(Note: This blog post accidentally turned very academic-y. If that's not what you are looking for today, scroll down to the part with the pictures!)
A current hot topic in educational research is the validity of spelling tests as an accurate measure of a student's ability to spell. I have seen this quandary play out first-hand, as time and time again students earn A+'s on spelling tests but average B's and C's when it comes to spelling words correctly in their own writing. Many schools have adopted "word study" curricula that center around memorizing patterns in spelling as opposed to a set of unrelated words. One criticism of this approach is that it doesn't provide students with the challenge of learning to spell complicated words that do not follow a pattern; however, there is research that suggests that students receiving word-study instruction outperform those receiving traditional spelling instruction.
For further evidence that the educational world has yet to take a stance on the "right" way to teach spelling, just look at What Works Clearinghouse. Given their stated mission, one would think they would have the answer:
The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education. Our goal is to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. We focus on the results from high-quality research to answer the question “What works in education?”
Sadly, entering the word "spelling" into the WWC search bar yields hundreds of results of spelling programs that have either not been researched, or that the research done did not meet the protocol necessary to allow us to draw conclusions about their effectiveness.
What is a teacher to do? Well, luckily there were a few programs that WWC was able to verify as effective. Parsing through these programs, I found that they seem to lie somewhere in the middle of the traditional approach and the word-study approach, and they all have 3 aspects in common. The first is that they attempt to lay a foundational knowledge of syllable types (open, closed, vowel-consonant-e, etc), phoneme types (blends, digraphs, etc.), word parts (prefixes, suffixes, basewords, etc.), and irregularities, then use this knowledge to attack unfamiliar words. The second common thread among these programs was the integration of reading and spelling - that this new knowledge of the parts of words should be explicitly taught as a means of reading new words and spelling new words. Lastly, all of the programs emphasize a multi-sensory approach, meaning the use of hands-on manipulatives, songs and rhymes, and movement activities to build connection and retention of the strategies learned.
LONG STORY SHORT, this year the 3rd graders are improving their spelling skills using the approach outlined in the paragraph above. So let's get to the fun part and see what they've been up to!
After 2 weeks of learning 4 new syllable types, I put the 3rd graders to the test by throwing in nonsense words. Nonsense words are essential, because they test the student's ability to apply the rules they've learned without relying upon any prior knowledge of the word. For example, once you learn to recognize the word "apple," you will easily be able to tell me that the first vowel sound is a short one, because well, that's how we say it! But what if I gave you the word "ipdom?" You would need to know something about syllable types and where to divide them in order to know how to pronounce it (read it). If I spoke the word "ipdom" to you, you would need to know something about syllable types and what vowel sounds they produce in order to write it (spell it).
To make this activity multi-sensory (and fun), I put the students into groups of 3 and gave them some scissors! Each person had a job: either the repeater, the decider, or the checker.
I gave each team a card containing a nonsense word. If I read the word aloud, it was the repeater's job to listen and repeat the word to his/her team as needed. Then, the decider decided where the word should be divided and marked it with a pencil. The checker's job was to verify the decider's decision, consulting their spelling mini-notebook where they have stored their notes about syllables.
After each team shared their decisions and we came to a consensus, the decider got to cut the word to divide it into syllables. Later, these syllable cards will be shuffled and used to create and read new nonsense words.
Every so often, I will give a spelling inventory assessment of unrelated grade-level words as a way of measuring the effectiveness of this blended approach to spelling instruction. As the year goes on, we should have a much clearer understanding of "what works" with spelling.
Little people, big minds.