Modifying Spelling Programs

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I had a long discussion with a classroom teacher who was frustrated with the lack of depth in the spelling program that she was mandated by the school to use. We brainstormed strategies that she could use to stay true to the program and at the same time add in the elements she saw that her students were missing.

The strategies discussed included:

  • Add an extra step into Look-Cover-Write whereby children colour-code any letters or letter combinations representing a sound other than the basic alphabet sounds of /a/, /b/, /c/.
  • Use the Grapheme Posters to help students recall the different ways of representing a particular sound. Having picture cues and a story help in retention.
  • Systematically teach spelling rules using the appropriate level Rules Rule book and the Rules Posters. Choose the spelling rule to be taught that (as much as possible) coincides with words in the spelling program.
  • Systematically teach prefixes and suffixes and add these to words in the spelling program.
  • Always teach homographs. So, if ‘sight’ is in the spelling list, also teach ‘cite’ and ‘site’.
  • Discuss alternative pronunciation(s) and meaning(s) of words as relevant.
  • Discuss the part of speech. Often you will find that words can be used as a different part of speech in different contexts.  For example, ‘past’ can be an adjective (the danger is now past), a noun (in the past or past tense of a verb), a preposition (he rode past the building) or an adverb (the week went past).
  • Test the spelling words in dictation so that students are placed in a situation of cognitive overload, whereby they have to remember a string of words, punctuation and spelling, rather than just focusing on the spelling of one word at a time in a list. This is therefore a better indicator as to whether or not they have learned the word.
  • Include a question and speech in the dictation so students are practising the associated punctuation in a systematic, regular manner.
  • For older students, include word-building examples of the spelling words learned in the dictation. For example, if the word was ‘reply’ in the dictation it could be ‘replying’ or ‘replies’.  It is particularly useful if the word-building relates to the spelling rule taught during the week and previously taught spelling rules.
  • During and after completing the dictation, ask students to underline words that they are not 100% sure are spelled correctly. Then give them time to see if they can self-correct.
  • Encourage students to use this same strategy when doing other written work (i.e., underline words that they are not sure are spelled correctly as they are writing).
  • When marking the dictation and other written work, write the number of the spelling rule which relates to why the word was spelled incorrectly. For example, if ‘skit’ was spelled as ‘scit’ you could write 5 next to the word.  Time is set aside for students to try to correct their errors based on this feedback.  So, in this example, rule 5 tells us that ‘k’ is used when the next letter is ‘e’ or ‘i’.
  • Include lessons in which you model the process of editing for spelling mistakes. Write the word on the board as written by the student.  For example, the word ‘stained’ may have been written as ‘stand’.  Ask the students to decode what has actually been written.  Then ask them to identify the base word in ‘stained’ – ‘stain’.  Students identify the sounds in ‘stain’ – /s/-/t/-/ay/-/n/.  The common ways of representing /ay/ are identified –ay, ai, a-e – and used to write the word – stayn, stain, stane.  Any alternative that doesn’t fit the relevant rules is eliminated. In this example, ‘ay’ is not used in the middle of a word (rule 18), so ‘stayn’ would be crossed out.  Usually, at this point students will correctly identify the correct spelling, but if not tell them and then put in place a strategy for helping to remember the correct grapheme. Since my link picture for the ‘ai’ grapheme is rain, I would get my students to visualise and think about the rain staining the glass.  We would then move to the suffix and discuss the fact that past tense is most commonly indicated by added ‘ed’ and this can be pronounced in three different ways /ed/, /d/, /t/ (rule 15).

If y0u are looking to up-skill your knowledge, you may find the online Spelling Workshop of value.