aspects of HAVE, such as VE, AVE, HAV, are analyzed in conjunction with the aural presentation of the word (as read by a parent, teacher, or the reader herself). These aspects are compared and contrasted with other aspects of other words. The brain considers the parts VE, AVE, and SAV of the word SAVE, the parts VE, IVE, GIV of the word GIVE, the parts AD and HA of the word HAD, and so on. These word aspects (or parts) are constantly weighted by the brain. In the end, the brain comes to read the target word by comparing and contrasting all of these weighted parts, allowing some to fade away and others to strengthen.
Dr. Seidenberg’s research involves computer modeling. The computer model of reading that he and others have developed sheds light on the invisible thought processes that take place in the brains of readers all over the world. Consider this quote from the book: “Although the model doesn’t learn ‘sight words’ by memorizing them, once it has learned a word very well, it behaves as though it is read ‘by sight’… Early in training, the model’s performance on a word such as HAVE is affected by its overlap with other words. It is not memorized ‘by sight.’ However, like most ‘sight words,’ HAVE is a very high-frequency word. The model learns it relatively quickly because common words are trained more often than less common ones.”
So, how does knowing that a brain learns words via statistical analysis help me teach kids to read, spell, and write? What can I do to more effectively teach struggling readers, writers, and spellers? First of all, its important to provide opportunities for kids encounter lots of words. This means we must have them read, read, read and write, write, write. Secondly, it’s important to have effective skill instruction in place.
For years I taught 4th and 5th graders with IEPs. Later, I taught low achieving 3rd graders. Some of the children stumbled over high frequency, atypically pronounced words like WAS and WANT. Past practice was this: give kids a big ring of “sight” word cards and have them repeatedly practice these flash cards at home with their parents, on their own during independent work time, and with a teacher (but just for a few minutes a week). The thought was that students would memorize the words through repeated practice, cramming them into their mental dictionary and securing it for use when they saw it in a piece of text.
As I learned more about the Wilson Reading System (based on Orton-Gillingham, which teaches via instruction that supports pattern recognition), I came to believe that the rote memorization method for learning sight words needed to be pushed to the background and a method that taught students to notice patterns, read patterns, and spell patterns needed to be emphasized. In other words, the main method for teaching “sight” words should be to present these words alongside other words with similar features. Spelling and phonics instruction should be aligned, spelling and phonics should be carefully taught, and the time devoted to them should be intensive.
Effective instruction involves presenting “sight words,” such as the high frequency words on a Dolsch list, within a context of patterns that make words and understanding "how words work. Sure, to give kids multiple exposure to difficult to learn words, we can have them roll through a string of unrelated high-frequency words on flash cards. But more importantly, we must present “irregular” sight words (which really aren’t so irregular) alongside words connected by a shared feature and presented during spelling and phonics instruction. For example, to teach SAID, present it alongside SAY and SAYS. Teaching that SAID is spelled with an A (as opposed to an E as in SED) helps connect the word, through meaning, to the words SAY, SAYING, and SAYS. It also helps the brain tease out spelling and pronunciation features that are statistically significant.
Here’s another example. Consider the schwa sound of A in the word WAS. This word isn’t so irregular in its pronunciation. Its schwa A sound is also present in the high-frequency words WHAT and WANT, as well as in contractions and inflectional variations (WASN’T, WANTED, WANTING). Additionally, the schwa A is found in other Dolsch list words such as ABOUT, AGAIN, and AROUND, as well as in commonly encountered words like ANOTHER and ALONE. Finally, the sound and spelling is present in engaging, common knowledge words such as ALASKA and BANANA.
In the end, words are read in entirety and by parts. Thus, my language instruction (reading, writing, spelling) should give attention to both: noticing and comparing parts, working to move whole words into the brain dictionary for instantaneous recognition during reading. To quote Language at the Speed of Sight one last time: “So, is HAVE read “as a whole,” or do the parts matter? This is like asking if light is a wave or a particle. The answer is it isn’t one or the other; it’s both.”
“Seven types to rule all words, seven to classify them,
Seven types to differentiate, and through instruction bind them.”
