Spelling in a Writing Workshop

“I’m a writing teacher, not a spelling teacher.” -Daemon Wilson

The truth… I’d rather not talk about spelling. There are more important things in a writing workshop, than spelling. Spelling well is a good thing. When we edit what we write, it is profusely important, but it has nothing to do with growing a writer.

When we focus on spelling or grammar correctness, the growing writer becomes stifled.

I have found myself sitting through conversations about spelling, feeling the urgency to hold kids accountable for spelling so thick, it begins to infect the primary focus of building literacy and often takes precedence over growing writers. It pains me greatly to sit through these conversations. After 14 years of teaching language arts in a 4th grade dual language classroom, I have something to say about that.

The study of spelling serves students best when it is integrated authentically, not through worksheets, packets, or programs. This is what quantitative research shows, as well as my own experience in the classroom. There are better ways to strengthen conventions like spelling and grammar.

Gentleness of Workshop for Monolinguals vs. the “Course Work” for EALs

When I pick up a book on moving writers forward, some of the best I’ve come to read generally give off a gentleness or moving delight of language. I sometimes find myself lost in these books, finding them almost poetic in structure for inviting students into writing. Often, these literacy rich texts carry an organic unfolding beauty of language. These texts are welcoming invitations into a dream-like world of literacy.  

Few books offer that same approach for EALs or English as an Additional Language learners, especially in the area of spelling.

When we speak of writing for EALs, the unfolding of language carries a very different feel. One more absent of an “organic unfolding of language” and more of a “course work” of sorts. The invitations are more blocked, stacked, laid out with firm edges, and unfriendly practice. These books sometimes hold a superficial and inauthentic kindness for students, held before a coarseness of strict unmalleable perimeters placed around a firmly set path.   

I think we can do better for all students.

I didn’t learn to spell the word “sure” because of a spelling test. I learned it because I used it, I read it, I wanted to spell it right. It had meaning for me. Words have meaning.

Moving Towards Authentic Practice

In his last post, fellow TWT co-author, Lanny Ball, references his colleague Jennifer Serravallo’s recommendation to approach students “like scientists.” This requires us to see students, especially EALs, as… individual humans. Approaching students “like scientists” calls on us to notice and adjust.

According to Essential Linguistics by David E. Freeman and Yvonne S. Freeman, there are some clear methods that have not proven to show success in helping students develop spelling abilities, as well as some ways to move into better practice for helping students “take a scientific approach” to spelling.

According to Teaching Reading and Writing in Spanish and English in Bilingual and Dual Language Classrooms by Yvonne S. Freeman and David E. Freeman, “…the more interest teachers show in words and spellings, the more children are apt to take a similar interest, especially if the teacher takes the approach that this is a topic worth investigating rather than information that should be memorized.”

Conventions of spelling and grammar do not make a writer. Authentic and meaningful writing experiences grow writers.

Authentic and Meaningful Experiences

When students write for real purpose, they gradually learn to use more conventional forms of spelling. Meaning occurs through authentic experiences. Here is one student’s collection of ideas for a letter to a student in El Paso, Texas, after the mass shooting earlier this year. Meaning for this authentic experience holds greater precedence over spelling and grammar conventions, however editing this work will be extremely important to this student. Her audience matters greatly.

There is a power in the authentic experience of writing for real purpose. Experiences like these go beyond a spelling test and into a joy in the unfolding of language and the meaningful importance of its conventions.

For more on this –

Essential Linguistics, What Teachers Need to Know to Teach ESL, Reading, Spelling, Grammar by David E. Freeman and Yvonne S. Freeman

Teaching Reading and Writing in Spanish and English in Bilingual and Dual Language Classrooms by Yvonne S. Freeman & David E. Freeman