Human beings acquire language naturally, progressing from babbling babies to phone conversing adults with hardly a hitch. During our language development, we hear words spoken by others (our mother says “Look at the doggy”), we process these words via our brain’s meaning and memory functions (learning that “doggy” means the furry thing that runs around and licks our face), and eventually we speak these words to communicate our thoughts and feelings (we say, “I like the doggy”). Unless our language system is malfunctioning, the process develops naturally and effortlessly from the moment we are born up to and through our early childhood years.
Reading and writing, however, are not acquired naturally. Although our brains come equipped with the necessary circuitry to read words (and conversely, to write words), someone must help us to train our brain circuits to perform the acts of reading and writing. This is true even for children who seem to acquire reading and writing skills effortlessly.
To get kids to read and write, sometimes only minimal amounts of training and support are necessary. At other times, a great deal of instruction must be given, and support must be constant over many years. Regardless, learning to read and write begins with language (spoken words), moves to the understanding that words can be segmented into individual sounds (awareness of phonemes), and then progresses to associating letters and letter combinations with the phonemes of language to form words that mean something. At this point, letters and sounds can be combined to create basic words that can be read and written.
When it comes to time to begin moving young children from listening and speaking to reading and writing, what instruction is most powerful? Four practices immediately come to mind: 1) phonemic segmentation and blending, 2) a carefully considered yet vigorous introduction of letters and their associated sounds, 3) repeated practice in printing alphabet letters and noticing the component parts of their written form, and 4) quickly moving from pairing letters and sounds to spelling and reading basic words. Today's post will focus on number one.
Phonemic Segmentation and Blending: Stretch, Zap, Tap, and Blend
Teaching young children to focus on the sounds of words (phonemes) is a critical part of early reading instruction. When it comes to early phonemic awareness instruction, get the most bang for your buck by focusing on instruction that teaches children how to segment, blend, and manipulate phonemes. A regularly-used routine of stretch, zap, tap, and blend is a practical yet powerful way to get that concentration into your instruction.
The beauty of stretch, zap, tap, and blend is that the routine is also a strategy that children can use to both spell words (encode) and read words (decode). To teach it, begin with CVC, CCVC, or CVCC words, especially ones containing continuant letters that can be “held out,” such as the vowels, the consonants F, L, M, N, S, V and Z, and the digraphs SH and TH. For example, here is a list of words that work well for teaching stretching, zapping, tapping, and blending.
Begin by teaching your students how to “stretch the word.” Tell them a word is like a big rubber band. Model how to say the word, grab hold of either end of it (make two fists and hold them in front of you), and then slowly stretch it by pulling your hands away from each other as you say the sounds of the word, holding out the vocalization of each phoneme. For example, map becomes mmm-aaaa-p and flop becomes fffff-lllllll- oooo-p. After stretching out the word, say the word again and let the rubber band snap back. This shows that the sounds must be blending back together (quickly) to make a word.
To combine stretching and zapping, I suggest this language, which gives the outline of a small routine you can repeat daily.
Finally comes tapping and blending, a technique used by Wilson Reading. This technique involves the fine motor skills of tapping the individual fingers of one hand off a thumb. Thus, it may be too difficult for most kindergarten and some first-grade children. But it works for second grade children, as well as older children.
The process for teaching the technique is much the same as zapping and blending. To model tapping, say a word like sock as you hold your hand up, your fingers loosely curled but not touching. Next, segment the sounds by saying each sound separately as you touch each finger to your thumb. The word sock gets three taps. The pointer finger comes down to the thumb when you say /s/. The middle finger down to the thumb when you say /o/. And the ring finger comes down for /k/. Finally, pull all the fingers to the thumb to blend and say the word sock.
The Real Reason to Use It
According to the New York Times, the Taa language, spoken by a few thousand people in Botswana and Namibia, may have upward of 200 identifiable sounds! Most linguists believe that Taa has the largest sound inventory any language in the world. Thankfully, our English language contains a mere 44 separate sounds, ranging from /s/ and /ch/ to /oi/ and /ay/. Even better, research has identified some very effective ways to teach the sounds.