Familiar with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? If so, you’ll recognize my quote as a take-off on the ominous inscription that encircles the One Ring. Forged by the dark lord, Sauron, the ring was powerful enough to give its wearer dominion over all of Middle Earth. (And now you know that I am a total sci-fi / fantasy nerd.)
While not as powerful as the One Ring, the seven syllable types are certainly strong enough to differentiate a monolithic one-size-fits-all spelling list and improve “memorize-and-move-on” spelling instruction.
What follows is a bit of review (from one of my most popular spelling posts, 3/15/2017), and then additional thoughts on how to use the seven syllable types to create differentiated spelling lists from a master spelling list. Once you get to the middle of the post, you'll see plenty of examples of categorized and differentiated lists.
The Power of Syllable Types
Syllable types provide an easy way to manage the dozens of word features found in most spelling scope and sequences. Typically, a spelling scope and sequence is organized loosely around word features associated with the stages of spelling development. For example, first graders, who are developing the ability to match letters to sounds, are often given spelling words that feature CVC patterns, consonant blends, digraphs, and CVe patterns. In contrast, third graders, who are developing the ability to notice and use patterns in words, are often given vowel teams, inflectional endings, and special consonant spellings like soft c and soft g. As the stages of spelling development progress, more and more spelling features are presented to students. Scan the scope and sequence of a any spelling program and you will see dozens of spelling features listed.
A long list of features can present real difficulties for both teachers and students. First, a broad 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 using when they decode during reading? 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 minute details (dozens of features) gives teachers and students the false notion that English spellings are nonsensical or impossible to predict. Finally, loosely categorized features generally make spelling harder for students to learn and teachers to teach.
I believe these difficulties are minimized when teachers use seven syllable types to guide their spelling instruction. When teachers think of words in terms of the seven syllable types, they automatically focus the breadth of a typical spelling scope and sequence. This, in turn, makes spelling instruction more 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.
Here are the syllable types and examples of words that use each type exclusively. Also, I’ve presented the types in a sequence that can be used in the classroom. In other words, teach closed syllables first, move to open syllables, and then to the VCe syllable, and so on.
Use the seven syllable types to differentiate your master spelling list
My two previous posts addressed what a master spelling list is and how to create one. Once you create a master spelling list, you can categorize its words by complexity and then use these categories to create differentiated spelling lists. One way to fine tune categorizing is to think of spelling words in terms of seven syllable types.
Let’s consider this master list, appropriate for any student in the beginning stages of spelling development. This list, containing almost 60 words, is all about teaching children to notice and understand the consonant-vowel-e spelling feature, specifically A-consonant-E and O-consonant-E. To help students see how the long and short sound words differ in spellings, this master list also contains CVC words, a concept that was previously taught. Two-syllable words, many of them compound words, are also given.
Here’s the list categorized by syllable types, specifically the closed syllable type and vowel-consonant-e syllable type. More complex two-syllable words are presented as either a closed syllable + closed syllable, or as a combination of closed + VCe.
Categorizing the words as syllable types helps me to see how some words are less complex and some are more. Once I see the various levels of complexity, I can create three differentiated word lists fairly easy. In this example, the first list is made up of less complex one-syllable words that use either a closed syllable or a VCe syllable. The second list is more complex because some of its words begin with more complex consonant clusters and it has two-syllable words. But the two syllable words use only closed syllables. The last list is the most complex. It has numerous two-syllable words and some of them combine a closed syllable and a VCe syllable (for example, update and explode).
Now let’s consider a list that is appropriate for students who have more developed spelling skills. Here we see over forty multi-syllable words containing the -ion suffix, which we can think of as -tion and -sion.
Now, here’s the list categorized by syllable types, which includes the -ion suffix plus various combinations of closed syllables, open syllables, and r-controlled syllables.
Once again, when I think in terms of syllable types, I can see how some words are less complex and some are more. I can use this range of complexity to construct three differentiated word lists. In this final example, the first list is made up of only two-syllable words. Each word is either a closed syllable + the suffix or an open syllable + the suffix. The second list is more complex because it has two- and three-syllable words. Still, all words are a combination of only two syllable types plus the suffix. The last list is most complex. It has words that are up to four syllables long. Some words, like evaporation combine two open syllables, a closed syllable, an r-controlled syllable, and the suffix.
