TRT Podcast#25: What to do about spelling during writing workshop
Have you ever had a tail behind you during writing workshop … a long line of students asking for help with spelling? That’s what can happen if we don’t teach our students independence with spelling.
But how does that work when many of them can’t spell most of the words they want to write?
In this episode you will discover:
- How to encourage your students to spell according to their ability
- How to support students who are afraid to write words they can’t spell
- The importance of having high expectations for all our spellers
Listen to the episode here
Full episode transcript
Have you ever had a tail during Writing Workshop, a long line of students behind you asking for help with spelling? That's what can happen if we don't teach our students independence with spelling. But how does that work when most of them can't spell most of the words they want to write? Well, in today's episode, we're going to be talking about some strategies you can use to help your students develop independence and proficiency with spelling.
You are listening to Episode 25: What to do about spelling during Writing Workshop.
I am a strong proponent of invented spelling. Sometimes we call that phonetic spelling, and it just means that children spell words the best they can using the phonics knowledge that they have. As they grow as readers and writers, their invented spelling will begin to look a lot more like conventional spelling until it pretty much disappears. Now, there are a lot of questions around invented spelling. To some people it's a really bad idea because they think we're telling children it doesn't matter how you spell. That's simply not true. It's really important that we allow invented spelling so that our students can be creative in their writing - and so you don't have a tail behind you! They need to be focused on things besides spelling. But don't get me wrong, I very firmly believe that children should spell correctly the words they CAN spell correctly.
Let's talk a little bit more about invented spelling before we get into some strategies to teach independence and proficiency with spelling. The first one is: don't expect all of your early writers to be capable of the same thing when they're the same age. I'm sure you know this, right? Especially if you're teaching kindergarten, you've got a bunch of kids coming into your class, some of them know the whole alphabet and all the sounds and can write simple words, and some of them maybe don't know any letters or just a handful of them. Clearly, they're going to be capable of different things during Writing Workshop. And that's fine! It's important to understand that our students are at different developmental stages of spelling. I actually have a blog post on themeasuredmom.com all about the stages of spelling and I will link to that in the show notes.
When we think about invented spelling, we don't want to view it as a crutch because it's actually very valuable for early writers. When they have to stretch out words and write every sound they hear, they're actually exercising their phonics knowledge, and reading it back is a phonics exercise too. So it's not just something they do until they can spell conventionally, it actually helps them grow as readers and writers!
Another note about invented spelling, it doesn't mean that we just tell kids to write the best they can and leave them alone, we do give them help as needed. So if a child is trying to write the word beach and they can't write it, you can tell them, "Stretch out the word. What do you hear first?" You can walk them through it. Of course, you can't do this for every single word because you're working with other students, but you're going to want to model and show your class how to stretch out the words so that they can do their invented spelling on their own.
Now, we're probably not going to call it "invented spelling" when our students are doing this on their own. What I don't recommend is calling it "wrong spelling". We don't want to call it "right spelling" and "wrong spelling". Instead, you could call it something like "kid spelling" or "kindergarten spelling", or even "brave spelling"! Because for some kids writing a word they're not sure how to spell and letting it sit there is really hard for them. Some teachers call it "bubblegum spelling", because you stretch out the sounds of the word just like you could stretch out a piece of bubblegum.
We need to teach our students to spell the best they can using "kid spelling" or "brave spelling", but how do we encourage students to use this who don't want to? Certainly in my own experience in the classroom and at home, I have had children who were really resistant to this at first - like actually crying - because they didn't want to write a word that I wouldn't spell for them.
Sometimes, even worse, students won't write words they can't spell! So their writing is very basic and not at all like they talk. There are different charts you could use. You could create a "You spell, You spell, I spell" chart. Picture a piece of paper divided into three columns. In the first column they write their first attempt at spelling it, the second column, their second attempt, and then the third column, you write the correct spelling. Now we have to be clear though, they can't bring this up to you every time they're spelling a word, but perhaps at the end of the workshop, or at the beginning of the workshop, or at a conference with you. They can show you this page and you can give them the correct spelling and they can go back and change it. But the point is, they have to give it a try first.
One thing that worked for one of my children was that when he wasn't sure about his spelling, he was told to circle it very lightly in pencil. Then later on, he could ask me about it, and we would cross it out and write the correct spelling above it. It's really important that they don't erase the initial spelling because we want to see what they could do on their own.
Something else I've seen is a brave speller chart. It's very much like that first idea I shared, but instead you just have the brave spelling on one side and the conventional spelling on the right. This might actually be a big poster that you put in the classroom. During sharing time, students could share their brave spellings. You could record them on the chart and then show them the conventional spelling on the right.
When you're teaching your students to do kid spelling, make sure every child has access to an alphabet chart - preferably in their writing folder. Then if they know a sound, they can find the picture for that sound and then find the letter. It's also helpful as they advance to have a digraph chart or a blend chart so if they're writing a word with a blend or a diagraph they can refer to the chart as well for those.
One thing I encourage you is that, when you're doing spelling in Writing Workshop and children are writing their own spellings for words, you want to hold them accountable for what they know. Because we've got two ends of the spectrum: we may have students who are afraid to write at all if they can't spell it properly and students who really don't care! They just write whatever and maybe spell it differently every time even if it's something you've already taught them.
