Top educator Diane Snowball says exploration allows young students to meaningfully learn high frequency words.
The key to teaching high frequency words, and in fact anything in literacy, purposefully and meaningfully, is to allow for student exploration.
This is the advice of highly-regarded literacy leader Diane Snowball on Episode 61 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy.
Diane explained that teaching high frequency words from an early age is crucial, and that student observations from shared readings can be used from Grade 1.
“It needs to have a purpose and we need to understand how the learning happens in the best way. And you don’t need a program. In fact you don’t even actually need to start off by knowing what the high frequency words are because your children will soon tell you. And if they can’t, it’s because you haven’t been doing enough shared reading with them,” she said.
“And I find that with foundation or first year school kids, if I’ve been doing shared reading for the first few weeks of school and they’ve got access to books themselves, I’ll ask ‘what words have you noticed the writer use a lot?’ And they will start to tell you ‘and’, ‘that’, ‘at’, ‘was’, ‘where’ etc.
“They’ll tell you what they are and the ones that come up in everything they read. And then as they’re writing, because we want to encourage them to write even before they know how to spell, they’ll be noticing that they’re using those words too. And they’ll want to know how to spell them because they’re writing.”
Once teachers begin this process of reading and writing with high frequency words, it’s particularly important for students to share their writing and identify any errors. This strategy will create a greater purpose for students to learn the correct spelling and build their literacy knowledge.
“If no one’s reading your writing, then you might as well spell words any way you like,” Diane said.
“So if they’re swapping their writing with each other, then they realise that if they don’t spell it the same as other people do, they won’t know what it is I’m writing. So it’s a very authentic reason to learn to spell. And if they’re words that we use more often than others, then there’s a good reason to learn those as quickly as we possibly can.”
These insights provided by students can also assist teachers with finding the most suitable strategies to teach their students about common homophones.
“We need to think about the meaning and that’s an important thing about those words. When they’re homophones, they all sound the same but they’re spelled differently. So we want to discuss the usage of those words, the meaning of them and how we will find that out,” Diane said.
“If we just tell the kids, they don’t really understand it. But if I say let’s explore and see what authors do when they use each of those words, and can we find sentences with each of those words. And for example, we can notice that when it’s ‘to’ it’s this group, and when it’s ‘too’ it’s this group, and when it’s ‘two’ it’s always just to do with two things, you know hold up two fingers.
“But again, let the kids figure out and tell you in their own words how they will know how to use each of those words. They might have memory aids, they might have understandings that will help them to do it. I learnt that from a child in Grade 2 many years ago, who said ‘you have to be able to get it’. And I thought, yeah that’s it. It’s not just someone telling you, but you have to understand it. So how could we get it? Well, let’s explore it and really have them figure it out. And they say, ‘oh, I’ve got it’ and the light bulb turns on.”
Diane also provided further examples of the power of allowing older students to discover their own strategies based on what they’ve already learnt about high frequency words.
“We need to think about many ways to learn high frequency words. How can I keep the kids thinking? How can I make sure they’ve got an authentic purpose for learning them because they’re reading and writing. So it’s not necessarily going to happen with each child, but I want to tell you that kids can also discover things without you bringing it up with them,” she said.
“I’m working with a boy in Grade 3, and I noticed that when he wrote words like ‘bogged’, he would write ‘B O double G E D’. He’s interested in tractors and that’s why the word came up. And I asked him how did he know for that to be a double G? And he said, ‘well I’ve noticed when I’m reading that sometimes a word like bogged I will double that letter, the G in this case, before I add another ending to it’. And so he’s just intuitively noticed this and is starting to apply it to words he wants to write for himself. And that’s the sort of guideline that we want to give the kids as a whole to work that way.
“But isn’t it wonderful that if we let them learn and discover, they will even come up with those strategies themselves. Now he may not be able to explain why at this stage, and so it can lead that discovery further and help him to find out what are all the sorts of things you need to do to base words before you add suffixes. And so we allow that exploration to go on for a long enough time.”
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