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 (One ring to rule them all...), 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, which is surely a strong foundation.
As with my previous blog about the master spelling list, this post has a companion video. You can find it on my YouTube Channel in the Development from the Drums series. Here’s the link: bit.ly/MstSpl2.
Now, more thoughts on creating a master spelling list.
An effective spelling list is a nuanced thing: developmentally appropriate, not too broad in the concepts it teaches, varied in its levels of word difficulty, designed for differentiation, inclusive of words often used in writing, and flexible enough to be used with a variety of instructional activities.
To start, here are three guidelines for creating an effective master spelling list for every spelling lesson:
1.Begin by narrowing what you want to teach. For children in the early and early middle stages of spelling development, keep your list focused on only one to three features (sound-letter relationships or spelling patterns). For children in the more advanced stages, keep your list to four concepts (patterns, Latin/Greek roots, affixes, etc.).
But narrow is only half the formula. The list also needs to be deep. By deep I mean that the list has a great variation on a few simple themes. Variation within a narrow range of features allows you to differentiate, scaffold your instruction, and expose students to words they might see while reading and writing.
2. As you consider words for making your list deeper, try to choose words that have high utility for students when they write. For example, if you are teaching the I-consonant-E pattern to second graders, pick words like ice, mile, and inside, rather than vice, fife, and incite. While these words are useful for writing the sentence, “His one great vice was inciting fife playing,” I doubt that any second grader would ever write it.
3.Construct a master list at least 30 to 40 words long. Every word should be built upon the two to four spelling ideas you want to teach. Use some of the words in a pre-test. After giving a pre-test, use other words to construct a weekly word lists for students. Or make two or three differentiated lists for groups of students. In this way, you can teach to a variety of achievement levels, varying word length and/or word meaning but staying within the parameters of guideline number one.
Focus on two to four spelling features
When lists are focused, teachers have a better understanding of what, exactly, they are teaching. They are also better able to assess whether students have truly mastered a sound-letter combination, pattern, suffix, root word, etc. Meanwhile, students have a better chance of mastering whatever is being presented.
I believe you will have more success teaching English language learners and struggling readers to read and write when your lesson’s word list is narrow and deep. If you present too many features with too few examples, your lesson isn’t anchored. And if your lesson isn’t anchored, your learners won’t learn - they’ll just memorize now and forget later on. But if your list consists of two to four main roots, and if each root has a great many words branching from it, your students will have the chance to grow deep spelling roots of their own, roots that will anchor and sustain them throughout their independent reading and writing.
Balance spelling concepts and writing words
When constructing a master list, think about the words children use in writing. A helpful resource for aligning spelling concepts with often-used writing words is The Basic Spelling Vocabulary List (Grahm, Harris, & Loynachan, 1993). Here’s a link to it at LDOnline: http://bit.ly/SplVcbLst. According to the authors, the spelling vocabulary list they present contains “850 words that account for 80 percent of the words children use in their writing — the ones they need to be able to spell correctly.”
Also, use your teacher sense when constructing a list. As we teach within our grades, and as our students write, we increasingly gain a sense of what topics out students are writing about and what words they need to convey information on these topics. Consider keeping a small notebook labeled “Words for Writing” handy. In the notebook, jot down words you see children using in their writing or words that occur to you as you think about upcoming writing lessons. When it comes time to create a master list for any given spelling lesson, scan through the words you’ve listed to see if any work with the spelling concept you want to teach.
Construct a master list
To use a variety of spelling activities in your classroom, you need a large number of words at your disposal. Pulling in a mixture of words from a variety of sources gives you real options for instruction. A lengthy master word list allows you to do the following:
Here are two examples of a master spelling list. Both are modifications of the lists in my January 8 post. The first one works for students in the early stages of spelling development. The second is appropriate for students in later stages. Notice that both focus on only three spelling features.
Where do you get words for your master spelling list? First, I pull words from websites such as The Free Dictionary and Rhymezone. Second, I get words from rhyming dictionaries, such as The Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary by Sue Young. Third, I use the dictation books of the Wilson Reading System. And finally, I pull words from my own, aging grey matter. The mind is a terrible thing to waste and I’m doing my best to keep my brain sharp with a bit of word play and rhyming.
