During a recent staff meeting, teachers tried out some word sorting to figure out spelling patterns. We were investigating how we could use inquiry to teach spelling. There was a lot of conversation, collaboration and some good thoughts on how we construct rules about spelling patterns.
I’ve always been a good speller and an avid reader, and I’ve struggled with teaching spelling. My students love reading. I read to them. Students read individually. Some of them are voracious readers. Yet, in their writing, some of the kids still struggle with spelling. Why?
This year, one of our literacy focuses as an elementary school has been spelling. We’ve looked at how we currently teach spelling and whether it’s working. For me, I know that spelling through reading osmosis isn’t working. Student-selected words, studied and then tested, also doesn’t work. As a parent, I saw how spelling lists didn’t transfer into my daughter’s writing. So…
Research tells us that reading does play a role, but it doesn’t always make strong spellers. Spelling lists and spelling tests don’t often transfer to a student’s writing. As with reading and writing, students progress through developmental levels. According to Diane Snowball and Faye Bolton in Spelling K-8 Planning and Teaching and the First Steps program, students progress through defined spelling stages.
This year, in grade 5, I started the year with a spelling assessment from Words their Way that helped me target students’ developmental levels and pinpoint the part of the word where they were struggling. I liked the thoroughness of the assessment and have used it to structure a developmentally appropriate program. Students are grouped, depending on their spelling needs: a group works “within words.” Another works on “syllables and affixes,” for example.
As for the activities, we do, I’m still trying to flush it out. We have been playing with word sorting, just as the teachers tried at the staff meet (in the video above). In class, students sort words and figure out patterns and generalizations. The words are focused on their developmental level. Bolton and Snowball say that such a process like this, of guided inquiry, will facilitate children in attaining a real understanding of spelling.
What I’ve seen during our spelling inquiry time is enthusiasm, collaboration and students talking animatedly about words. They write the rules they’ve discovered in their notebooks and then discuss those rules with other groups–confirming them, debating them.
I think I’m noticing less spelling errors, and students continue to write fairly prolifically–not hindered by the quest for perfect spelling. They seem aware that spelling does make a difference in published work and that words are important and interesting. Students look forward to word sorting and figuring out the word puzzle.
It’s been a journey this year, and I think we’re on the right track. We’d love to hear from you about your spelling programs and inquiries. How do you facilitate a spelling inquiry?