Instruction that teaches young children to hear the individual sounds of English words and then blend them back together to make words is more effective than instruction that emphasizes alliteration, rhyming, and vocabulary. This does not mean you should not teach alliteration, rhyming, and vocabulary to young children who are beginning to develop reading and writing skills. But it does mean that you should regularly teach phonemic segmentation and blending in a concentrated manner, and you should give it more emphasis than alliteration and rhyming, as well as structured vocabulary lessons.
Research that demonstrates the importance of phonology (the processing of sounds in general) and phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made of discrete sounds, and the ability to manipulate those sounds) has been around for decades. In her book, Beginning to Read, famed reading researcher Marilyn Adams was one of the first to tell the public about the importance of phonology and phonemic awareness. A decade later, phonemic awareness rose to special prominence when the National Reading Panel put out its report in 2000. Since that time, researchers have bolstered the argument that phonemic awareness is a critical skill for future reading, and they’ve honed-in on the benefits of segmenting and blending. In his excellent 2018 article on early literacy research, D. Ray Reutzel cites numerous studies that clearly show that for younger readers, “reading skill is better predicted by phonemic skills than rhyming skills” and that phoneme segmenting, blending, and letter-sound relationships are “more likely to promote future reading ability than rhyming, alliteration, or vocabulary activities, even for highly disadvantaged children as young as 4 years old.” (Reutzel, 2018).
Young students progress from being able to hear and say the sounds in words (in the initial, medial and final positions) to segmenting the sounds in words (and then blending them back together). And as they continue to develop, they can even manipulate the sounds in words, adding, deleting, and even substituting phonemes to make new words. Phonemic skills, however, don’t exist in a vacuum. They are co-dependent with phonic skills, an idea I'll explore in some upcoming post.
Teaching is hard work. So, it makes sense that you carefully consider how you spend your instructional energy each and every day. You want to maximize your efforts, minimize wasted time, and ultimately enjoy the fruits of your labors. What general instructional practices help you do this? Five immediately come to mind: 1) think time, 2) direct and explicit instruction, 3) descriptive reinforcement, 4) repetition, and 5) instant error correction. These five have a terrific research track record, lead to great gains in learning (when effectively employed), work with all children, are especially helpful to those who struggle to learn, and can be used to teach all subjects, including reading, writing, and spelling.
Today’s post concentrates on think time, an instructional technique that promotes comprehension and language use. At its core, think time involves 1) a teacher asking a question or requesting an action, and 2) students thinking silently for three to five seconds before raising their hands to answer or turning to talk to a partner to discuss. Consistently fold think time into your instruction and I guarantee you’ll be amazed at how student answers become richer and more sophisticated, and children become more engaged.
During instruction that does NOT provide think time, a teacher might ask her kindergarten students (after reading the book Swimmy by Leo Leonni), “Who is the main character?” Immediately, two, three, or four hands might shoot up. The teacher quickly calls on one of the hand-raisers, listens for the correct answer, and then moves on.
With think time, you ask students the same question. But then you require them to think a little before raising their hands. Your requiring looks like silently counting: 1, 2, 3. As you count, the children think quietly and you scan the group, checking to see that everyone is thinking. Next you give a signal that it’s time to raise their hands. This time, twelve or more hands whoosh into the air. Finally, you call on a student, or even better, you give a signal to the children that tells them to turn and tell a partner the answer. As the children whisper their responses, you listen.
Three seconds of think time is suggested for kindergarten children because their attention span is very short (roughly that of a gnat or hamster). If you provide too much time, you’ll lose them. For first and second graders, keep think time at three seconds, or increase it to four or five. For older students, give up to seven or eight seconds. Decide what amount of time works best for your students. The general behavior of different groups may demand more or less time. Also, vary the amount of time depending upon the task. Students benefit from four or five seconds, or maybe a bit more, if the question demands a longer, more complex answer.
