Learning how to to teach spelling can be complicated. Here’s how to begin!
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In a previous post I wrote about how we need a better way to teach spelling. Instead of teaching kids to memorize lists of words and try to remember rules that aren’t true half the time, we need a different approach.
It’s called Word Study.
You don’t need an expensive curriculum or costly workbooks.
To begin, you just need some basic knowledge about how children learn to spell. In my second post in my Word Study series, I wrote about the five developmental stages of spelling.
Maybe teaching spelling is brand new to you. But if not — can I ask how you’ve taught it in the past? Did you map out your students’ lists for the year before school had even begun? Did you copy worksheets, plan workbook pages, and write the name of each weekly test in your planner?
You’re organized — that’s great!
But I’d love to see you try something new.
If you have a classroom full of kids, that scheduled weekly list is only going to meet the needs of a handful of them. You’ll likely have students who are spelling well below grade level and who struggle mightily each week only to perform poorly on the spelling test. You’ll also have students who never have to study a spelling list and ace each test without any effort. And how do you know that your kids are going to be ready to move on to the next list according to your schedule?
If you’re homeschooling, how do you know that your word lists are just right for your child? You could be needlessly frustrating him. Or maybe you’re missing an opportunity to challenge him.
What spelling words should you teach?
How to find your students’ spelling level
You give a spelling inventory.
spelling inventory. noun. A list of words chosen to represent a variety of spelling words at increasing levels of difficulty. When a child takes the inventory like a spelling test, his teacher can analyze the results to determine his spelling level.
How to administer a spelling inventory
- Kids don’t get to see the words in advance or study for the test.
- When giving the test, assure your students that this is not for a grade. It’s just to help you see what they can do and where they need help. Encourage them to spell the words as best they can.
- Provide numbered paper. Call each word and repeat it. Use the words in sentences if necessary.
- When a child has misspelled at least three or four words in a row, he may be starting to experience frustration. There’s no need to finish the test. You’ll have enough information.
Where to find a spelling inventory
Download them here:
- Primary Spelling Inventory: 26 words, appropriate for K through 3rd grade
- Elementary Spelling Inventory: 25 words, appropriate for first grades through fifth grades
- Upper-Level Spelling Inventory: 31 words, appropriate for upper elementary, middle, high school, & post-secondary levels.
You’ve given a spelling inventory. Now what?
You use the feature guide from the above downloads and put checks to show which features your students got correct. This looks scary. It’s really not.
I gave my Four the Primary Spelling Inventory (designed for kids from kindergarten to grade 3). Here’s what his inventory looked like:
Even though the inventory has 26 words, I knew my Four would only be able to get the first few right. So I made a sheet with ten lines and read him those words. Then I copied the feature guide from the Words Their Way book.
Here’s the feature guide that you’ll photocopy from the book. And here’s how to use one:
- Check off the features of each word that are spelled correctly.
- Put a check at the end of the row if the entire word is correct.
- Add the numbered checks under each feature and the words spelled correctly — write at the bottom of the form.
- Look at each feature column. If your student made more at least two errors in a particular column, highlight it. That’s where Word Study instruction will begin.
Here’s another sample. This is for my daughter, who’s going into first grade. Again I made the test page shorter than the 26 words, because I knew she’d start to get frustrated before completing the entire inventory.
In this case you can see that she didn’t start making mistakes until the long vowel feature. Even though she had some long vowel patterns correct (as in hope and wait), she had many incorrect. This is a sign that a child is ready for instruction on a particular feature: using but confusing. My Six knows that you have to do something different for long vowel words, but she isn’t always sure what.
Do you want to see some more sample spelling inventories? Check out Word Study: Where do I Start? from This Reading Mama.
What do you do after scoring the inventories?
If you’re a homeschooling parent, I have good news. You’re ready to begin Word Study instruction!
If you’re a classroom teacher, you have one more step. Staple each student inventory to its feature guide. Arrange your students’ feature guides in order from lowest to highest total points. List students’ names in this order on the Classroom Composite Form (from the Words Their Way manual) and transfer feature scores to the form. Highlight cells where students make two or more errors to get a sense of your students’ needs and to form groups for instruction. Then decide how to group students based on where the highlighting begins in each row.
Why do we have to group for instruction? Why can’t the whole class learn the same thing?
Some people are against ability grouping because they believe there’s a stigma attached to it. While there may be some truth to this, children appreciate being taught where they can succeed. In my years of using Word Study in the classroom, I never noticed children being made to feel badly because of their Word Study instructional level. Not once!
As for why kids can’t all learn the same thing, that’s pretty clear, right? It’s because those feature guides will prove to you that your class is at all different levels, so you need to meet them where they’re at, not force them into a year of lessons that will frustrate or bore them.
Do your best to form no more than four groups. In doing this, some students may have to be challenged or held back just a little. If you want to try 5 groups, go ahead. I’ve done it – but it was hard to manage.
Groups should be fluid. If a student is frustrated or not challenged, groups should be reorganized. Sometimes I found myself doing some reorganizing a few times at the beginning of the year. Usually the groups stayed pretty consistent after that.
What if you have a child who is way behind everyone — or way ahead? Consider teaching him or her alone. A very low student may be able to catch up with a tutor’s help. A very high student may be able to get help from an upper grader when playing games and doing partner work.
Read the rest of the series!
- Part 1: There’s a better way to teach spelling
- Part 2: How to understand the levels of spelling development
- Part 3: How to know which spelling words to teach
- Part 4: Word sort activities
- Part 5: Meaningful spelling activities
OUR VERY FAVORITE PRINTABLE SPELLING GAMES
If you’re looking for printable games that you can use with any word list, we highly recommend this collection from This Reading Mama. Many of the games are editable! Purchase below using my affiliate link.