Friday, January 28, 2011

Inspiring Spelling

Spelling gets a lot of attention in school.

Sometimes this attention is warranted and other times this attention can be destructive.

Too often, spelling is easy to count so it counts for a lot. After all, quantifying creative and imaginative writing is a hell-of-a-lot harder than counting spelling errors.

Remember that spelling is a means to an end - communication. And if kids aren't inspired to communicate through reading or writing, why would they ever feel the need to spell anything correctly? Out-of-context and in isolation, spelling is a useless skill.

I don't know too many people who are inspired to read and write because they want to spell. It's got to be the other way around.


  1. Interesting that there are no comments on this one. I struggle with teaching spelling out of context from writing. So many teachers a comfortable with the idea that there is a systematic way to teach spelling. They believe in the rules and patterns and trust students to remember the exceptions.Some students love spelling because they can excel at memorizing ten to twenty random or related words (it doesn't really matter). The ones who cannot memorize, well they need to try harder don't they?

    I have tried to teach spelling in the context of reading and writing. It makes sense to me but I find it a huge undertaking. Identifying misspelled words takes time and it needs to be a collective effort. Peers and perhaps parents could contribute to the personal word lists.

    You are right, a desire to spell correctly comes from a desire to write.

  2. I totally agree Joe. I'm certainly not motivated to spell better because I just want those darn words to look right. I'm motivated to be careful on my spelling (going as far as to Google words to ensure I have the right spelling...) because I want what I communicate to be crystal clear.

  3. This is something I worry about a lot - my students are such good writers (you can see their projects here - Storybook Projects - but they have reached college, often their senior year of college, with huge deficits in writing mechanics. I set up my class to revise revise revise so that they can get practice and feedback on skills that (I thought) they should have learned years ago - especially spelling and punctuation. They use the spellchecker to check for spelling... but the homonyms are killing them, and the sneaky word pairs. It's hard to figure out how to work on that. Having them memorize lists of words is a non-starter - but one thing I do offer is some extra credit quizzes they can take at our course management system, where I found proverbs that contain homonyms and other pitfalls. I figure proverbs contain bits of wisdom that make them worth pondering for their own sake, in addition to reinforcing common homonyms. You can see the Proverbs here and Sneaky Word Pairs - and I turned some of them into slideshows just for fun: here's one for example. But I still struggle with this a lot. Proverbs seemed like meaningful "bits" of stuff to use as raw material to work on, since proverbs do have some value... Still, I wonder if others have found some magical solutions for the spelling conundrum! Trying to work on this in the senior year of college is sure not what I expected. I learned to spell in third grade mostly and we played punctuation games in fourth grade - that was fun, we had funny punctuation hats we wore and we got to "act out" sentences. I loved it... but that's not going to happen in college, alas, where I am not even supposed to teaching punctuation and spelling at all. At least I can justify all these proverbs since I am supposed to be teaching folklore. :-)

  4. Oooh, it didn't like any of my html - here are the links I wanted to include:
    student projects
    proverbs and quiz questions
    sneaky word pairs and quiz questions
    proverb slideshow index
    proverb slideshow sample

  5. P.S. I should add that I encourage my students to get good online tools to help them:

    add a lookup dictionary to Firefox

    learn how to use the spellchecker in Firefox

    spellcheck and dictionary in GoogleDocs

    (I teach online classes and all our writing is online so if they only know how to use Word, I need to help them find equivalent help tools online)

  6. It's funny how school over the years has made spelling and spelling tests as this ultra important thing. Forget learning about something new or improving at something, heck forget reading a good book. I've gotta memorize how to spell 20 words so I can get a golden star on my paper. I had a student ask me this year, "When are we going to take spelling tests?" I said, "Aren't you learning how to spell when you read and write?" In 5th grade or most grades, the spelling of words is either known or unknown. Use your tools to find things when you don't know! My first year of teaching I spent way too much time correcting (wasting time) spelling tests and HW (yuck). Bottom line, I stopped giving spelling tests.

    I'm on board with you Joe. Spelling matters but how big of an emphasis should we put on it?

    What do you think about spelling in the earlier grades?

  7. I went to elementary school in a Boston suburb in the early 1970's. Then the fashion was not to work on spelling at all so as not to interfere with children's creative writng. "If they read they will learn to spell" was the motto. From first grade I read extensively and very very frequently. In fourth grade we got a new teacher who was horrified to find a class of non-spellers and introduced frequent dictations. I learned how to speel from that, not from the books I was devouring!

  8. Hi Naomi, I have a lot of fond memories of dictation in third grade. The teacher picked really jokes and stories, so the dictations were fun. I learned a lot of spelling that year. :-)

  9. I am continually surprised by how much space spelling takes up in the class newsletter, student agenda, lessons, etc.

  10. Katherine, I am not quite sure I understood the direction you were going in with that comment. As a college teacher, I can see with certainty that students are not learning to spell - they use the spellchecker, but are paralyzed when it comes to homonyms and other things that a spellchecker cannot help them with. So, it seems to me there are two big questions to ask here, given that students have not learned how to spell:

    1) Is a lot of time being spent on spelling? Really? Given the poor results, then we have to ask if the time being used effectively, or is it being wasted? What range of good techniques are there to teach spelling? Can spelling be taught across the curriculum with all teachers in every discipline helping students with spelling? That is the option that makes most sense to me (just as I am a firm believer in teaching reading and writing across the curriculum). Couldn't we invest in some good video games where spelling is part of the game? It seems that spelling is ideally suited to being part of a game-based teaching tool.

    2) Are we going to abandon the teaching of spelling and just expect that when people need to write formally they will hire an editor with specialized skills? So just like you hire a plumber to fix your pipes, you will hire an editor to do the spelling and punctuation for you if you need to write something that in fact must be written correctly...? (advertising copy, a brochure, etc.)

    Unlike the spelling in other languages which are much more phonetic than English, English spelling is a nightmare, a formal and technical skill that needs to be taught. It is not something people learn by speaking; the only way to learn spelling is as part of the reading and writing curriculum. If we are going to abandon the teaching of spelling, I wish somebody would let me know. I work on that with my college seniors because nobody has told me that spelling doesn't matter anymore. If I am going to teach writing (that is my job), it seems to me that part of my job is to teach spelling also, and I am troubled that there seems to be a lot of ambivalence about that in the K-12 world.

  11. Only a parent here, but having 4 children with large gaps; ages 6-22 years old and a few different formulas taught to them over the years. My children were taught "sight reading" and "sight reading w/ phonics" at public and private elementary schools. Obviously, learning phonetical reading/spelling is hands down works far better. I, learned phonics (in the early '70's)too, with a lot more repetition, as well as grammar with much more repetition than today's children. Although, it doesn't hurt, while learning spelling to have a skill of memorization or a good memory in general. I feel that previous generations of children have a much better grasp of mechanics when writing, although I am not sure we exposed to or expected to write creatively/freely in elementary school. So, do you have to sacrifice mechanics for a more creative writing piece? There has to be a happy medium, don't you think?

  12. I teach third grade and struggle with how to teach my students spelling. My ultimate goal for them is to be able to hand in a piece of writing that I can read by myself, without them having to come up and interpret what they wrote. I have found that having spelling lists and teaching words, even just basic sight words, in isolation is not applied to their creative writing, so therefore ineffective. I think it is important to have good spelling and grammar for them to be able to communicate effectively. I think it is important to teaching them to both use the tools to achieve this, as well as help them build a strong base that they can draw upon while they are writing.


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