I've never liked the phrase, "sloppy copy". I've never liked it! To me it sounds like we don't do our best, we're just throwing stuff on the paper. When they're starting their drafts, we want students to do their best. We don't want them to be careless and sloppy. That only gives them a lot more things to fix later on. You want your students to use the phonics they know. If they've learned different ways to represent long vowel sounds, that should be evident in their spelling. If you're trying to encourage your students to do their very best spelling, be sure to praise the ATTEMPT, not necessarily the correct spelling. Notice if a child spells a long word, even if it's not spelled conventionally. Praise them for the attempt and notice all the letters they got correct.
Here's one trick I've seen when helping students spell a word. For example, if a child is trying to spell the word giraffe and they have down "G-R-A-F", and they want to know how to spell the whole thing. I could write a line for every letter in the word and write the letters in their spaces that are correct. Then I could help them fill in the empty spaces. Now, giraffe is a long word, maybe not the best example, but remember that when children are trying to spell a very simple word. Maybe a child is trying to spell the word cave, and they write "C-A-V", and you say, "That is so close! I'm going to write all the lines for the letters in that word. Now, what letter do you think goes in the last spot?" That can be a way of supporting them and moving to the next stage without just giving them the spellings.
Is it ever okay to just give students a spelling? Certainly. I can remember many times, this is many years ago, but back when I was in school, my teacher would write a spelling for me on a sticky note and I would take it to my desk and use that. I don't recommend doing that all the time, because you're going to end up with that problem of kids wanting sticky notes from you constantly. But sometimes that's necessary when they're going to be using the same word over and over in their writing, or perhaps it's the name of a family member. You want them to get that right.
Make sure they have a place to store the spellings that you give them so they don't go to waste. On my blog, I have a set of free printable spelling dictionaries, and some of them are completely blank so students can write in the words that you give them. Show them how to keep that little booklet as a reference in their writing folders so they can refer to spellings that you've shared in the past.
Something else you might consider is to give your students, the "How to Spell It Dictionary". I think that's what it's called. Unfortunately, I believe these are out of print, but I will try to find it on Amazon and link to it in the show notes. It's a wonderful dictionary because it has all kinds of phonetic spellings for words that kids might write. A typical dictionary is really hard for kids to use to find a spelling, because if they don't know how to spell it how are they going to find it? This dictionary lets them look up how the word is spelled phonetically, and then it has the conventional spelling there.
When it comes to editing their writing, don't think that your students have to fix EVERY single spelling on their own, even professional writers have people who edit their work! Depending on their ability and the time you have, you might say, "I want you to fix two spellings and I'll fix the rest for free." I believe I got that last bit from Regie Routman in her book, "Writing Essentials". It makes perfect sense, right? Because that's what professional editors do. The point is, they should put in some effort before you help them with the rest.
Now, should pieces of writing appear in the hallway on display with misspellings? Personally, I think that for our very young writers, yes, because they're certainly not capable of spelling all the words correctly. What shows up in the hall, if all the words are spelled correctly, is not any evidence of what they can do. It's typically evidence of them copying off the board or someone fixing every word for them. We want to see what these students are capable of and we want to celebrate it! But again, we don't want to encourage sloppy work. We always expect our students to be the best they can, and of course, that requires you knowing your students really well so you know what they can do.
Let's recap a few of the main points for today. Number one: invented spelling is GOOD for young writers to use. It helps them exercise their phonics knowledge as they stretch out words and write them and read them back to you. We want to encourage the use of invented spelling, but we probably wouldn't call it that with students. Other possible names are "kid spelling", "brave spelling", "first grade spelling". And we want to make sure that our students know how to do it, and that we give them resources to help them, such as principal alphabet charts or blend and diagraph charts.
If we have students who are resistant to spelling this way, there are things we can do to help them such as creating charts, where they write their attempts in one side and then later on (not during the workshop when we're busy), we can write the conventional spelling for them. We can encourage them to lightly circle words whose spellings they don't know as they're writing so that they know they can go back to them later. We can have a big class chart where we record attempts at spellings and call those brave spellings, and then write the conventional spellings to the right. All these things can help students be more comfortable in doing their very best attempts at spelling.
Of course, even though we encourage invented spelling, we want students to do their very best at all times. So, even though sometimes, like in brainstorming, they might not be working really hard at thinking about spelling, we don't encourage sloppy work. And certainly as they're in the drafting phase, we really want to encourage our students to use all the spelling knowledge that they know from their phonics lessons, their spelling class, and so on. Finally, as you get to editing, you may have your students fix up a certain number of spellings on their own and then you help them with the rest.
Those were a few ideas for you as you're approaching spelling and Writing Workshop. I hope this decreases your tail a bit and that you can spend more time conferring with your writers as the rest of your students learn to write and spell on their own. You can find the show notes for this episode at themeasuredmom.com/episode 25. Thanks so much for listening and I'll talk to you again next week!
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Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- The stages of spelling development
- Do’s and don’ts of invented spelling
- Writing Essentials, by Regie Routman
- My free printable spelling dictionary
- How to Spell It dictionary (I believe this is out of print, so get a used one while you still can!)