The answer is no, and yes.
“Oh come on!” you say, and “Good grief!” Yes, I can hear the gripes and groans, even from my lofty perch on a hill in western Pennsylvania.
I admit I’ve tried to pull you in with a provocative title. But seriously, I do think the answer to the question is indeed “no” and “yes.” The “no” part comes from my thinking about the nature of how spelling works in the brain, as well as the sometimes impoverished state of spelling instruction in school classrooms. Interestingly, the “yes” comes from the same line of thinking!
As Dr. Richard Gentry has noted in his presentations, spelling was absent from the report issued by the National Reading Panel in 2000. Comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, phonemic awareness and phonics - they were in there. But there was no Big Idea of spelling. Now, I’m happy to say, spelling is more likely to be considered a critical part of reading . Recently, I’ve seen a number of articles and books about spelling and how it relates to not only the big ideas named by the National Reading Panel, but also to the seamless act of reading itself.
Now that spelling is once again being talked about and even seriously taught, we can take a moment to note how spelling instruction is something of a paradox. There's no doubt it should be taught as a stand-alone subject (Gentry & Graham, 2010). During this stand-alone spelling time, patterns and rules are introduced and explored, strategies are explained and practiced, and activities take place. All this activity leads to two important results: 1) children gain control and mastery of word parts, as well the understanding of how sound, pattern, and meaning come together to produce correctly spelled words, and 2) entire words are stored in the brains of the students. More specifically, words are stored in the orthographic processing system (the lexicon or dictionary of the mind).
The paradox comes about because spelling should also be taught through reading and writing. Reading widely gives kids opportunities to encode word spellings and meanings in specific brain areas, as well as build neural circuitry between the semantic, orthographic, and phonological processing systems. Of course, reading also provides opportunities to build background knowledge and vocabulary, practice strategic ways of reading, and so forth. Writing widely does many of the same things.
We cannot, however, rely only on writing and reading to teach students new word spellings and new spelling skills. While reading and writing do lead to spelling gains, the gains are not large (Graham & Harris, 2016). The direct and explicit teaching of spelling, however, leads to much greater gains in spelling competence. Still, stand-alone spelling instruction does not do enough if we want our students to become proficient readers and writers with mature reading and writing skills. In the end, when we look at the big picture, the best way to promote spelling development is to teach a combination of the two approaches: stand-alone and within reading and writing.
Why, then, would we ever want to abolish spelling instruction? It is because abolishing the idea of spelling instruction just might free us from thinking of reading as a collection of isolated skills. Just as playing music isn’t an exercise in jumping between the skills of playing rhythms, scales, melodies, and harmonies, the act of reading isn’t simply toggling between decoding, word meaning, prosody, visualizing, author’s purpose, and so on. Rather, the act of reading is a holistic and emergent performance. Although a simple formula for understanding reading might be word recognition + language understanding = reading comprehension, this formula is not like a math formula, where 2 + 2 = 4. When it comes to reading, the formula is more like 2 + 2 = 7.
The reason I say that yes, we should abolish spelling instruction, is because I hope this provocation will encourage others (basal publishers, administrators, teachers) to stop thinking of literacy as a collection of isolated silos labeled spelling, reading, grammar, writing, fluency, vocabulary, and so on. Isn't it time that we stopped saying “Open your spelling books” and then, 20 minutes later, “Open your phonics book?” As Linnea Ehri has repeatedly said, phonics and spelling are two sides of one coin. Just as you cannot have a one-sided coin, you cannot imagine writing down the spelling of a word without reading it. Conversely, you cannot read a word without your brain accessing its spelling (which is stored in your orthographic processing system). Research has clearly shown that when we read a word we do so by instantly recognizing its spelling. Therefore, why would a school district promote spelling and phonics as separate subjects? And with older students, why would anyone want to teach spelling and vocabulary in isolation?
Perhaps we should start teaching within an instructional framework labeled “Word Workshop.” The term Word Workshop occurred to me after a curriculum director in Texas, who described her district as a “workshop district,” said this: “Our district teaches literacy through Reading and Writing Workshop. During our literacy block, we have time carved out for word study. My teachers are also trying to teach phonics. But they don’t know how phonics relates to spelling and they feel they don’t have enough time to teach phonics. How can I help them to conceptualize what they need to teach, and how can I help them save time?”
