The spelling curriculum should evolve across all school year levels rather than act as an exclusive program per year, says leading Australian educator Diane Snowball.
Whilst there can be a tendency for teachers to work on their own programs with their students, Diane believes spelling requires a school plan.
The education expert joined literacy leaders Phil and Sharon Callen on Episode 38 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy to talk abouthow to achieve teaching cohesion across all year levels.
“It truly does require a whole school approach because if everybody’s doing their own thing, there’s no continuity,” she said.
“I think it’s extremely important for leadership to take a role in helping teachers think through what they’re going to do about spelling.”
This is primarily because spelling requires far more development than simply learning how to spell a list of words. It also relies on a diverse range of strategies, rather than just one or two, that need to be implemented at various levels.
“Teaching a list of words will actually be very narrow. If I said, ‘I’m going to teach you a hundred words’ but at the end of it you only know a hundred words, that’s not very productive,” Diane said.
“It’s not that you want kids to learn words. You want them to learn strategies to be good spellers. And so even in the learning of words, we want to introduce them to a lot of strategies so the rest of their lives they’ll know all of the strategies.
“[Some teachers] can just go on doing the same thing, such as more of phonics activities all the way through, but not enough work around prefixes, suffixes, the derivatives of words, all of that morphological work that needs to be done. So the kids are just doing more and more of the same things through their six or seven years of primary school, instead of that building and changing depending on where the kids are at.”
The trio revealed some of these strategies could include onset rhyme, visuals and having access to different reading sources.
“All of the strategies all of the time at every year level we’re thinking about listening to the sounds in a word, thinking about what the word looks like, thinking about base words and adding something to them, thinking about if I know this word, how will it help me with other words, thinking about onset rhyme.” Diane said.
“Is there a good resource I could use? Dictionaries, print or online resources, or there’s all kinds of reference books. If I want to find out how to spell Massachusetts I’m probably better off going with an Atlas or a map of America. If I want to find out how to spell Chihuahua, I’m better off going to a dog book because I don’t even know how it starts to look it up in a dictionary. It’s not easy. It’s like, where’s the logical place? And sometimes it’s the person next to you who knows how to spell that word because that’s a good resource.
“So all of those strategies. We need to be thinking about them being built into the spelling curriculum, right through the school. And certainly also where words come from because the English language is not a phonetic language where there’s one symbol for each sound, but it comes from so many other languages. So the etymology is something that we want to build in all the way through.”
These variations and challenges in the English language can also come from the destination country – something which Diane believes should also be embraced by teachers.
“It’s our job as teachers to help kids realise how we spell in English in Australia is not necessarily going to be the same in Canada, America, England, South Africa, New Zealand etc. And so if they notice that then think ‘I don’t think that’s right, where will I find out and how can I check?’ as a teacher I’d be teaching those same sorts of strategies,” Diane said.
“And if you’re not sure yourself as the teacher on why, then say to the kids ‘let’s find out’. That’s the great thing about spelling, and you can deal with it all like that. You can say ‘I’m not sure why that’s spelled the way it is, let’s see what we can find out about that word and see how that helps us to understand perhaps other words’. So again, it’s not just one word, but we’re using strategies and building that knowledge up.”
Once a strategy or base plan is established for the school, Diane emphasised the importance of constantly evaluating and making adjustments where necessary to better support the specific needs of students.
“Evaluation of spelling and teaching of spelling really go hand in hand. So even when we have some sort of plan across the school, we still have to keep saying, ‘where are these kids at though?'” she said.
“For example, it would be typical for me to see a lot of grade one kids writing words really only using one strategy, and that is ‘what sounds do I hear and how can I represent them?’ And they do that a lot. So I know that if that’s the only strategy they’re using, I’m not going to spend oodles more time teaching the phonetic strategy. I need to teach them also about, for example, what do the words look like?So I might have a school plan, but because these kids are not doing what I would expect by now, I need to revise my plan for these kids.
“But if you don’t have a plan in the first place, you don’t even know what to be looking out for. You haven’t even got a basis for going back and saying, ‘well, do we need to revise our plan at the moment because the kids are actually doing more than you might’ve expected?'”
She also strongly discouraged teachers from holding predominantly activity based lessons at any level.
“We have to be so careful not to spend time on activities, which is what a spelling program or textbook might be, but then the kids aren’t having enough time to actually write and put that learning into practice, so that you could actually say ‘how are they going with this? And do I need to do more of it or less?'”
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