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Personalizing spelling instruction: lessons from a classroom.

One way of striking fear into a class of preservice teachers, and thereby gaining their undivided attention, is to inform them that they are to undertake a common spelling test. "They are words you all know. You've used them before. Trust me." No manner of reassurance can stem the flow of adrenaline. Nervous muttering, unconvincing chuckles and desperate looks belie the group's previous air of confidence. Sudden requests to leave, sinking bodies and lowered eyes telegraph their fear. A mention that the results will be shared in public is likely to instigate open revolt.

Yet, the teacher educator or consultant who suggests to teachers that they should individualize their spelling instruction may be howled down with cries of, "When were you last in the classroom?" and questions that start, "Yes, but...?" Why is this so? How can such simple statements stir so many so easily?

These stirrings are not restricted to Western cultures. In Singapore and Malaysia, I met with similar comments and behaviors. Furthermore, it would seem to be not just a feature of the current generation. I recall my mother's weekly assurances that all will be well, that this week I could obtain that magical 100 percent in the Friday spelling test. And, like her, I still cringe at those memories.

Unfortunately for many, no amount of coaxing or bribing will lead to the attainment of spelling greatness. As a child, even a 99 percent grade didn't raise you to that euphoric level. As a teacher, I noted the anguish on my students' faces as the words were called, then marked. I shared their heartaches and disappointments and breathed silent sighs of relief when they achieved a high class average. I believed my teaching performance hinged on the results of that weekly spelling test. I was left dismayed and bewildered when during writing, or composition as it was then called, students misspelled the very words they had triumphantly spelled correctly in their test. Something must have been very wrong--with them, with me or with the spelling program.

Everyone around me seems to be an expert on spelling instruction. Asked how they learned to spell and how today's children should be taught to spell, most reply, "Through the weekly spelling test." Even those closet poor spellers (very few admit openly to being a poor speller) believe that the weekly test is the best teaching method. Yet it has failed for many of them and will continue to fail unless something is done to modify spelling curriculum to meet the needs of the individual.

Changing people's attitudes and beliefs can be a long, messy and often unsuccessful process. This article offers an alternative approach to spelling instruction by sharing one 4th-grade teacher's modified spelling program. This program capitalizes upon the tried and true practices of the past, emphasizes learning how to spell as opposed to learning spellings and considers students' individual needs.

Classroom Orientation

The color of classroom 4D is eye-catching. As one approaches the room, attention is drawn to the mobiles and murals on either side. A smiling "Cheshire cat" surrounded by "classroom personalities of the week" welcomes visitors. Close examination reveals neatly written, correctly spelled, positive student statements about each child.

The classroom walls are adorned with brightly painted charts, murals, poems and projects. Five entwined hoops hang from the center of the ceiling, displaying the children's "Olympics" theme work. Other strings suspend art work and class charts of sounds, synonyms and antonyms. Numerous and varied labels project the following messages: "Our Writing, Worth Reading," "5 Steps to Problem-Solving," "Mathematical Games and Puzzles," "Positive Graffiti Here." Arrows lead the way amid classroom rules and expectations: "Manners count," "Respect each other's opinion," "Have you tidied up?"

The children work in groups, in pairs or on their own, engrossed in the task at hand and seemingly unaware of any visitor. Eavesdropping and quick glances at the students' written work reveal that many subjects and activities are being undertaken.

"We're into free time at the moment," explains a voice. "Mr. D. asked me to show you around, he's busy conferencing. See, over there." The teacher sits in a cushion-filled corner surrounded by a small group, deep in conversation. "What is it you want to know?" asks Amanda, the guide, with impressive articulation and confidence. "Tell me about how you learn to spell." "Spelling? Oh, that's easy. Come and I'll show you how it works." Amanda retrieves her spelling folder and begins an explanation of her classroom process.

The Spelling Folder

Three statements on the folder's title page provide insight into the teacher's beliefs about the nature and function of spelling.

* Spelling Is for Writing. Underlying this assumption is the simple proposition that learning to spell is an integral part of learning language, that the purpose of learning to spell is to be able to communicate effectively with others. Spelling helps ensure that the reader will understand the writer's message.

* Learn Those Words You Need To Use. Those words selected for study and formally recorded reflect the varied purposes of the child's writing. These different purposes shape the way the child uses language and, therefore, the meanings that are to be conveyed.

* Standard Spelling Is Important. The language of a writer's community operates by an accepted spelling system. Words have systematic letter sequences that must be followed in specific situations. If the language is to be shared, then it must follow the accepted standard pattern.

It is obvious from Amanda's explanations that this class focuses upon broad aspects of spelling, such as purpose and function. She expertly fielded questions about standard and nonstandard spelling and offered examples from her mother tongue (Mandarin). She also gave an equally succinct explanation of the spelling folder's organization. Two sections make up the main body of the loose-leaf folder.