I can't help but think that a teacher who is trying to teach phonics AND word work, really doesn't understand the definition of either. If I were a teacher using the Word Workshop framework, I would use my Word Workshop time (let’s say 15 or 20 minutes a day), to teach spelling-phonics-vocabulary.By the way, spelling-phonics-vocabulary is one thing, not three. Perhaps we can think of it as three sides of a coin! For example, if my spelling word list included cabbage, baggage, luggage, rummage, cottage, and marriage, I would add the words courage, encourage, package, and repackage (among others). Next, I would devote time throughout the week for directly and explicitly teaching (and then having kids practice) the following: 1) word attack strategies for reading multi-syllable words, 2) noticing and understanding the meaning-making parts of words (-age, bag, lug, marry, pack, re-), as well as the meaning of each word in its entirety, and 3) spelling patterns and rules (such as doubling consonants to preserve vowel sounds, changing a y to an i when adding suffixes) that help students spell, read, and understand the words on the lists, as well as words not on a list (such as scrimmage and discourage) that they may nonetheless want to read or write. The time I spent teaching these ideas, and the ways in which I taught them, would not be silo-based. Rather, I would move back and forth between them and often combine them in one teaching session, determining my focus by considering the needs of my students, as well as the demands of the day.
But even Word Workshop might not be the best way to teach spelling. Perhaps the best way to teach spelling is to simply refrain from labeling any instruction as “teaching spelling.” When I asked my mother, who ended her career teaching first grade, how she taught spelling, she replied, “I didn’t teach spelling.” I was surprised to hear her say this because I knew she had great success in getting her students to read and write. “You didn’t teach spelling?” I asked. “No,” she said. “In my literacy block I taught reading and writing. I taught reading and writing every day for about two and a half hours. That’s what I did.” When I pressed her on her statement, she admitted that she did indeed teach her students the names of the letters and their associated sounds, she did explicitly instruct her students in letter combinations (and their associated sounds), she did use activities that gave kids practice putting letters and patterns into specific orders to make words (and then noticing and analyzing word parts and their relationships to one another), and she did regularly assess her students to determine their abilities to do these skills. But she did all of this without ever saying to her students, “Now it is time for spelling.” In a way, she had abolished spelling instruction.
I recently returned from the CREST Conference, where I presented on spelling (and its ties to reading) to Texas curriculum and instruction directors. Audience members had great comments and questions. Two questions really resonated with me and I’ve decided to write about one in this blog. I’ll discuss the second, which has to word study and workshop-model teaching, in my October posting, so stay tuned!
At CREST, the most common comment and subsequent question was “We know about sound-letter activities for younger kids, such as stretch-tap-spell, Elkonin boxes, and simple word ladders, and our teachers do them in their classrooms. But what do you suggest for older spellers, especially 4th through 6th?”
First, I would suggest that even older students may need a brush up on hearing the syllables in the words. Use the jaw drop for this (tip of the fingers go under the tip of the chin, feeling the jaw as it unerringly moves up and down for the vowel in each syllable). And for any older students who struggle with phonology, teachers may want to have these students stretch some syllables and then tap out their sounds.
I would also suggest that patterns are still a foundational place to operate from when it comes to teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. But in these grades, pattern thinking is more sophisticated. First, patterns can be tied to the seven syllable types and the rules that govern their spellings and exceptions. Researchers and writers say there are six, but I like to think of them as seven:
Finally, when it comes to older spellers, I think another foundational place of operation is the idea of a deep and rich word list for each lesson. A deep and rich word list -one with a large number of varied words tied together by just a few patterns- accomplishes a number of things:
For example, here are some of the words from a Unit 17 in Zaner-Bloser’s Spelling Connections. If you use this program, you are already at an advantage because every master list in a Spelling Connections lesson is lengthy and differentiated. In other words, it is already relatively deep and rich. I’ll start with some words (not all) from one of their fourth-grade lists that focuses on “soft G” spellings. I’ve grouped the words so that the patterns are more apparent.
