Picture it: 1993- The Regional Diocesan Spelling Bee. After becoming first runner-up in my school spelling bee, I went on to represent my school, St. William the Abbot, in the Regional Spelling Bee for Catholic schools in our area. I can’t remember if I won or was a runner-up again, but there I am receiving my trophy for spelling well! (I didn’t do as well in the Diocesan Spelling Bee- thus ending my short-lived reign as a Spelling Queen.)
As a student, I was always a good speller. Hundreds on weekly spelling quizzes and only the occasional spell-check when writing. As a teacher, my relationship with spelling is more complicated. For ten years I taught kindergarten and focused on helping emergent writers match sounds to letters. I praised their efforts when they would label pictures with beginning and ending consonant sounds. I understood that spelling wasn’t the most important thing when it comes to writing- the ideas were, but spelling definitely helped get the message understood more clearly.
As a third grade teacher, I find teaching spelling to be a puzzle. While students have been taught all the high frequency words prior to third grade, many still misspell words like “said”, “friend” and “could.” I’ve given students portable word walls with high frequency words on them and space to write in words they want to spell. Lately, I’ve been wondering if this is not really setting kids up for independence. Some students always ask me how to spell words without trying it on their own first.
In my opinion, whole class word lists, spelling homework and weekly spelling tests are not effective ways to help kids grow as spellers, but…I’m not really sure how to approach spelling. I’ve been conflicted about the best ways to teach spelling in an already packed curriculum. With spell-check and online dictionaries, is spelling correctly even all that important? I had a nagging feeling I was not doing right by my students when it came to teaching them to spell, but I wasn’t sure how to go about fixing that.
In the Foreword, by J. Richard Gentry, he states, “Mark Weakland fully grasps an aspect of spelling instruction that is unknown to some literacy educators: Spelling knowledge is essential for reading achievement” (ix). To be honest, I never thought of spelling as being connected to reading achievement- I mostly felt it impacted student writing. Weakland writes, “The type of spelling instruction you engage in can make a world of difference to students, especially for children who struggle to read and write” (4).
Super Spellers will not instantly give you an easy way to help all your students spell well enough to win trophies. Alas, it’s all more complicated than that. Weakland states, “Although some might claim it takes magic to help our kids become better spellers, readers, and writers, I’ve found that it really just takes a bit of time and effort” (7). He presents 7 steps toward super spelling and then each chapter is devoted to one of the steps. The Seven Steps are:
- Understand Theory and Practice.
- Assess Spelling Knowledge
- Focus Scope and Sequence
- Bring More Words
- Teach Strategies
- Teach Activities
- Build Opportunities
One feature I really liked in this book is the “If you only have ten minutes” tips at the end of most chapters. As I’m in the last trimester of the school year, it can seem overwhelming to overhaul all that I’m doing to make room for a new spelling system, so these tips were helpful in allowing me opportunities to try out what I read. Another aspect I liked about this book is it is designed to help teachers who teach in a workshop setting or use a basal series- Weakland gives suggestions on ways teachers can make his ideas work in either setting.
Here are my top ten quotes from Super Spellers that made me stop and think more about the need to teach spelling more strategically:
- “Spelling is not the only key to reading and writing success, but it is an important one. Why? During spelling instruction, you build your students ability to recognize words. Word recognition, in turn, leads to reading and writing fluency. When reading and writing fluency improve to automaticity, students have a greater capacity to concentrate on and be successful with reading comprehension and written expression. In other words, when children effortlessly and automatically decode words while reading or encode words while writing, they are able to devote their full attention to making meaning” (4).
- “We must also understand that sounds, patterns, and meanings lie at the heart of spelling instruction, that poor spelling and poor reading are connected, and that because spelling is at the heart of the reading process, the most effective spelling instruction teaches children to read” (7).
- “From eye-motion studies and cognition studies, we know that fluent reading is dependent upon the lightning-fast and effortless recognition of entire words. Thus, one of our teaching goals should be to help students store thousands of word spellings in their brains” (12).
- “The most effective spelling instruction is not a weekly routine in which you give your students a list of loosely connected words, have them complete worksheets and write the words numerous times at home, give them a test at the end of the week where they regurgitate the words from memory, and then move on to another list of loosely connected words” (14).
- “I am not here to tell you to get rid of the weekly spelling list and test. I am, however, asking you to create a more instructionally relevant weekly word list; to change your assessment routine to include a pre-test that leads to some type of differentiation; to think of your post-test as a formative test and not a summative one; and to realize that everything you do in spelling, including your end-of-the-week test, can be an opportunity to instruct children on how to read and write” (40).
- “Children do not spell words so that they can do well on a Friday spelling test. Children spell words so that they can read and write fluently. And as teachers, we shouldn’t teach spelling to generate spelling scores. We should teach spelling to help students become better readers and writers so they can learn, expand their worldviews, and successfully share their thoughts, ideas and dreams with others” (46).
- “Because we know that fluent reading is dependent upon the instant recognition of entire words, an essential goal of spelling instruction is to build the repository of word spellings known as the ‘dictionary in the brain’…It’s important to note, too, that spelling and vocabulary are intertwined. If we can deeply teach students the meaning of their spelling words, then we are building their vocabulary even as we teach sound and pattern recognition” (70).
- “Spelling is a subject to be taught, not assigned” (81).
- “The more students read, read, read and write, write, write, the more words they regularly encounter and the better their chances of moving words into their brain dictionaries. Therefore, I encourage you to make and keep space for students to engage in extended bouts of reading and writing” (95).
- “The first thing we can teach student writers is that they should be aware that when they write, some of their words will probably be misspelled. But awareness is only the first step. Spellers need to take action to navigate past their spelling bumps and fill their spelling potholes” (96).
My recommendation is for teachers to read this book with other educators in a book study. It’s a lot to take in on your own and a little overwhelming to think about how to implement the 7 steps by yourself. Mark Weakland makes a compelling case that spelling is more important than I thought and for more than just winning spelling bee trophies. While spelling isn’t the only thing that counts when it comes to writing, it is important for a student’s overall literacy development and deserves a better instructional approach than many of us are currently implementing.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Super Spellers: Seven Steps to Transforming Your Spelling Instruction. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Super Spellers: Seven Steps to Transforming Your Spelling Instruction, please leave a comment by Wednesday, April 18th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, April 20th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Stenhouse Publishers will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SUPER SPELLERS. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.