Article #10
What Do I Do with My Spelling Books?
Cheryl M. Sigmon

At times on the 4-Blocks mailring here at, members ask questions about subjects they used to teach and how it is that those subjects can be "overlooked" now with the 4-Blocks method of instruction. The subjects mentioned are usually spelling, grammar, and handwriting. Today's column is devoted to one of those changed--but definitely not forgotten--subjects, spelling.

First, does the 4-Blocks Model include spelling? Yes, it is clearly a part of the model, even though there's no block called spelling. Spelling is integrated in several ways, though perhaps most prominently in the Words Block.

This model does have a philosophy about teaching spelling that differs from the more traditional skill and drill and monotony of the exercises presented in most spelling textbooks. The 4-Blocks way teaches kids the value of learning valuable word patterns and of thinking about words in relationship to other words. Even though the presentation of these words is sometimes in isolation of a passage of text, the presentation is emphatic about those relationships and generalizations. When kids are presented a list of 10-20 words to memorize in a spelling book, their memorization of those words to pass the spelling test on Friday does not impress upon them how their knowledge of a few words can empower them with a far greater access to words that they can employ in their speech and in their written compositions. Quite often, too, the memorization of the spelling words does not assure that the learning is stored in the long-term memory. When we move on from that particular spelling chapter, we quite often have seen that the kids don't retain their new knowledge and do not apply it in their writing.

Let's look at specific activities throughout the day in the 4-Blocks classroom that provide us the opportunity to teach spelling. Daily the students are spending at least 10 minutes on the Word Wall words which are the high frequency words they use often in their writing and encounter frequently in their reading. They are developing automaticity with these words so that they will not hesitate with decoding these words in their reading or with applying them in their writing. In other words, knowledge of these words helps with their fluency in both of those areas. Additionally, we teach that many of these Word Wall words have spelling/rhyming patterns that will enable the students to spell many other words that rhyme with this word--for example, if you can spell take, then you can spell make, rake, sake, flake, Blake, etc. Children know that these words, which are designated with asterisks, stars, or stickers on the Word Wall, are important to learn and to think about. Our On-the-Back activities allow us to help the students make those spelling transfers as we practice both with rhyme and rime and with prefixes and suffixes that can be added. Likewise, even activities such as Be A Mind Reader help focus children on the patterns and relationships of words as they compare all of the words to find the exact word the teacher has in mind. The many activities and the daily review of these words helps the children store this knowledge in the long-term part of their brains, and, thus, makes application and transfer into their writing far more probable than occurred with the students' retention of knowledge with spelling texts alone.

The second segment of Word Block is another excellent opportunity to teach spelling patterns. When Making Words is done correctly, teachers carefully plan their lessons to move word-to-word by removing the fewest numbers of letters and helping students see the patterns of the words clearly. While moving from an to fan, to tan, to man, to Fran, to hand, to stand, the student sees how changing the word evolves around an established pattern. The second step of Making Words is the sorting which provides an additional opportunity to look at the patterns arranged in a clear format. The transfer step which follows lets the student know, just as with the starred words on the Word Wall, that this pattern will enable him to make many, many additional words--none of which have to be memorized the way we used to do it.

Many other activities during the second segment of Word Block--Rounding Up the Rhymes and Name Brand Phonics, just to name a couple--teach spelling patterns and the manipulation of onsets and rimes to make new words. So very far beyond our old method of memorizing a few isolated words, this block encourages kids' exploration of words and shows them that the intricate patterns of our language are within their grasp.

The Writing Block, too, is a time to stress and encourage good spelling practices. Teachers during this writers' workshop approach set an expectation of always spelling the high frequency words from the Word Wall correctly, even at the rough draft stage. The words on the wall are always accessible, always visible to the students so that this expectation is realistic. Further, teachers usually have an item on their Editor's Checklist requiring that students circle words they think they may have misspelled. Note, that the requirement is only to circle--not to correct it. This will allow students the opportunity to continue with getting their thoughts on paper rather than interrupting that thought to get a dictionary. We want them to be fluent. Most teachers only require students to correct all errors once they have selected a piece among several (usually 1 from 3-5 good pieces) to publish. The awareness of spelling is important. This block allows students to apply their phonetic understanding as they invent spell words. Rather than spell for them during this block, we continually say to them, "Stretch-out the word and write down the sounds YOU hear. Just get it on paper so that you can read it back. We'll clean it up later." Again, though, the Word Wall words should be spelled correctly. Roger Farr wrote that kids must "encode before they decode." That's how this block supports reading--and spelling. Kids again are exploring words and the combinations of those words towards their own creative pieces. They get to see the power of letters and words.

Now, do we ever use a spelling book in a 4-Blocks classroom? I won't say "No," though sometimes I would like to. Let me say, though, that something must guide what spelling content you teach. Some kind of curriculum guide or spelling book should guide a teacher to know what patterns are valuable for children to know at what grades. If your school's curriculum guide does that, you can probably operate without a spelling text. If you are required to use a spelling book in some way, just let the patterns they suggest guide the activities you plan. Construct your Making Words activity around a big word that has the pattern called for in your guide or book; stress a Word Wall word that includes that pattern and transfer and apply that pattern to several other words that have that rime as you do your On-the-Back activity.

What do we do about the good 'ole end of the week spelling test? If possible, forget it. To assess kids' abilities to spell, you need nothing other than to read the drafts of their daily writing to see if they are applying their new knowledge about words. If a spelling tests/grades are required at your school, you might try these suggestions.

  • Construct your test using 5 Word Wall words and 5 words from the transfer activities you've done that week through On-the-Back. You might even ask them to make words they can think of using the starred word (bonus points, perhaps?).
  • Dictate a short paragraph that uses the new and some old high frequency words in context, giving a bonus for the correctly spelled review words.
If you give a test, consider making it very informal and present it as an opportunity to show what they've been studying this week. Don't raise the anxiety level by even calling it a test. Try just keeping a portfolio or their end of week work and grading them on their over-all performance, not an average of weekly work. As a whole, decide if they are improving, consistent, or whether they may lack understanding of spelling concepts. Surely if they are late grasping the concepts--but nevertheless have grasped them at long last--they deserve to make a good end of marking period grade.

(By the way, have you ever noticed that it's the parents of the kids who make good scores on spelling tests that are the ones who complain if the tests aren't given?)

Let's also mention the difference between spelling and vocabulary. For starters, spelling is more a writing skill and vocabulary a reading skill. We don't have to spell as we read; we do have to understand words as we read, though. So, if you are having children memorize long vocabulary words for your weekly spelling tests, reconsider your practice. Having them learn the definitions might be advantageous. If they want to use a long word in their writing, they'll learn to use a dictionary if it's important to spell it correctly. That's what we, as adults, do. Don't have your kids spending inordinate amounts of time memorizing spellings of long, vocabulary words! The time spent on patterns is far more beneficial to students in their writing.

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