Next, I’ll add a few more words. Adding words provides you with opportunities to easily expand the spelling lesson into reading and vocabulary (more on this in October). The added words also provide words for differentiated take-home spelling lists.
Now, what activities can we do with this deep and rich word list? Certainly, word sorts. But word dictation is another effective and easy activity to do. Kids can write with paper and pencils, white boards and markers, or an iPads and stylus.
I use the routine of “I say, we say, you say, you write.” Thus, village would sound like this: “The word is village. I live in a village. Say it with me. You say it. You write it.” After the kids have checked their spelling against mine (on the board), I would directly and explicitly give the word meaning. “A village is a small group of houses and buildings. It's smaller than a town. Villages are in the country.”
I also like to dictate related words that aren't on take home spelling lists. My little chant is “If you can spell ____, you can spell _____.” Thus, I might do this for the word pillage. “The word is pillage. The Vikings began to pillage the village. Say it with me. You say it. You write it. And don't forget, if you can spell village, you can spell pillage” Once again, after the kids have checked their spelling against mine, I directly and explicitly give the word meaning. “Pillage means to attack a place and take things away. Pillage is like looting or aggressively stealing.”
In a seven-minute word dictation session, you can go through 10 or more words if you keep your instruction brisk and explicit and don’t let the kids interrupt the routine with chatter and superfluous talk. At the very end, read the entire list of words written on the board. Do “I Say, We Say, You Say” and you will add repetition for English Language Learners and children who have a reading impairment. You will also effortlessly tie your spelling to phonics (encoding to decoding). Viola!
Word ladders are another quick and efficient activity to do. You don’t have to write them out in worksheet form and with older spellers, you don’t have to think “one letter, diagraph, or vowel team at a time.” You can create new words by swapping in entire syllables at the prefix, suffix, root, or root word level. Just be careful that your jumps between words isn’t too dramatic. As you go through a word ladder with a large (or small group), tie in vocabulary by telling the students what the new target word means. Also, discuss rules (when to drop or not drop silent E, how to form the past tense, etc.) when the opportunity presents itself. Here are two word ladders that are based on the fourth-grade words presented above.
Sentence dictation and flip folders are two other 7 to 10-minute activities that work with 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.
I’ll mention older spellers again in my October blog when I discuss the second big comment and question from my CREST audience: “How can my teachers teach spelling, then phonics, then vocabulary in when they have so little time to teach, and how does this all work with a workshop-based school district?” My suggestion? Think in terms of Word Workshop! What’s Word Workshop? I’m still figuring it out but I should have a decent answer by October!
Come late January of 2019, I’ll be celebrating the arrival of my new Stenhouse spelling book, Super Spellers Starter Sets. The “Starter Sets” of the title refers to the sets of lessons found inside. Each lesson set is chock full of best practice spelling instruction, including specific spelling features to focus on, important points of instruction, a master list of 30 to 50 spelling words, spelling strategies, differentiated words lists, and plenty of spelling activities that build reading, writing, and spelling skills.
As a run up to the release of the book, I'm using this blog to offer monthly ideas and thoughts on spelling instruction pulled from the book’s lesson starter sets. I hope this information inspires the use of spelling strategies, activities, and types of instruction that strengthen student reading and writing skills, especially for students who are struggling.
This first offering is all about word ladders. When you have a deep reservoir of words (a master spelling list) to draw on, you can bring many related words into any activity that teaches students how to spell, not what to spell. One effective activity is climbing a word ladder, from the bottom to the top.
Word ladders involve morphing one word into another. Sometimes the word is changed one letter at a time. At other times, digraphs are subtracted or added, vowel teams are swapped in and out, and meaning-making parts are deleted or inserted. A change in one word 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 more words to reach the target word at the top.
At their most basic level, word ladders help children notice sounds, especially inner vowels, and their associated spellings. Here’s a word ladder that helps spellers notice vowels: cat, cut, cup, pup, pep, pen, pan, pin, pit, pot, hot, hog. Another word ladder that focuses on vowels is this one: check, peck, pick, chick, chip, ship, shop, chop, cheap, cheep.Notice how each new word changes one spelling feature of the previous word.
