Resetting Our Workshop Practices Blog Series · spelling

Spelling Words for Kids: Resetting Our Workshop Practices

Resetting Our Workshop Practices Blog Series - Image of a teacher erasing things she used to do from a whiteboard.

During a keynote address at an event for teachers, my colleague Kathy Collins played a game with the audience called “Oh-no-you-didn’t.” To play the game, you had to share one thing you did as a new (or not so new) teacher that you would never consider doing now. She told the story of a teacher she knew. He took his kids on a field trip and had them sit on the floor of the subway while waiting for the train. Ewwwww. At least, that’s how I remember the story. (Sorry subway teacher, if I’ve mixed it up).

The point is, we’ve all made mistakes. Mistakes are how we grow and learn and get better. We tell our students this all the time, but it’s hard to accept it for ourselves. Personally, I’ve made probably every mistake there is and I’m not ashamed to share. I am happy to help others learn from my many, many, many mistakes. Why repeat them?

Here are some things I used to think… but now I don’t.

I used to…. encourage kids to “think about spelling” in general while writing.

And now I… help students break down spelling into bite-sized pieces. I try to remind students of specific spelling patterns they’ve recently studied, and focus just on those. I might say, “Today during word study 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 during writing workshop(and every day)!”

I used to… wait until students had chosen a writing workshop piece for publishing before focusing too much on spelling, and then coach the whole class to edit everything: spelling, handwriting, punctuation, sentence structure, you name it.

But now I…  leave aside one minute at the end of each writing workshop for editing, and editing alone. Then, during that time, I can coach each student to edit for just one thing each day. Instead of saying “Everybody edits for everything! Spelling, punctuation, and handwriting! Go!” I now say, “Today, pick just one thing from your editing checklist and just check for that one thing.”

I used to… teach editing for spelling primarily by handing out an editing checklist near the end of the writing process in writing workshop, and saying, “Be sure to check each word for spelling.”

But now I… Model what it looks like to encounter difficulty and work through it. In minilessons, during shared writing, or during small group work–any time I am writing in front of kids– I try to model what I do when I encounter a tricky word. Even during science or social studies, I’ll stop. Think aloud. Say out loud, “I don’t know exactly how to spell this word, but I’m going to use what I know to give it my best try.” Then I continue thinking aloud as I spell the word as best I can and move on.

I set aside a separate time every day for explicit phonics and spelling instruction so that writing workshop is the place where kids can practice and apply what they’ve learned in context.

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I used to…  skip writing workshop from time to time in order to finish up other projects that I deemed more important – a science lesson, or a math assessment, for example. Writing seemed to be the first thing to go. I constantly wondered why I struggled with kids not being able to spell words during writing workshop. I’ll just tuck in extra writing during science/social studies/math, I’d tell myself. But it never really happened. Plus, content area writing is not the same as learning how to write. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say sometimes we only wrote two or three days in a given week. Even if we still had explicit phonics and spelling lessons every day, skipping writing workshop left limited time for kids to practice using what they were learning in context.

But now I… strongly protect independent writing workshop time. 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 during phonics and spelling lessons. 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.

I used to… model spending a long time figuring out how to spell a word (over a full minute even on very short words), giving kids the impression that they should stop in their tracks if they encounter an unfamiliar or challenging word to spell.

But now I… coach students not to spend forever figuring out a word. In conferring and small group work, interactive writing, or other guided writing situations, you can use short, transferable phrases to help kids give the word their best attempt without spending too much time on it. A perfectionist student is going to try to replicate whatever you do together in a conference–so if you spend five minutes solving a word together, watch out, that is literally what the student will attempt to do every time! Say things like, “You gave it a try. Now move on.” or “That’s it! You wrote the word. Now keep going.” or “You can always come back to it later, during our editing minute.” 

One of my favorite strategies is to write the word three times on a scrap of paper or in the margin, choose the best one, and move on. An even simpler version is to teach kids to write the word as best they can and circle it if they know it still might not be perfect. Grown-ups do this all the time  – we write sp? next to words, put asterisks next to them, or underline them, just to show that we know it’s not spelled perfectly but we’re not wasting valuable time to worry about it too much.

I used to… spend a lot of time teaching young students to use picture dictionaries or word lists to look up words. 

But now I… am more careful about making sure the resources match the students’ independent reading levels (or easier). I model using the resources quickly and efficiently, rather than allowing the tools to take students away from their writing for minutes at a time. For many students, dictionaries might best be saved for final edits on a published piece, rather than during the generating ideas or drafting phases.

I used to… expect students to erase and correct their spelling so that their work looked “perfect” after making changes and edits.

