The best ways for teachers to bring out spelling knowledge in children’s writing is to be purposeful, and use strategies shaped to the student’s specific needs or struggles.
This is the advice of experienced educator Diane Snowball, who joined literacy experts Sharon and Phil Callen on episode 26 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy.
The trio discussed the key strategies to ensure students overcome the big and common struggle to transfer their spelling and word knowledge into their writing.
To help teachers with this challenge, Diane firstly advised that students need to have ‘an authentic purpose for learning how to spell better and conventionally’ in order to transfer these skills.
“You have to ask yourself, what are you doing? Do the kids really know why they’re bothering to learn how to spell?” Diane said.
“[For example] is it happening by me saying to the kids, ‘oh I noticed in your writing that many of you are not sure about how you add suffixes, like -ed and -ing to words, you’ve got a pretty good idea about how to spell some basic words, but then I can see in your writing, you’re not sure about how to add these. So let’s study that together and figure out how to do it, because then you’ll be able to do that in your own writing’.
“So the fact that I’m saying ‘I’ve noticed in your writing and let’s learn it because you’ll be able to use it in your writing’, immediately ties it into the purpose and it transfers. But if I said, ‘well, now let’s go off and do a workbook exercise on it’, I just presume that’s going to transfer to their writing, but it’s not.”
As Sharon and Phil have previously discussed on the podcast, Diane also explained that, especially when it comes to learning how to spell high frequency words, reading and writing go hand-in-hand.
“If you learn to read it and spell it at the same time, then one will help the other. As the reader, I’ll learn how to say the word. And as a writer I’ll know how to spell it. And because I know how to spell it, I’ll recognise it in my reading and therefore know how to say it,” Diane said.
“So I don’t understand why you wouldn’t do it together. Learning about what it looks like and how to say it help each other so much, because English is not just phonetic. I can’t just sound out words. I’ve got to know a lot more about how words work and that will help me as a reader and a speller.”
But a big part of this process is shaping lessons based on what you observe from your students, as opposed to the standard ’20-word spelling list’ and activities that don’t always help children actually understand the meaning of the word.
“When I was at school, we were told to put [our spelling words] in alphabetical order, write them five times each and write them in a sentence. None of those things actually helped me learn the word. So that was a waste of time, if the goal was to automatically then know how to read and write that word.
“So you have to really think through what actually works, so they will know that and could apply it to any word they wanted to learn. And of course, if you’re studying the way the language works, the more that the kids learn as they go on, the more they’ll be able to apply all of that knowledge as well, to what, ‘how might I learn this word and that word?'”
So instead, Diane highly recommended explicit teaching, which can be guided by the common mistakes you see or the words commonly used by your class.
“If I just walk around the class and I write down the words that I see kids misspelling, or I write them down beside each child’s name, then I can look over that and I see, ‘oh five of them are writing ‘a lot’ as one word’. Well, I’m going to pull those five kids together and actually explain what that means … so I know to help those kids do that,” she said.
“Or, if I notice there’s a common theme across the class, we’ll all get engaged in that … a lot of the work I find is really helpful for us to study as a class, it’s very developmental.
“But you’ve got to look at what the kids are doing in their writing. If they all know how to do that, why will I waste time on it? But if it’s a general need, then it’s really a good thing for a split study that is a class, and they all share what they know and discover. And we come up with a lot of really good information together, but we’re always talking about how could you use that in your writing.”
When it comes to specific strategies, Diane advised teachers to help students understand the different pronunciations and variations of a word.
“I want them to think about when they know that word, what other words do they know? Because if we just thought about each word as a separate entity, that would be so unhelpful.
“I actually had a university student who didn’t know that if she knew how to spell ‘technique’, it would help her to spell ‘oblique’ … so if I know ‘ran’, that will help with ‘running’. If i know ‘play’, that will help with ‘playing’, ‘played, ‘playful’, ‘playfully’ etc. And we want to keep building up that more scenic aspect of the English language all the time, because it is both scenic and frenetic, isn’t it? That meaning base determines the spelling in so many of words, or they all come from other languages. That’s why they are pronounced in different ways.”
Diane also elaborated on how to explore the acoustics of words.
“If they hear a sound, I want us to explore what are the possible ways that sound could be spelled … And then we can even do things like, ‘when we make a list of all the words with a ‘ck’ sound, it will be at the beginning and the middle and the end (not only at the beginning), but which ones do you notice? And the most common, you know, is ‘ck’. Do you ever find ‘ck’ at the beginning of the word?’ So we’re really getting them to explore that very deeply,” she said.