In conclusion, a master spelling list focuses on a few key spelling concepts, is inclusive of writing words, is useful for non-worksheet activities that teach children how to spell, and is long enough to allow for individualization and re-teaching. Construct one and you’ll be well on your way to truly teaching spelling and giving your students a deeper understanding of words.
Hard to believe it’s 2018! Onward and upward into the new year.
One of my recent Tweets generated some discussion about spelling word lists, so my take on a spelling word list is the topic for this blog. And I’ll follow up with a companion piece in a couple of weeks.
But before I launch into spelling lists, I want to point out that I’m writing this blog to coincide with the launch of my YouTube Channel, creatively titled “The Mark Weakland Channel.” The Mark Weakland Channel doesn’t feature sci-fi fantasies, comedy specials, or shows about British royalty. It will feature 5 to 7-minute video clips of me discussing topics related to all things literacy. Right now there’s only one video! But I’m learning. I’m calling my first series of videos “Development from the Drums” (because its alliterative and because I’ll be sitting behind my drum set to up the entertainment value). So please go to YouTube and listen as I yak about spelling and lay down a beat. Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/Spllist1.
And now, thoughts on spelling word lists, starting with my idea of a master spelling word list.
Within my philosophy of spelling, the master spelling list is a key component of instruction. Once created, its functions are many. It’s deep reservoir of words enable the creation of differentiated spelling lists. It provides words for modeling strategies and running activities. And it gives students many examples of just a few spelling features, thereby helping kids focus on sounds and letters, patterns, and the meaning making parts of words.
Here’s an important point: a spelling list is NOT the main element of spelling instruction. Neither is it the “thing” that children are supposed to learn. A spelling list is simply a tool, one of many that you will use as you teach children HOW to spell words. As teachers, we want to teach children how to spell, not what to spell. To teach them how to spell, you need words (content), teaching techniques (instruction), and activities (for student practice, from guided to independent). Also, the weekly spelling list is one of a number of vehicles that move words from the page into the “mind dictionary” or lexicon of each student. This dictionary of the mind is critical for fluent reading.
Because the purpose of spelling instruction is to help children become better readers and writers, it pays to have a bank of spelling words that is narrow and deep. By narrow I mean that your spelling instruction for the week does not include too many spelling features and concepts. If you have too many features in your master list, you won’t be able to repeatedly point out (through modeling, instruction, and guided and independent practice) the features and concepts that you want your students to focus on, learn, and apply in all types of reading and writing situations.
Here are two non-example lists. When it comes to helping children become better readers through spelling, these types of lists do not help the cause, especially for children who struggle to read and write. The first is from the 2nd grade curriculum of a big publisher basal reading series. The second is a 5th grade list, also from a well-known basal reading series. Although the 2nd grade list is more focused, both lists have too many spelling features and too few words that provide examples of each feature.
In a nutshell, these lists are too wide and too shallow, especially the 5th grade list. Here is my thinking about why:
In my next blog, I’ll expound a bit more on how you narrow a spelling list and then bring in words to create a master spelling list. And I’ll give two examples of master spelling lists.
If you’re interested in hearing me say what I’ve just written (but in a slightly different way, and with a little drumming), then visit my YouTube channel “Mark Weakland” and check out my video. And consider clicking the SUBSCRIBE button to become a regularly informed viewer.
In my previous blog post I discussed how spelling ability develops - through excellent instruction - and then went on to list an outline of what effective spelling instruction is: systematic and sequential, direct and explicit (at times), focused and mastery-based, differentiated, strategy-based, and centered on sound, pattern, and meaning. In this blog, I'll flesh out each of those listed ideas, starting with what systematic and sequential means.
When we understand that instruction should be systematic and sequential, we know that powerful instruction leads to powerful learning. One type of powerful instruction is regularly and frequently following a scope and sequence that provides children practice with hearing and spelling sounds, noticing and using patterns in words, and noticing and using the meaning parts of words, at ever increasing levels of complexity. Thus, excellent spelling instruction involves a well-designed scope and sequence.
