In my previous blog post I discussed how spelling ability develops - through excellent instruction - and then went on to list an outline of what effective spelling instruction is: systematic and sequential, direct and explicit (at times), focused and mastery-based, differentiated, strategy-based, and centered on sound, pattern, and meaning. In this blog, I'll flesh out each of those listed ideas, starting with what systematic and sequential means.
When we understand that instruction should be systematic and sequential, we know that powerful instruction leads to powerful learning. One type of powerful instruction is regularly and frequently following a scope and sequence that provides children practice with hearing and spelling sounds, noticing and using patterns in words, and noticing and using the meaning parts of words, at ever increasing levels of complexity. Thus, excellent spelling instruction involves a well-designed scope and sequence.
When we understand that instruction should be direct and explicit at times, we recognize that powerful instruction is more than teaching a spelling scope and sequence. It also involves techniques that directly and explicitly show sound-spelling relationships, such as telling and showing how the letter F stands for the /f/ sound. In the later stages of spelling development, it means we use instruction to directly and explicitly teach children to notice, remember, and manipulate patterns and meaning, such as telling and showing them how able, noble, and bridle are made up of open and consonant-le syllables, and how prefixes can be added to able to form new words that mean very different things, such as unable and disable.
When we understand that instruction should be focused and mastery-based, we know that we should introduce only two to four spellings for a sound at a time, and that the introduction of sound spellings should unfold from the simple to the complex. Some basal programs introduce far too many sounds in one lesson. And if ten of our first-grade students have not mastered the spelling of short vowel sounds, then we should not move those students into the next set of spelling lessons that focus on long vowel sounds. Moving children, especially those in kindergarten, first, and second grades, too quickly through a spelling sequence leads to a lack of learning, a good deal of confusion, and the chance that guessing will become a habit. All of this can, in turn, lead to bigger problems in later grades. Our initial instruction should include many opportunities to slow down, step back, focus, reteach and review, especially when we are teaching children who are in the early stages of spelling and reading development.
When we understand that instruction should be differentiated, we know that because there is a continuum of development and achievement in our classroom, a rigid one-size-fits all spelling scope and sequence is not effective for all children. In November, in a classroom of twenty-two first-grade children, there may be ten who have not yet mastered the spelling of short vowel sounds. There may also be five children who easily spell short vowel sounds and are very capable of spelling multisyllabic words. This means we should consider providing different words and different types of instruction to two or even three groups of students.
When we understand that effective spelling instruction is strategy-based, we know that spelling instruction should not lead children and parents to believe that the only way to spell a word is to memorize it and then recall it. Rather, we know that the best instruction involves teaching students a number of different strategies, each of which can be used to spell practiced words correctly right off the bat or get close to the correct spellings of unknown words and then fix spelling mistakes,
fine-tuning words that are “close” until they are exact.
When we understand that spelling instruction should be centered on sound, pattern, and meaning, we know that spelling instruction should not lead children to believe that words are a string of letters that can be memorized through a classroom activity that sounds like this: “The word is dumbfound. Spell it! D-U-M-B-F-O-U-N-D! The word is diphthong. Spell it! D-I-P-H-T-H-O-N-G! The word is discombobulated. Spell it! D-I-S-C . . .” You get the idea. Rather than the simple memorization and recall of letter sequences, spelling is orthography, which is coming up with a correct sequence of letters to create a specific word through a process that involves hearing sounds and assigning letters to them, thinking in terms of patterns found in words, and always cross-checking what we hear and see with what the word means. Thus, our instruction leads students to understand that they can spell by listening to the sounds of a word and then applying single letters and groups of letters to each sound. Our instruction also teaches children that they can spell by remembering and applying letter patterns (or word families), such as –an, -ight, and –all, as well as inflectional endings such as –ing and –ed and common prefixes and suffixes like dis-, pre-, -tion, and –able. And our instruction teaches children, both young and old, to pay attention to meaning as they spell.
Finally, morphology is another important aspect of spelling. Children should be taught to identify and analyze the structure of English’s linguistic units, such as morphemes, root words, and parts of speech. When younger children get in the habit of thinking about meaning, they are more likely to spell homophones correctly, as in the sentence “Their dog was somewhere out there, lost in the forest,” or correctly spell the /t/ sound at the end of a past-tense verb as –ed, as in the words helped, fussed, and plopped. Older children can use meaning to correctly spell words related in spelling through meaning but differing in pronunciation (such as define, definite, and definition), as well as spell words that share similar sounds but are unrelated in meaning (such as adept and adapt or excel and accelerate).
Good luck with your spelling instruction! Also, thank you, veterans, for serving our country with your military service. I wish all of you a happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you’ll come back for another blog post in December!
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.