At a more advanced level, word ladders help children understand patterns and meanings. This word ladder helps children notice vowel-team patterns: foil, fail, tail, toil, oil, boil, boy, bay. And this word ladder clue prompts students to think about meaning: “Take the Latin root off eject. Add a new Latin root to make a word that means to violently eject or explode like a volcano.” The new word? Erupt.
As with every activity you teach, present a word ladder to the whole class, model how it is done, and then guide students as they complete a new one. Students never erase the previous word. This is because you want them to notice how the words change, letter by letter, part by part, and word by word. Through their noticing, students associate letters, letter chunks, and affixes and roots with both sound and meaning.
Word ladder recording can be done with paper and pencil, a photocopy of the word ladder (such as the ones provide in my upcoming book), a dry eraser board and marker, digital tablet and stylus, and/or a word ladder template printed on oak tag, laminated, and then written upon using dry erase markers. Word ladders can be completed within a whole group, in small groups, or independently.
Here are four sample word ladders. Each one comes from Super Speller Starter Sets.
These first two give the answers (so you can see how word ladders work) and are appropriate for children in the 1-3 grade band. The focus of the first ladder is double consonants (ff, ss, ll) at the end of a one-syllable word. The focus of the second is compound words.
The two ladders below do not give answers. They are appropriate for children in the 3-5 grade band. This first gives practice on noticing and spelling the syllable juncture for words ending in consonant-LE. The second is all about Greek roots.
Once students get the routine of doing word ladders, they can do them on their own. And once you get the hang of word ladder construction, you can create your own. They don’t need to be fancy and they don’t have to have a clever beginning and ending. Another option is to challenge your students to make their own word ladders. Nothing tickles students more than when you present something they created as a challenge for the entire class.
In the end, the most important point is this: doing a word ladder helps students notice and understand how words are spelled based on sounds and letters, patterns, and meanings. Through noticing and understanding, children learn how to spell the unknown words they want to use in their writing. Even more importantly, they build the dictionary in their brains that is critical for fluent reading.
Good luck with word ladders, have fun, and I wish you the best with the start of your school year!
In Part I, I put forth the idea of that the scientific theory of reading is like a map. Let’s call it The Map of Reading Theory. For teachers to get the ultimate destination point (X) - capable and happy readers, writers, and spellers - they must have the map in their possession and know how to read it. Most importantly, they must follow it!
I also put forth the proposition that if reading, writing, and spelling success is going to be scaled to a point where the success is district-wide (beyond the individual classrooms of highly capable teachers), then it is necessary to follow other maps as well. I see these additional maps as:
Map of Literacy Leadership.
This map describes how literacy leaders gather into a team capable of solving literacy problems and promoting literacy solutions within a district or school. Its features are the general laws and facts found in theories of human interaction, leadership, and team-dynamics. I’d say it’s also based on the research and writing of people like Bruce Joyce, Beverly Showers, John Hattie, and others.
Map of Plans and Programs
This map describes the components of an effective literacy plan and guides the literacy leadership team as they construct it. Commander Chris Hatfield (NASA astronaut) says, “Space exploration demands that we have a short, one-page solution to any problem.” A literacy plan won’t be a one-page document. But it should be compact and to the point, describing what content, instructional methods, and literacy frameworks will be combined into a plan capable of producing strong readers, writers, and spellers.
I see this map as being different from the others. It is not so much a narrative that describes the features of a scientific theory as it is a collection of information gathering documents (constructed by the team) that allow the team to map out a new literacy plan. However, what is included in this plan (via the documents) is absolutely grounded in the Map of Reading Theory
This plan is a melding of various literacy programs and/or practices, such as a basal reading series with best practices from balanced literacy, or a guided reading program plus Kid Writing plus Spelling Connections, and so forth.
The Map of Implementation
I also call this The Map of Space and Time. This map describes how a literacy plan is implemented across classrooms and buildings (space) and over multiple years (time). For full implementation to occur, that is to say for the plan to get students to destination point X year after year, teacher and literacy leaders must partake in professional development and administrators must give enlightened oversight to the entire process. Like the Map of Leadership, this map features the general laws and facts found in the theories of leadership and team-dynamics. It is also based on research that describes the actions and behaviors of teachers and administrators that lead to effective and sustained literacy practices.
