Article #24
Spelling Words: Less is Best!
Cheryl M. Sigmon

After finishing a workshop today in Phoenix and reflecting on the most FAQs from that group, I am once again reminded that people have to think long and hard about changing the way they teach and test kids' ability to spell. I always appreciate the questions and even some challenges from teachers about new directions. Sometimes, as a profession, we're far too easily persuaded to "jump on a bandwagon" because some so-called "expert" says it works.

The 4-Blocks way of teaching and testing the long-taught--and revered, I might add! --subject of spelling is quite different from that of the past--different and similar, that is, at the same time. This week let's rethink why we teach spelling, how we teach spelling, and how we know kids are growing in the direction we want them to grow.

First of all, we do need to value spelling, especially at the lower grades, largely because it is how we know that kids understand the rules and applications of our language. (At an older age, there's always Spell-Check, right?) Spelling and the understanding of patterns, rimes, and strategies is what empowers kids to become better, clearer, more proficient readers and writers. We often start by having kids develop automaticity with high frequency words--those words that they will encounter often in their reading and that they will use often in their writing. In the 4-Blocks Model, we accomplish this through spending time daily with the introduction and review of several high frequency words on the Word Wall. We clap, snap, and stomp the new words; we write them and trace them; we extend our knowledge of these words with our On the Back activities. In reviewing the words, we play clever, fun games like Wordo, the Wheel, or Be A Mind Reader to constantly recycle the words through kids' minds so that we meet our challenge of ensuring that all kids know these words before they leave our classrooms this year.

Beyond the high frequency words, we want to help kids understand the patterns or word families of certain words that will help them spell many, many more words--the transfer that is mentioned so often in 4-Blocks training. Additionally, we want kids to explore the many interesting features and characteristics of words--some kids may even enjoy the etymology of words. These little units of speech by which most humans communicate are intriguing and ingenious--if, and only if, we present them that way. Having kids memorize boring long lists of words with the "ie" spelling pattern won't provide the motivation for kids to become more inquisitive about their language. They will dread the daily grind; they will memorize the words for Friday's test; but, they will not savor the uniqueness of the "ie" rules, nor will they often apply the rule past Friday's test. We've all experienced that, haven't we?

Now, what exactly do most teachers ask about this block to clarify their thinking about a new way of teaching spelling? Here are some of the FAQs:

"What will I do with my spelling book? My district says I have to use it."

Bookends perhaps??? No, I don't mean to be facetious about the issue. If you have a spelling book and want or need to use it, I would suggest that you allow it to guide the curriculum for this block. Look at the patterns that the book says are valuable for students at your grade level to know. Then, include those words as they seem appropriate to one or more of the activities of the Words Block. If the word from the spelling book is a high frequency word, include one from among the list of those that the spelling book uses as representative of that rule or pattern to introduce on your Word Wall. Use some of the other words and activities from that spelling chapter to integrate into your On the Back Activity. If the words in the weekly list are not appropriate for the Word Wall, you might consider using them for the activities that support the second portion of that block--choosing one for the big word that day for Making Words and sorting for the particular pattern taught in by that list of words; using some of the words in a Guess the Covered Word activity in which you've taken a paragraph often offered in the spelling chapter and covered the spelling words; or using the words for a Reading and Writing Rhymes activity that emphasized the pattern.

"What do I do for a spelling grade if I'm required to give a weekly grade?"

What many schools have chosen to do is give a test that does assess what you've spent your valuable time teaching in the way of spelling that week. A test might be constructed this way: 5 Word Wall words, 5 words from the On the Back activities that have been stressed that week, and a couple of dictation sentences using both old and new Word Wall words. Also, you might choose to test kids' abilities to match transfer words with the right spelling patterns--those patterns, again, that you've taught that week. That test might go like this: "I've got the patterns we sorted in our Making Words lesson this week in the pocket chart this morning. I want you to decide which pattern will help you spell the new words I'm going to read out for you. Let the pattern you choose help you to spell the new word and write it correctly on your paper. " In the pocket chart there is a list of words in a column "pain," "stain," "rain." In another row are the words "ride" and "side." The teacher calls out the words "train," "brain," "stride," "pride," ... (as many transfer words as necessary). The kids know how to use the patterns provided in the pocket chart to attempt the spellings of these new words on their test. The teacher might chose to use each of the words in a sentence as she calls them out, and she might chose to put them in the context of "If I were writing a story about a train ride I took and wanted to spell the word 'train,' chose the pattern that would help you and then write the new word on your paper." This is real application of spelling--this is what tells kids why spelling is important and that it will really be useful to them in their everyday lives. Spelling lists don't come anywhere close to doing that for kids!