But now I… provide lots of encouragement and positive feedback about making multiple attempts. I provide pens instead of pencils and teach students to cross out instead of erasing. I say things like, “Wow! I am noticing that you’ve crossed out a lot of words! That’s so great! I can literally see your hard work! That’s exactly what I do when I’m writing, too. I make a lot of changes as I go.” I make it a point to highlight and display work with cross-outs, celebrating the process and the hard work, instead of only displaying perfect-looking writing.

I used to… teach students that spelling and mechanics were primarily connected to certain “rules” that writers have to follow. 

But now I… just don’t do that anymore. It was problematic for several reasons. First, it simply wasn’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 is simply a thing that writers do,” just isn’t very motivating for most children.

What is your “I used to… But now I…” when it comes to spelling?

Students need to know that they have 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.

  • Do your students have strong identities as writers? Can they describe themselves as, “I’m the kind of writer who…”
  • Do your students know who will be reading whatever it is they are writing? 
  • Do they know the publishing date? Do they have a plan for how their work will be shared with a wider audience? Do they know the plans for the publishing party? (Celebrations and reflections support meaning and purpose for their writing–and spelling of the words in it).
  • Do students know why they are writing this particular thing? Do they genuinely have a clear purpose that matters to them? 
  • Do students have the skills to give each other feedback and ask each other helpful questions?

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 – audience and purpose:

  • Who will be reading my writing? Will they be able to read it very easily?
  • Do I have a meaningful reason for spelling as best I can, rechecking my spelling, and editing to make changes? 

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.”

Giveaway Information: 

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing by Melanie Meehan. Many thanks to Corwin Literacy for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing, please leave a comment about this post by Thursday, 8/11 at 11:59 a.m. EDT. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway. Amy Ellerman will use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names she will announce in an in case you missed it post about this blog series Friday, August 12th. 
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Amy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. 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, Amy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AUGUST BLOG SERIES. Please respond to Amy’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

14 thoughts on “Spelling Words for Kids: Resetting Our Workshop Practices

  1. Lots of great suggestions in this post! Thank you! When it came time to editing, I used to have students look for things they needed to fix, but now I ask them to look for words they spelled correctly, or places where they used an upper case letter or punctuation correctly. I found that when students were excited to find all the ways they excelled, they noticed places that needed fixing on their own. It was powerful.

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  2. I confess I read through your “I used to…” comments PRAYING I wouldn’t see something I still do. PHEW! Apparently, I refined (and reformed!) my practice along with you. But seriously, I absolutely love the idea of setting aside time at the end of EVERY writing session, even in Kindergarten, to choose one thing to focus on and edit — punctuation, UC/LC, spacing, etc… Adding that to my practice! Loving this series, BTW.

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  3. I love the easy to read format you used for this post! Isn’t it so rewarding to reflect and see how your thinking has shifted over time? I used to let spelling go in writing because I felt strongly that it was important for students to get their ideas down (I still believe in the latter!), but now I break down multisyllabic words into parts during writing conferences and keep bringing up our word wall resource we build together. I also focus on one thing during conferences. I love your suggestion of a minute to edit for one thing at the end of writer’s workshop. I’m going to adopt that idea this year! Thanks for a thoughtful and thoughtful provoking post!

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  4. I love the frame- and have used it with students so many times. What is harder for most of us, is using it ourselves to reflect on what we used to do as teachers. While we might think about this ourselves, sharing these statements with others can be scary. But this flows from recent posts about allowing ourselves, as teachers, to let go of previous practices with grace and forgiveness.

    As I read your post, I was answering yes for myself for almost everything you mentioned from “I used to teach spelling as a set of rules” and “I used to expects kids to erase and fix to look perfect (or copy the whole damn thing, Yikes!!!)” to “I used to have kids edit for everything.” Some of this comes from how I was originally taught, and some of it was strongly influenced by my OWN perfectionist tendencies. Yep. Not proud. Just a recovering perfectionist.

    That’s why I read this blog- as I know better, I do better. Thank you, to all of the contributing authors, for this amazingly educational blog. 😊❤

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  5. So many helpful ideas in here!
    I MAKE IT A POINT TO HIGHLIGHT AND DISPLAY WORK WITH CROSS-OUTS, CELEBRATING THE PROCESS AND THE HARD WORK, INSTEAD OF ONLY DISPLAYING PERFECT-LOOKING WRITING. — Love how having students leave the cross-outs provides learning for peers around spelling along with insight for the teacher about skills to teach into and which groups of students may need similar skill-building work.
    Thank you for your willingness to share your “mistakes” and the helpful ideas!

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  6. What a great reframe on our thinking about spelling during writing. It was always suggested that we “embed” this instruction, but it typically would look a lot like the description of the “used to” practices here. I’m excited to use these suggestions as a spring board!

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  7. Thank you for making me really think about my practices. I’m going to try a combination this year of spelling for some of my 4th graders and Tier ll vocabulary for others. Everyone will get exposure to the vocab.

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