When maps are followed, the instructional capability and the content knowledge of teachers and administrators are deepened, and literacy programs are strengthened across a system, from classroom to grade level to school to district. In turn, more and more students become successful and happy readers, writers, and spellers. And that is the ultimate point of arrival.
As I prepare to travel to ILA’s 2018 Conference, maps are on my mind. I’ll use a mental map to get from my home in the hinterlands to the Pittsburgh Airport. Knowing the roads of western Pennsylvania well, I have no need for Google or Apple maps. But in Austin, I’ll use my phone to navigate from my BnB to the convention center, as well as to the parks, Tex-Mex eateries, and music nightclubs I plan to visit. Finally, I’ll use a digital or even a hardcopy map of the conference center to get to Room 18 D (where Carrie Zales and I will present our session, Literacy Crosswalks for Leaders).
I am fascinated by maps. Always have been. Perhaps this is the reason I am using the image to create an analogy for how literacy leaders can create stronger reading, writing, and spelling programs. For the last four years, as part of my business, I have provided workshops, consultation, coaching, and model lessons to teachers and administrators in school districts. With regards to literacy instruction, my starting point is always reading theory (as formulated by research) and the instructional best practices that spring from that theory. In a Reading Today blog last year (as well as in this blog), I called our theoretical understanding of reading The Map. Now, I’d like to expand upon that image and idea.
The idea of a scientific theory being a map was put forth by author and researcher Peter Godfrey-Smith. Science is largely about finding patterns of behavior – the behavior of quarks and atoms, of elements in a chemical reaction, of children interacting with text. These patterns are observed over and over again in a variety of situations. In time, facts are identified and general laws are formulated. Godfrey-Smith says that a theory of science (a.k.a. a map), is a descriptive narrative of how a particular system works. A map (a.k.a. theory of science) shows what is essential, focuses the map reader on the core properties of the considered system, and perhaps most importantly, is predictive.
When it comes to literacy, The Map of Reading Theory describes reading as landscape features (scientific facts). These features include, but are not limited to, the alphabetic principle, metacognition, speech as a starting point for reading development, fluency as rate and accuracy, the idea that encoding and decoding draw from the same pool of knowledge, the understanding that the brain reads through the coordination of various processing systems including semantic, orthographic, and phonological, and so on and so forth.
Each feature on The Map of Reading Theory can be used to plot a path towards an ultimate destination point (X). For teachers and parents (in fact for everyone), this destination point is capable and happy readers and writers. Because The Map is highly predictive, if educators follow it, there is an excellent chance they will get their kids to X.
To continue the analogy, the most efficient path to X (capable and happy readers and writers) involves transecting specific map features. These features sit within larger circumscribed areas. I think of these larger areas as the frameworks of reading, writing, and spelling instruction. Consider the following:
The list of features, as well as the areas that circumscribe said features, would fill a book. In fact it fills many books, including the 2.6-pound, 1,344 page-long book Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading, 6th Edition that sits on my desk (published by the International Reading Association).
As I interact with principals and teachers, my desire is for them to follow The Map of Reading Theory- always! Following it greatly increases the chance that students will become successful readers, writers, and spellers. Of course, some paths are more direct (efficient, effective) than others. The more a child struggles, the more you should chart a direct course. But even then, multiple pathways to success exist. Multiple pathways, however, does not equate to all roads being equal. Some pathways are simply too circuitous and convoluted. Others are downright dangerous.
What is to be avoided at all costs is a path that veers to the fringes of the map or worse, off the map entirely. Uncharted and dangerous “features” include the Pits of Unproven Practice (teaching to individual learning styles; using tinted lenses to “help” children with dyslexia ), the Thickets of Instructional Ignorance (discovery learning is best for all; writing spelling words five times each is an effective way to practice), and the Caves of Classroom Isolation (“Our district doesn’t use literacy leadership teams or coaching” and “I close my door and keep my head down”). These are places we don’t want to go!