"How many words from the list in the spelling book should I use?"

Again, what's really important is the pattern--not the words themselves individually. If one of the pattern words is appropriate for the Word Wall, then you will let that word represent the pattern by placing a sticker or asterisk on that word to denote that the word is "extra special." In many of the other word-level activities used in Words Block, the same principle holds--use one of the words to represent the pattern and others can be integrated into the activities. So, less is better in getting your point across!

"What if parents expect the traditional spelling tests?"

Let's start educating our parents about effective practices. At Open House nights, demonstrate the Word Wall routine and a good On the Back Activity. Demonstrate a Making Words lesson, including the sorting and transfer steps and then explaining what is accomplished in this fun activity.

In addition, we need to explain to parents the difference between vocabulary words and spelling words. There is little advantage to having kids memorize the spellings of "big" words. It's the meaning of these words that is important. On a personal note, this is way I find "spelling bees" so antiquated and such a waste of a kid's time and talent. I was once a judge in a state spelling bee, ---and what an eye-opening experience that was! Seeing the pressure put on those kids, the anxiety on their faces, and the tears streaming when they missed a word (that I couldn't begin to spell correctly!) made me wonder why we have continued in this day and time to place so much emphasis on such a strange event. The very idea of making spelling a competitive sport is puzzling. As for me, I'll just keep my dictionary and Spell-check close at hand! If I had my way, I would leave spelling bees and beauty contests behind as we enter the new millennium. (Probably not a popular statement!)

"Where do I teach and test the vocabulary words I really want kids to know?"

Vocabulary words are best presented and assessed in the block where they are most directly taught and applied--the Guided Reading Block. No more assignments of "copy all of the definitions of these 10 words from the dictionary, make up sentences for them, ..." In our 4-Blocks classrooms, we usually find some quick and relatively easy way to introduce the vocabulary words that are important to the meaning of the text we're reading. We might try a game of Rivet where kids guess the next letter as we fill in the blanks for each letter of the spelling of the word. We then take an opportunity to briefly talk about the meaning and how it might apply to our story. Or, we might do a picture walk if we know ahead that there is visual support through pictures for the word. Or, we might have kids keeping a picture dictionary of the vocabulary words in a selection. If kids draw the word or something that just reminds them of the word, it will help them as they encounter the word in text and will help them to make a more personal connection to the word.

Now, testing the words we feel are important can take several routes. First, let's make sure that we have exposed students to the words and their meanings to make the students comfortable with the nuances of the words. Oh, how many times have we forced kids to use words they don't fully understand in sentences of their own? If we want to take a more traditional approach to testing, we can do a multiple choice or matching of words to meanings--no spelling included, please!. If we want to help kids transfer their understanding of these words, we use the words in our essay questions in their correct contexts and we encourage their use appropriately in their responses.

One more point here about vocabulary words. Sometimes we tend not to give students as much responsibility with the acquisition of vocabulary as we should. We have long felt the need to hand down to kids the words we deem important for them to learn, often regardless of whether the students have any real interest in or need for using those particular words. Turning kids on to words and the power of words should be our real aim. We need to allow them to collect words they find interesting and that they might want to try using in their writing. We should teach them to search for words in their reading and words that they hear and to be word detectives in finding why words look and sound like they do. Words, words, and more words! Start by reading the wonderful book Donovan's Word Jar to your students.

Now, after writing this article about spelling, I'll run the Spell-Check on my computer and hope that I haven't made any major goofs! Hope you'll forgive me if you find any misspellings! I was never a spelling bee winner myself!

4 Blocks Goodies