Words of Interest

Students choose words in this section from a variety of sources: errors identified in proofreading for publishing; interest words obtained from daily reading, writing or discussions; words frequently misspelled in other curricular areas.

Each word is listed with date of entry and a sentence that clearly demonstrates its meaning. Each child selects words to include in this section, either during school time or at home. Individuals are also responsible for checking their recorded words for standard spelling and for having their parents check their lists. The children are obviously well trained in the selection and recording process, particularly in selecting appropriate words. Amanda admitted that Mr. D. has a conference each week on the suitability of the words selected, but less often than at the start of term.

These lists form individual word pools from which the children draw to investigate, learn and revise each week. The number of words selected for revision (when children test each other) varies for each child; a minimum of five was agreed upon by the class earlier in the year. Following revision, those words successfully spelled are initialed by the student and then recorded in the "Words To Use" section of the folder. From these lists it is possible to gain insight into the individual child's language use and to evaluate the child's progress.

Words To Use

Words entered into this section are those correctly spelled on revision day. The section is alphabetically organized and provides a cumulative record of the child's spelling successes. This organization aids in student recall and retrieval of words when required. A synonym extension (Bouffler & Bean, 1989) provides valuable vocabulary enrichment.

Synonym extension involves using a thesaurus to find synonyms that can be used in place of the original word. The children are encouraged to buy a personal thesaurus and, judging from the worn edges of Amanda's, they are well used.

These 32 4th-graders and their teacher are obviously well organized and the folder method of recording is functional and purposeful. Further proof of this organization is evident in a mural depicting the classroom writing cycles, particularly the learning to spell cycle. From this chart it can be seen that the spelling environment is quite structured and very predictable (Bodycott, 1991).

Weekly Spelling Organization

As indicated in Figure 3, learning to spell in this classroom involves three main steps: 1) what to do when you are unsure about the spelling, 2) what to do when you've found the word and 3) using the word.

The children add to their "Words of Interest" lists through their reading and writing. If they are unsure about the standard spelling of a word during writing, they are encouraged to use a variety of spelling strategies: by sound, by meaning, by articulation, by analogy. These attempts or "tryouts" generate conventional or invented spellings and continue until the word looks and sounds correct. Then, these invented spellings are checked by other students or against the charts, labels or books in the classroom. Three attempts to spell the word are expected before consulting the teacher. These try-outs are undertaken continually throughout daily writing.

The second step of the process revolves around what to do when a standard or correct spelling is obtained. Each new word is recorded in an interest list as illustrated in Figure 1. These lists provide a bank of words from which the students can select those to study for weekly spelling tests. Minimum and maximum numbers of words to study are individually negotiated at the beginning of each term. The process of remembering, or learning a spelling, is aided by the Look-Cover-Write-Review procedure.

In the third step of the spelling cycle, students use selected words from their list in daily writing. In addition, spelling activities are undertaken each week. Spelling activities are labeled either "compulsory" (everyone has to complete the activity) or "optional" (students can select from a list of activities). A container filled with the laminated labels of various spelling games offers a ready store of activities from which to select and place on the daily work agenda. See Hudson & O'Toole (1983), E.L.C.S.U. (1984), Bolton & Snowball (1985), and Bouffler & Bean (1989).

An outline of the weekly spelling timetable follows:

Day 1 (Compulsory Activity):

Tchrscope. (Teacher's Copy). Words to be revised are selected from a student's individual "interest" pool. The words are written on a rectangular slip of paper and handed to the teacher who edits and retains them for his personal reference. The students are encouraged to use these words in their writing throughout the week, conducting the Look-Cover-Write-Review process whenever they have time.

Day 2 (Optional Activities)

Day 3 (Compulsory Activities):

Proofreading. Students read through a teacher-distributed text, checking for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. A proofreading guide sheet (Bouffler & Bean, 1989) provides a step-by-step breakdown of the proofreading process. This ensures functional practice in an activity closely linked to editing and publishing.

Day 4 (Optional Activities)

Day 5 (Compulsory Activity):

Revision. On revision day the teacher distributes his personal copies of the individual lists to reciprocal pairs. The children test each other and then correct and initial the other's work. The completed test sheets are then checked by the teacher who records the results and the names of those who need individual follow-up. Each child then completes a "Words To Use" list and synonym extension exercise before preparing the next week's list.

General Principles Underlying the Program

Discussions with the teacher and students, as well as extended observations, clearly illustrate that this spelling program is grounded in firm learning and classroom management principles.

* Spelling and Language: An Analogous Relationship. Spelling in this program is viewed as an integral aspect of language learning. Just as language is used in order to make sense of the world, spelling is presented as an aid to the meaning-making process. Readers can reconstruct an author's meaning through the use of spelling. Without writing, spelling has no purpose. Therefore, the best way to promote spelling is through daily writing that involves a wide range of curriculum contexts and functional purposes.