When we understand that instruction should be direct and explicit at times, we recognize that powerful instruction is more than teaching a spelling scope and sequence. It also involves techniques that directly and explicitly show sound-spelling relationships, such as telling and showing how the letter F stands for the /f/ sound. In the later stages of spelling development, it means we use instruction to directly and explicitly teach children to notice, remember, and manipulate patterns and meaning, such as telling and showing them how able, noble, and bridle are made up of open and consonant-le syllables, and how prefixes can be added to able to form new words that mean very different things, such as unable and disable.
When we understand that instruction should be focused and mastery-based, we know that we should introduce only two to four spellings for a sound at a time, and that the introduction of sound spellings should unfold from the simple to the complex. Some basal programs introduce far too many sounds in one lesson. And if ten of our first-grade students have not mastered the spelling of short vowel sounds, then we should not move those students into the next set of spelling lessons that focus on long vowel sounds. Moving children, especially those in kindergarten, first, and second grades, too quickly through a spelling sequence leads to a lack of learning, a good deal of confusion, and the chance that guessing will become a habit. All of this can, in turn, lead to bigger problems in later grades. Our initial instruction should include many opportunities to slow down, step back, focus, reteach and review, especially when we are teaching children who are in the early stages of spelling and reading development.
When we understand that instruction should be differentiated, we know that because there is a continuum of development and achievement in our classroom, a rigid one-size-fits all spelling scope and sequence is not effective for all children. In November, in a classroom of twenty-two first-grade children, there may be ten who have not yet mastered the spelling of short vowel sounds. There may also be five children who easily spell short vowel sounds and are very capable of spelling multisyllabic words. This means we should consider providing different words and different types of instruction to two or even three groups of students.
When we understand that effective spelling instruction is strategy-based, we know that spelling instruction should not lead children and parents to believe that the only way to spell a word is to memorize it and then recall it. Rather, we know that the best instruction involves teaching students a number of different strategies, each of which can be used to spell practiced words correctly right off the bat or get close to the correct spellings of unknown words and then fix spelling mistakes,
fine-tuning words that are “close” until they are exact.
When we understand that spelling instruction should be centered on sound, pattern, and meaning, we know that spelling instruction should not lead children to believe that words are a string of letters that can be memorized through a classroom activity that sounds like this: “The word is dumbfound. Spell it! D-U-M-B-F-O-U-N-D! The word is diphthong. Spell it! D-I-P-H-T-H-O-N-G! The word is discombobulated. Spell it! D-I-S-C . . .” You get the idea. Rather than the simple memorization and recall of letter sequences, spelling is orthography, which is coming up with a correct sequence of letters to create a specific word through a process that involves hearing sounds and assigning letters to them, thinking in terms of patterns found in words, and always cross-checking what we hear and see with what the word means. Thus, our instruction leads students to understand that they can spell by listening to the sounds of a word and then applying single letters and groups of letters to each sound. Our instruction also teaches children that they can spell by remembering and applying letter patterns (or word families), such as –an, -ight, and –all, as well as inflectional endings such as –ing and –ed and common prefixes and suffixes like dis-, pre-, -tion, and –able. And our instruction teaches children, both young and old, to pay attention to meaning as they spell.
Finally, morphology is another important aspect of spelling. Children should be taught to identify and analyze the structure of English’s linguistic units, such as morphemes, root words, and parts of speech. When younger children get in the habit of thinking about meaning, they are more likely to spell homophones correctly, as in the sentence “Their dog was somewhere out there, lost in the forest,” or correctly spell the /t/ sound at the end of a past-tense verb as –ed, as in the words helped, fussed, and plopped. Older children can use meaning to correctly spell words related in spelling through meaning but differing in pronunciation (such as define, definite, and definition), as well as spell words that share similar sounds but are unrelated in meaning (such as adept and adapt or excel and accelerate).
Good luck with your spelling instruction! Also, thank you, veterans, for serving our country with your military service. I wish all of you a happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you’ll come back for another blog post in December!
