I have always loved bicycling–when I lived in New York City I had a bike and pedaled everywhere around our neighborhood. I have never been much of a runner, and going to the gym has always been a chore for me, but bike riding or spin classes have always just been pure fun. Something I never had to think much about while doing it.
A few years ago, when I moved to Vermont, I started mountain biking on single track trails. These are trails that are steep and winding, usually up and down the sides of mountains. These trails are full of roots and rocks, wooden bridges, and obstacles–these trails were not like any other kind of bicycle trail I had ever been on. I found myself having to think, hard, about strategies for getting up and over each section of the trail.
Mountain biking, it turns out, is not at all like other kinds of bicycling. Very little of what I knew from road biking, spin classes, or biking as a kid transferred over to the new kind of mountain biking that I was doing. Even when I took a mountain biking clinic and practiced isolated skills–I couldn’t do any of the things we learned when I really needed to on the trail. Only after a few years of practice with actual mountain biking did things start to “click.”
When kids are trying to spell words, or edit their own writing for spelling, I see a similar struggle. The same kids who are super successful with a spelling pattern during word study time are sometimes not applying that spelling pattern to their independent writing. Kids can sort words, go on word hunts, manipulate words with magnetic tiles, and find spelling errors on worksheets when the only thing they are concentrating on is spelling. But when they are in the midst of writing a story and their mind is on multiple things at once… the spelling patterns they’ve been studying are much more challenging to remember and use.
Here are a few observations about spelling during writing workshop that could guide our thinking about transfer:
- MULTITASKING IS HARD–FOCUSING ON JUST ONE THING IS EASIER
During writing workshop, students are doing many things at once. They are generating ideas, planning what they want to say, physically doing the writing by hand or by typing. They are thinking about who will be reading their work, who they are sitting next to, and what they had for lunch that day. And, perhaps, they are also trying to spell words using all that they know about spelling.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
One thing you can do to support students with this is by helping them break down spelling into bite-sized pieces. Instead of coaching students to “think about spelling” in general while writing, you can remind students of specific spelling patterns they’ve recently studied, and focus just on those. You might say, “Today many of you studied words that double the consonant when you add certain endings–don’t forget to keep that in mind as you work on your writing today!”
You also might leave aside one minute at the end of each writing workshop for editing, and editing alone. Then, during that time, coach each student to edit for just one thing each day. Instead of saying “Everybody edits for everything! Spelling, punctuation, and handwriting! Go!” try saying “Today, pick just one thing from your editing checklist and just check for that one thing.”
2. OPPORTUNITY FOR PRACTICE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
One of the (many) reasons it’s important to carve out time for writing workshop each day is to be sure that every student has plenty of opportunities to practice all the things that make great writing–including using what they know about spelling patterns. The challenge is that on any given day, depending on what the student is writing, they may or may not have the opportunity to apply the spelling patterns you’ve been teaching. So if writing time is scarce, or infrequent, the opportunities to apply what they know about spelling to their authentic work could wind up being few and far between.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
If students have the opportunity for extended time for writing each day, then they will have much more of a chance of encountering words where they can apply their new spelling skills as they write new words, or edit for new spelling patterns they’ve been learning. The more time students have for writing and the more pages or lines they write, the more opportunity they have to use what they know about spelling.
3. DO KIDS REALLY UNDERSTAND WHY SPELLING MATTERS?
Too often, students are taught that spelling and mechanics are primarily connected to certain “rules” that writers have to follow. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it simply isn’t true. Writers don’t truly follow the same set of rules from situation to situation, or from writer to writer. The English language is highly variable and is changing all the time. Second, even if some rules do hold true some of the time, this doesn’t provide very meaningful or compelling feedback for students to improve their spelling. Saying, “You should fix the spelling on this because that just a thing that writers do,” just isn’t very motivating for most children.
Luckily there are two things that are motivating: a real, authentic audience, and a real, authentic purpose for writing. Without these two things kids see right through all the reminders, rules, cajoling, and coaching. There isn’t a true reason to use everything you know about spelling unless it matters to you that real people will be reading your writing. And all the minilessons regarding editing and spelling in the world will fall short of improving student spelling during writing workshop, unless kids have a real purpose for working on it.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
The feedback we give students regarding spelling can be much more meaningful if we tie our work to those two things that matter to students:
- Who will be reading my writing? Will they be able to read it very easily?
- Why am I writing this? Does this piece of writing have a clear purpose that matters to me?
Over time, you might grow a repertoire of phrases that help you to give feedback more effectively. Some phrases and language you might find helpful, starting out:
- “Is your writing as easy to read as it could be? What could make it easier to read?”
- “Checking for ____ spelling pattern will make your writing easier for ____ (name an actual person) to read.”
- “Your story will really make people laugh! (Or think, learn, cry, etc) But when it’s hard to read, it’s harder for people to see how funny/interesting/beautiful it is.”
- “When people read, sometimes they can get distracted by a spelling mistake–then they aren’t thinking about what you wrote anymore. Let’s check for _____ spelling pattern so that doesn’t happen to you.”
Back to the mountain biking. It’s been a few years now since I’ve taken up the sport. One coach recently suggested to a group of us that we set an intention for each bike ride. So each time I ride, I pick just one thing to focus on. Yesterday, I focused on my breathing. A few days earlier, I focused on staying on my bike–even over the tricky rocky parts that I usually have to walk my bike down.
In writing workshop, sometimes it helps to think about one intention at a time. Sometimes the focus can be on using everything students have learned recently in spelling. Support them with visual support in the form of charts and editing tools, coach them by reminding them of the specific spelling patterns (not just spelling in general), and give them a structure like an editing minute a the end of writing workshop to manage the many tasks that are involved in creating their best work.