There are, however, more maps to consider. If reading, writing, and spelling success is going to be scaled to a point where it occurs throughout a district (beyond the individual classrooms of highly capable teachers), then it is necessary to follow other maps as well. What are these other maps? I’d say:
In Part II of this blog (which I hope to publish by the end of this week), I’ll define these maps and tell two personal stories regarding them.
I recently tweeted “It’s never to late to teach spelling strategies.” The tweet focused on the spelling strategy Get Close, Circle, Correct. At times, I’ve also called it Circle, Keep Going, Come Back, and Correct, which has a bit more rhythm to it. But no matter what you call it, its an easy to teach strategy that puts the responsibility for using correct spelling squarely in the court of the students. At the same time, it supports the difficult task of writing. Finally, it gives options for teaching students how to independently correct their spelling within their day-to-day writing. Via mini-lessons, teachers can easily come back to review and re-teach the strategy throughout the year, which helps students permanently add the strategy to their writing and spelling toolbox.
One of the first things to teach student writers is to be aware. Specifically, they need realize that when they write, some of their words will probably be misspelled. Awareness, however, is only the first step. Spellers need to take action to navigate their spelling bumps and fill their spelling potholes. I often tell student writers that it is okay to misspell words while writing, but it is NOT okay to make no attempt to correct their misspellings. Students need to be responsible for fixing (as much as possible) the spelling mistakes they will inevitably make. Said another way, they need to take action!
One of my favorite “take action” strategies is Circle the Word, Keep Going, Come Back, and Correct. The strategy has three parts:
1. Spell the word as best you can;
2. Circle the word you know is misspelled or you think is misspelled; and,
3. Go back and correct your circled words (or verify they are spelled correctly).
To teach this strategy, model writing in front of your class and talk through a think aloud that explains how YOU spell words as you write. The following language might help you teach this strategy:
“Writers sometimes don’t know how to spell the words they want to write. If you struggle to spell words as you write, don’t worry. And don’t spend too much time trying to figure out the spelling as you write. Spell the word as best you can and then circle it. Then keep writing. It’s important to focus more on your writing and less on spelling, at least at first.Writers work to get their thoughts down while they are still fresh in their minds. When you are done writing, you can go back and re-read for spelling. Circle any additional words that don't ‘look right’ to you, or any words you want to double check. Finally, correct the spelling of your circled words or verify that they are spelled correctly. This means:
If you teach kindergarten or first grade, having children circle words and then look them up in a dictionary may not be best. It depends upon the student and it depends upon how much time is spent looking up words (instead of concentrating on writing). I suggest that a more efficient teaching procedure for young writers is to simply provide the correct spelling of the word via underwriting. (See the next picture)
For older students, such as students in second through fifth grade, finding words in a writer’s dictionary or the spelling section of a writing journal is appropriate. Looking up words in an old school dictionary is fine, too, especially for non-struggling students in 4th and 5th grade.
At first, your students may fail to use the “circle the word and correct it” strategy, especially if you have been consistently allowing yourself to spell unknown words for them. But don’t lose heart. Keep modeling the strategy, keep your expectations high, and don’t give in to automatically spelling words for them when they ask, “How do you spell ___?”.
Expect students to regularly circle words and then to either use a strategy (like spell by analogy or use a mnemonic) or use a tool (such as a spell checker, word wall, or writer’s dictionary) to correct the words, or verify that the word has been spelled correctly in the first place.
If you have children who regularly spell 99% or 100% of their written words correctly, then ask them to circle at least two words just to practice the strategy, and challenge them to use more advanced, interesting, and difficult-to-spell words in their writing.
Finally, you may have to set a basement or a ceiling on the number of words circled. For the student who misspells many words but never circles any, provide a minimum number of words to aim for, such as, “I expect to see four words circled in every piece of writing.” And for the student who circles 10 or 15 words, set a limit so they’re not focusing exclusively on this strategy. Perhaps you could say, “You are working very hard to practice our strategy. Thank you for your effort. I want you to circle the five most important words to spell correctly.
It's never too late to teach a spelling strategy. So, give Circle, Keep Going, Come Back, and Correct a try in May. I wish you the best with your end of the year efforts!
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.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.