You should expect your students to accurately engage in thinking during your lessons. Many teachers model active listening. Do the same for active thinking. First, you may want to model what non-thinking looks like (gazing around the room, fidgeting, playing with an eraser, poking someone nearby, … the list is endless). Then, model what thinking looks like (furrowed brow, squinty eyes, general looks of concentration and pondering). You can also do a think aloud, saying something like, “I was just asked to name a color I see in the classroom. I looked around and saw yellow, blue, and red. Now I am thinking that I will pick blue. Blue is my answer.”
Take the technique to its next step by modeling what “turn and tell” looks like (a short burst of quiet talking in which one student turns to another and tells her partner an answer). Also model “turn and talk” (a longer period of quiet talking in which two students share their thoughts related to a question or direction given by the teacher).
One suggestion is that you identify classroom activities that benefit most from think time. I like to use it in almost every questioning situation. But open-ended questions, or a question that begin with “why,” are especially appropriate times to use think time. Another suggestion is to use hand signals for “think,” “answer,” “turn and tell,” and “turn and talk.” This keeps students focused on you, as well as insures that your instruction isn’t broken up with too much teacher talk. Here are some signal suggestions. But if you have your own clever alternatives, please, be my guest!
Here are two more examples of think time in action. Although the examples are labeled first and third, it’s best if you think in terms of a grade band. Depending upon the needs, behaviors, and achievement levels of the majority of students in any classroom, any one of the scenes in this section could play out in any grade level.
The Real Reason to Use It
Often called wait time in research literature, think time gives your students time to think more broadly and deeply about the questions you are asking them, as well as to mentally rehearse an appropriate response. In turn, this thinking and rehearsing enables kids to speak more fluently while answering, give longer answers, and use more sophisticated and appropriate vocabulary words.
Additionally, during any instruction, be it large group or small, social studies or math, think time engages more students, many more than during a call-and-response questioning. By call-and-response, I mean this: the teacher asks a question, a few kids raise their hands, the teacher calls on one student, that student answers while the others sit mutely or stare into space, and then the teacher repeats the sequence with another question. Think time is more effective than call-and-response because when you scan the room as you silently wait for students to think, you send the message that engaged thinking is expected. And if you couple think time with “turn and tell” or “turn and talk” (a.k.a. discuss), you crank up the engagement level even more.
Another benefit of think time is that it allows for what I call “self-differentiation.” For example, when a teacher asks her class to recall the events in a story, children who are less advanced at thinking and remembering can focus on the lastevent of the story, while more advanced students can recall the middle or beginning events, too. If you call on the less advanced student first, you build in an opportunity for that child to 1) share, and 2) be successful. After that student’s response, call on a child who is more likely to remember a middle or beginning event. Viola! When you insert a three to five second space for thinking into your questioning, you allow your students to think at the level most natural for them. This increases the engagement of all your learners and provides more opportunities for every student to experience success. This is also why think time is a must when working with children in special education classrooms or inclusionary settings.
Research on the effectiveness of wait time began in the 1970s, hit its stride in 80s, and still regularly appears in journals. More than 40 years ago, Mary Rowe may have been the first to coin the term wait time and describe its importance to the overall quality of student responses (and thus of learning). Later, Robert Stahl expanded on Rowe’s concept and recommended three second “waits” at various points during class periods. The research of Rowe, Stahl, and others shows that wait time is a powerful way to increase the length and quality of student responses, as well as boost student motivation. More recently, studies done by Barbara Wasik, Annemarie Hindman, and others have examined the effectiveness of wait time with students in first and second grade, kindergarten, and even preschool.
The connections between spelling, vocabulary, and reading continue to be on my mind. Recently, I was excited to see an article in the latest Reading Teacher (Nov/Dec 2018) that spoke directly to my wonderings.