* Encourage Risk-taking. Writing in this environment also involves active participation and risk-taking. Mistakes (whether spelling, punctuation or grammar) are considered positive steps toward refining the language and thus communicating effectively. By encouraging children to take risks in their writing and spelling, and by responding positively to their attempts, the teacher breaks down inhibitions normally associated with spelling and writing.

Children in this class are granted "space" (Stevick, 1980) to explore and develop their spelling abilities. This "space" is a necessary "pre-condition" for language learning (Legutke & Thomas, 1991). The nature of the spelling tasks and the general spelling organization sustain and bolster students' self-confidence and trust in their teacher and peers. Organizing learning in this way is dependent upon complex factors. The attitude and behavior of the teacher and the character of the class group influence the degree of learner flexibility, cooperation and willingness to learn, and the level of responsibility accepted by each individual (Legutke & Thomas, 1991).

* Hand Over the Responsibility Key. It is extremely important that the teacher hand over to each individual much of the responsibility for learning. Children are naturally in control of the spelling and language learning process. They select the aspects of language that puzzle them, or that most interest them. They are allowed to make decisions about the words they need to learn, as well as the revising, checking and recording process. This teacher facilitates active involvement by the students in their own learning. Thus, the teacher has the freedom to examine more fully each child's development and to provide more personalized follow-up as needed.

* A Positive Responsive Environment. One of the most impressive elements in this classroom is the positive nature of the children's and teacher's responses to each other. They are supportive and constructively critical of each other's efforts. The responses are nonthreatening and generally followed up by a teacher demonstration (Bodycott, 1991) or "mini-lesson" (Calkins, 1986) of what was expected. These demonstrations reinforce the child's efforts and focus upon bridging gaps in the learner's knowledge of spelling rules, standard spelling strategies and proofreading skills. Many times the teacher refers or redirects the child to alternative sources for help, dispelling the "teacher as font of all information" myth.


This teacher developed a spelling program built upon ground rules of expectations and a learning theory that strongly reflects individualized student involvement. Students have the opportunity to practice authentic writing and learn to understand spelling in a much broader context than those in a traditional classroom. By creating a positive constructive atmosphere, the teacher empowers his students. They demonstrate an eagerness to participate in writing and have a range of established spelling strategies to call upon when required. They learn not only standard spellings, but also how to spell.

Establishing a spelling environment that includes creative risk-taking requires the teacher to have intimate knowledge of the writing process and be prepared to have children take responsibility for their own learning. This does not suggest that children learn to spell without direct instruction or that the teacher's role is diminished. On the contrary, the teacher's role in this classroom is dynamic and ever-changing to meet the students' needs. He is conscious, however, that he is not the only teacher in the room. By developing the individual strengths of his students and providing the space for them to explore language, he empowers them toward improving their communicative skills.

Figure 3: 4D's learning to spell cycle

1. Unsure About a Spelling

* Think about the word carefully

* Say it over in your mind

* Say it aloud, pronouncing it as clearly as you can

* Try spelling as it sounds

* Think of other words that sound the same

* Try spelling it different ways

* Ask yourself, "Where have I seen or heard the word being used before?"

* Check around the room

* Look in a book

* Ask someone else for an opinion

* If you think you're close, check out the dictionary

* Ask the teacher

2. Found the Word

* Write the word in your "interest list"

* Test yourself

* Look at the word carefully, its size, shape and letter combinations

* When you think you can remember it:

* cover it up and write it down

* review to see if you're correct

* try again

* Enter the word once reviewed into your "words to use"

3. Use the Word

* Use the word in your writing as often as you can


Bodycott, P. (1991). Building upon a natural learning foundation: A case-study of one teacher's language organization. South East Asian Journal of Educational Studies, 27, 57-69.

Bolton, F., & Snowball, D. (1985). Springboards: Ideas for spelling. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia.

Bouffler, C., & Bean, W. (1989). Spelling: A writer's resource. Melbourne: Rigby Education Australia.

Calkins, L. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

English Language Curriculum Services Unit. (1984). Spelling R-7. Adelaide, South Australia: Education Department of S.A.

Hudson, C., & O'Toole, M. (1983). Spelling: A teacher's guide. Victoria, Australia: Landmark Educational Supplies.

Legutke, M., & Thomas, H. (1991). Process and experience in the language classroom. Essex, UK: Longman Group UK Limited.

Stevick, E., (1980). Teaching languages: A way and ways. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Peter Bodycott is a Lecturer in the Learning Development Centre, University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia. This article is based on a talk delivered at the Educational Research Association of Singapore 1992 Conference.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Bodycott, Peter
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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