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The classroom spelling program: more than learning words.

The teaching of spelling is something that often attracts frustrated reactions from teachers.

'They get the word right in the test but then they still spell it wrong in their writing!' 'She's had the same word on her spelling list for weeks and she still can't spell it. I don't know what else to do.' 'I can't fit spelling into my literacy block, there's too much else to do.'

Statements like these reflect legitimate concerns, but classroom spelling program can be organised in a way that addresses all of these concerns.

Spelling is more than learning words

Classroom spelling programs often involve students learning a list of words, either from a class list, an individual spelling list or a list of common words. Students are given a list of words at the beginning of the week, these are taken home for practise and students complete a variety of activities with their words, such as dictionary meanings or writing them in sentences. Students are then tested on the words at the end of the week. The problem with such a spelling program is that the main strategy students rely on is memory. They simply try and remember how to spell the words. Students also learn to 'play the game'. They learn the words for the purpose of the test and often don't make the link to using the word correctly in a context, such as a piece of writing. This leads to many of the problems expressed by teachers--a lack of consistency between spelling in a test and spelling in writing or frequent incorrect spelling of the same words. We need to see spelling not as learning words, but as learning about words.

It is important for students to develop a range of strategies for spelling, so when approaching new or unfamiliar words they are able to ask themselves the question, 'What strategy will best help me spell or learn this word?' Having a repertoire of strategies or approaches and knowing when to apply them can be a key to success in spelling. These strategies should include phonetic and visual strategies, an understanding of morphemes and an understanding of etymology, or word origins. When approaching words, either during a spelling investigation or from list, students may then apply more than memory to the spelling process.

Understanding different strategies and learning about words can also help students to make the important link between spelling and communicating. Some students view spelling as an isolated activity and don't always see its relationship to the writing process and the construction of a text for communicating ideas and information. A classroom spelling program should aim to ignite students' curiosity and interest in words and our language and help them understand the important role that spelling plays in the communication process. By investigating words and teaching a broad range of spelling strategies we can then help students to be active and successful participants in the exciting process of written communication. Following are some ideas for developing students' phonetic and morphemic understanding and for approaching spelling in an engaging and active way.

Spelling as Word Study

If students are to learn about words, rather than simply learn words from a list, some time must be given to word study. This might take the form of direct instruction or class investigations. Word study however, should not take the form of the teacher simply telling the students what they should know, with the students passive listeners. Rather, word study can become a process of discovery and investigation. For example the teacher may want the students to be familiar with the generalisation 'When a word ends in a consonant + y, change the 'y' to an 'I' and add 'es' when making the word plural'. Rather than simply telling the students this 'rule' followed by the students working through a list of singular nouns which they then write as plurals as they apply the 'rule', a more investigative approach may be used. For example:

The teacher begins by writing singular nouns ending in 'y' on the board with their corresponding plural beside it. The question is then asked of the students, 'Can anyone see what is happening when the word becomes plural?'

Some students may say 'The 'y' is gone' or "There's 'es' on the end of the plurals." As these suggestions are made an atmosphere of discovery can be generated and a sense of excitement built as students make important observations about the words and their spelling.

The teacher may then record the students' observations on the board and gradually a spelling generalisation can be arrived at.

Other words can then be added to the original lists of singular and plural nouns to test the generalisation suggested by students and exceptions searched for. The students may suggest the generalisation 'If a word ends in 'y', change the 'y' to an 'i' and add 'es.'Words such as 'ray', 'key' and 'tray' could then be added to the list of words. 'Does our generalisation work for these words? Are there any changes we need to make to our generalisation?' Students can then be encouraged to see that the words must end in a consonant and 'y' for this generalisation.


In such a process the students have still learnt an important spelling generalisation or 'rule' but have done so in a far more meaningful way, as they have come to the discovery themselves, rather than simply being told a 'rule' to remember. They have also been encouraged to become excited and interested in words, through being involved in a dynamic lesson based on discovery and investigation.

Spelling in Context

The spelling focus that has been addressed through the explicit word study should be followed up in a reading or writing context. During modelled, interactive or shared writing, spelling strategies can be reinforced, the teacher may 'think aloud' the strategies being used for spelling particular words and students can be actively involved in the process of spelling unfamiliar words and problem solving through possible spelling choices.

Shared reading is an ideal opportunity to reinforce spelling and make the links for students between reading and writing. The following spelling lesson was undertaken with a Grade 2/3 class following a shared reading experience with the big book 'Monkey's Shoes'.