Authored by Patrick Manyak, Ann-Margaret Manyak, and James Baumann, the article has a long and somewhat dry title – Morphological Analysis Instruction in The Elementary Grades: Which Morphemes to Teach and How to Teach Them (The full citation for the article is given later in this post). But I found the second half of the title intriguing enough to read on. Boy, was I glad I did.
Here are the two big ideas I came away with::
The article kicks off with an explanation of morphological analysis (MA), a “process of using affixes, base words, and word roots to infer the meaning of words.” It then cites and discusses the extensive research that supports the following idea: when teachers instruct students in morphological awareness, their teaching contributes to spelling, word recognition, and vocabulary knowledge. As a teacher who is always looking to find the golden threads in literacy instruction, and who strives to identify practices that produce synergy, I love the idea that instruction in one area (morphemes) produces an increased knowledge in three areas (spelling, reading, and vocabulary).
Next, the article describes a few practical classroom tools. The one I found to be most useful was the recommended list of affixes for grades 3-5. The list presents a total of 41 affixes: 14 for third grade, 16 for fourth, and 11 for fifth. If, however, you are using this list for spelling-vocabulary-reading instruction (i.e. Word Workshop), there is no need to stay within your grade level. For example, if you have high flying 3rd graders, then use the suggested 4th grade affixes. Or if you have a heterogenous group of 5th graders, pick a mid-spot affix, such as under-. Then differentiate through word complexity. In other words, for take home spelling lists, give students who need more support words such as undercook and undersea. Then, give higher achieving students words such as underachieve and underrepresented. The concept of differentiating via word complexity is one I discuss at length in Super Spellers and Super Speller Starter Sets.
When it comes to researching morphemes, author James Baumann has a long and distinguished track record. His body of work includes a great deal of examining which morphemes to teach and how to teach them (hence the title of the RT article). His primary objective for selecting affixes to teach was to “identify those affixes that, when taught well, enabled students to infer the meanings of as many novel words containing the target affixes as possible.” In other words, by using specific affixes in your spelling-reading-vocabulary instruction (again, think Word Workshop), you can provide students with opportunities to spell, read, and analyze scores of previously unpracticed words.
In his studies, Baumann used four criteria for selecting affixes:
Because these criteria are so strongly logical, I feel they produce a list that has practical yet powerful classroom applications. Here’s a taste of the list so that you can see how logically and elegantly its laid out. (It’s also a taste so I don’t violate copyright law!)
To circle around to my own work, many of the ideas I put forth in my two Super Speller books align beautifully with the ideas presented in the RT article. Thus, another reason for my word-nerd excitement! For example, in Super Spellers I suggest teachers create and use a narrow and deep master spelling lists for their spelling instruction. Master lists are lists built upon two to four spelling features and that present at least 30 or 40 words that make use of those features. I also suggest teachers teach student-used spelling strategies, such as “think about meaning.”
You can see how both of these ideas – a narrow and deep spelling list that promotes students use of the “think about meaning” strategy – appear in the list below, which is from my upcoming Super Speller Starter Sets resource book. I think you’ll also be able to see how this list aligns with Maynak, Maynak, and Baumann’s thoughts on the criteria for choosing which morphemes to teach: affixes that occur with high frequency; affixes that have consistent, concrete meanings; affixes that can be semantically grouped. For the record, the three roots (which also function as affixes) used in the master list below are three of the 22 Greek and Latin roots that the authors present in their table of Greek and Latin roots.
In conclusion, if you are a teacher of third, fourth, or fifth grades, I suggest you find the RT article (citation below) and consider using the recommended lists of 41 affixes and 22 Greek and Latin roots in your spelling-vocabulary-reading instruction. In addition, consider incorporating some or all of the effective instructional practices laid out by the authors. As always, I am interested in your thoughts on my blog posts, especially if they are helpful to your teaching. Happy reading, happy holidays, and see you in the new year!
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.”
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.