We are now at least seven weeks into the new school year. Yikes! Where does the time go? The days are getting short but there’s still time for some last minute gardening, a bike ride, or stroll down the lane or around the block. During my strolls, my mind often meanders into areas of education: how to help principals efficiently create new literacy programs, how to help kids enjoy writing more, how to help teachers teach children to read and write. In a session yesterday at the amazing 2017 KSRA Conference (happy 50th year, KSRA!), I talked with teachers about spelling instruction. Because spelling is an overlooked way to boost reading achievement, my goal was to convince teachers that they should spend time on quality spelling instruction, as well equate quality spelling time to quality “becoming a better reader” time. To that end, I offer a few thoughts on how spelling ability does and does not develop.
Spelling ability doesn’t develop from memorizing a weekly word list.
The most effective spelling instruction is not a weekly routine in which you give your students a list of words, have them complete worksheets and write the words numerous times at home, give them an end of the week test where they regurgitate the words from memory, and then move on to another list of words. This “memorize-and-move-on” routine does little to help children become better spellers, readers, and writers. In my opinion, children who become accomplished spellers in classrooms that use a “memorize-and-move-on” program learn to spell in spite of the program.
This is not to say that memory does not play a part in spelling. It does. A well-developed lexicon or “dictionary” of words in the brain is a construct that is critical to fluent reading. This dictionary can be built through well-designed practices, including word study, strategy use, and a great deal of practice in reading, writing, and spelling. In the end, letter-sound relationships, spelling patterns, and eventually, entire words are committed to memory.
Spelling instruction that is mastery based, strategy based, differentiated, and centered on sound, pattern and meaning is something very different from instruction that consists of little more than introducing and then testing on a memorize-and-move-on weekly spelling list. Spelling words taught via effective instruction, a focused word list, and a repeating cycle of test-study-test are much more likely to become permanent in a student’s mind. Our ability to spell is improved when we can remember the “look” of a word. Typically, this type of memorizing occurs when we see a word (and related words) many times through repeated exposure. Practice makes permanent, and specific types of instruction and word activities lend themselves to this achievement of permanency. A weekly routine of “memorize-and-move-on” does not.
Spelling does develop from excellent instruction
If spelling ability doesn’t develop from memorizing a weekly word list, then how does it develop? Additionally, how do we know that there is more to spelling than memorizing and recalling letter sequences? And what should spelling instruction consist of if we need to teach more than how to memorize a weekly word list, week after week after week?
One piece of evidence about how to develop spelling ability comes from research that has shown that it is easier for children to remember predictable words than it is for them to remember irregular words (Treiman 1993). Think about it. If spelling were simply an act of memorizing, it should be just as easy for kids to memorize the spelling of irregular words, such as want, does, and said, as it is for them to spell more predictable words like list, slap, and joke. After all, every one of them is al four-letter word.
But we know from experience that the first set of words (want, does, and said) is more problematic for children to spell. Some four-letter words are easier to spell than others! If your teaching career has been anything like mine, then you have seen more than your fair share of wunt, duz, and sed. If memorizing a letter sequence were all there was to it, then it should be just as easy for me to spell silhouette and ricocheted as it is for me to spell cannonball and instruction (all ten-letter words). In the interest of full disclosure, it took me three tries with my spell-checking program to spell ricocheted. Cannonball and instruction were not a problem. Spelling is difficult for me, so if I am really interested in learning how to spell silhouette accurately every time I write it, I should learn a strategy for remembering it and then practice employing that strategy as I spell the word multiple times.
Research has also shown that children have a limited visual memory for letter sequence. I was surprised to learn that when spelling, a child holds only two to three letters in sequence (Aaron, Wilcznski, and Keetay 1998). Thus, visual memory does not account for how our students spell four- and five-letter words, let alone multisyllabic words.
Because children don’t typically spell by visually recalling a string of letters, memorizing a standardized weekly word list does little to help children learn how to spell. So what does? What type of instruction helps kids learn how to spell? At the most basic level, spelling ability develops from excellent instruction. More specifically, the most effective spelling instruction is:
• systematic and sequential;
• direct and explicit (at times);
• focused and mastery based;
• strategy based; and
• centered on sound, pattern, and meaning.
In my next blog, I'll write more about what each of these bullet statements means and looks like in the classroom.
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.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.