After reading the book, the students were encouraged to find the words in the text with the long /ee/ phoneme. Words such as 'tree', 'me' and 'monkey' were found. The words were discussed and students identified the letters that were making the same sound in each word (ee, e, ey). The words were written on cards and stuck to the board. The students were then asked the question for investigation: I wonder what other words might belong in each group? Through questioning, the students suggested a number of other words and these were grouped according to how the long /ee/ sound was represented in the word. The students were given questions in order to arrive at the words, rather than brainstorming, to ensure the words would match the spelling focus for the lesson and to provide a greater level of support. For example some of the questions used were:

* What do we call something we might tell someone that we don't want anyone else to know? (secret--e grapheme)

* What can we do with our eyes? (see--ee grapheme)

* What would we use to open a lock? (key--ey grapheme)

While other graphemes could have been introduced such as 'ea' as in 'beat' or 'y' as in 'funny', it was decided to limit the investigation to a small number of spelling choices while the students became familiar with the process of investigation.


As the students discovered words and sorted them into groups, one student said, 'All the words in the 'ey' group have the sound at the end of the word.' This was an exciting discovery and so the question was posed: 'I wonder if we can think of a spelling generalisation for Jason's discovery?' The students suggested generalisations such as 'When an /ee/ sound is heard at the beginning or middle of a word, it won't be made by 'ey' and 'When 'ey' is used to make an /ee/ sound it will always be at the end of the word.' While this was taken no further in this lesson, a later investigation would involve students testing these generalisations by looking for words with 'ey' making an /ee/ sound to see if they always matched the generalisations or if any exceptions could be found.

Spelling as Inquiry

Using an inquiry approach to spelling allows students to come to discoveries themselves, rather than simply being asked to remember the spelling of different words or memorise spelling 'rules'. Spelling inquiries can take the form of focus questions for the lesson such as:

'I've been told that 'ch' says /ch/ and I've been wondering how true that is. I wonder if 'ch' only makes a /ch/ sound.' (Students can then investigate other sounds made by 'ch' such as a /k/ sound as in chemist or a /sh/ sound as in chef).

An inquiry and problem solving approach to spelling encourages an interest in words and how they are constructed, as students become actively involved in making discoveries about words and their spelling.

Spelling in the Classroom Literacy Program

A common question asked by teachers is, 'How do I fit spelling into my literacy program?' The answer is, spelling can be taught and reinforced throughout the literacy block, as well as being given specific time of its own for explicit teaching. An example of how spelling may be incorporated may look something like this:

Shared reading during whole group reading time Identify words in a Big Book or other text and investigate the spelling of the words. 'Who can find a word with an /oa/ sound on this page? How many sounds can we hear in the word? Where can we hear the /oa/ sound? What letters are making the sound?'

Small group reading

Pose similar questions to those above to reinforce spelling concepts with a text following Guided Reading or include small group tasks that develop visual and auditory discrimination skills necessary for developing spelling strategies.

Whole group writing

Use modelled, shared or interactive writing to reinforce spelling strategies. The teacher may 'think aloud' or question students about possible spelling choices during the writing process. Interactive writing may be used to encourage students to share their own spelling strategies and problem-solve the spelling of unfamiliar words.

Whole class spelling

This may be done at the beginning of the writing hour and may be done in different ways. If a spelling concept or strategy is being introduced for the first time, a greater length of time may be spent investigating this as a whole group. After this the concept is reinforced in shorter whole group sessions at the onset of the writing hour. This allows for short bursts of instruction and reinforcement at the word level, before being further reinforced in context, as the lesson moves into whole group shared or modelled writing at the beginning of the writing component of the literacy block.

The concepts addressed during this period of whole group investigation may then be continually reinforced or investigated further in small groups or in the context of reading or writing.

Incorporated into the classroom literacy program this way, spelling is being taught in two crucial ways--at the word level through word study and explicit teaching of spelling strategies and generalisations using investigation and inquiry and importantly it is also being taught and reinforced within the context of a piece of text, during reading and writing.

Being Curious

While we want students to be curious and interested in words, it is important that we teachers also take an interest in words, how they are 'constructed' and their origins. The more knowledge and understanding we have about our language, words, spelling choices and strategies, the better equipped we are to develop similar understanding in our students. Similarly, in showing our enthusiasm and passion for learning in this area, the more likely we are to encourage interest and excitement for learning, in our students.

Spelling need not be something that causes frustration or uncertainty with teachers. It is a critical part of literacy teaching and learning and through an approach that involves active participation by students and a sense of discovery and investigation, the spelling lesson can be a part of the literacy program that creates excitement and interest, as well as a deeper understanding of our rich language.

Heidi Bush is a Curriculum Officer working with a cluster of schools in the North West Region of Tasmania.
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Author:Bush, Heidi
Publication:Practically Primary
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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