Recently, I had a friend reach out to me for help. She was concerned about her 2nd grader’s spelling. It got me thinking about what we need to consider when it comes to planning effective spelling routines and instruction in our classroom.
Don’t feel like reading? Watch the video on this topic here.
If we aren’t intentional, the effort to incorporate spelling will be ineffective. No longer are the days where you give a random list of words on Monday, assign them as homework all week, and test on Friday. You will end up with a lot of memorization for those students who can and a lot of frustration for students who cannot. One thing you won’t have is improved spelling. Let’s talk about best practices for teaching spelling and things to consider.
#1 Where Should I Start with Spelling?
First, begin by administering a spelling inventory. This is similar to a standard spelling test–you dictate a word, use it in a sentence and students write it down. With a spelling inventory, the words increase in difficulty, and students don’t study them in advance. All words follow common phonics patterns starting with CVC words and continuing along the phonics continuum.
If you are administering to the whole group, I would have a conversation with students about how this is to find out what they know already so it will become more difficult as they go. Be careful about reaching the point of frustration. Allow students to have an “out” so they can stop before they get to that point.
Once you have completed a spelling inventory, you will have a much better understanding of your students’ spelling needs. Likely, they are all over the place. But, just because a student was able to spell words correctly, doesn’t mean they won’t still benefit from phonics instruction.
Conversely, if you have a student who struggled with the first set of words, you may need to provide additional 1:1 or small group support. A quick intervention like the one above is a proven method to fill in the learning gaps. You can grab a copy of the short vowel one-page intervention for free. Ultimately, the spelling inventory will help you figure out those next steps. It also provides a baseline of data to plan how to best address those needs.
#2 Spelling Should Be Aligned with Explicit Phonics Instruction
This next one is SO important! Phonics is one of the most important teaching methods used to improve spelling. It doesn’t make sense to pick a random list of words that have no pattern or connection. Aligning your spelling practice and assessments with your phonics instruction makes it more meaningful and easier to understand. So, if you are teaching words with glued sounds during your phonics instruction that week, make your list based on words with glued sounds.
Your lessons are providing the explicit instruction they need to build their knowledge of reading and writing words with that pattern. Then, they are also getting that independent practice and additional exposure through the list of spelling words. It is a kind of double dose that has been proven effective in mastering skills.
#3 How will you differentiate?
Next, we need to think about how to reach all students. Based on the spelling inventory results, you are very likely to have students with a range of spelling strengths and needs. Don’t feel like you have to have 10 different spelling lists. Instead, take the phonics pattern you are working on and build your lists based on the same pattern. For example, if you are working on short a:
- List 1: CVC words with short a like pat, sad, gab
- List 2: Words with digraphs/blends and short a like shack, grab, mash
- List 3: 2 syllable words with short vowels like catnap, napkin, backpack
Making all of the words follow the same pattern will allow you to still address the skill in your phonics lessons. You will also be able to make the lists appropriately challenging for all readiness levels.
#4 Provide Daily Practice
Don’t rely on students practicing words at home. If they do, great. But, there are all sorts of reasons why a student might not be able to adequately practice spelling each day. Making sure students have time in school to practice their spelling words–whether it be guided or independent –is the most equitable.
To make daily practice happen, I did two things: I transformed my word work center into activities students could complete using their differentiated word list. I made sure that students were either assigned to the word work center each day or we were reviewing those word patterns in our whole group or small group phonics lessons. If you’re looking for word work ideas, I’ve got a blog post with 10 different activities. And if parents request additional practice at home, I send home a spelling activity menu for ideas!
I know making any changes to the systems you have in place or starting from scratch can feel completely daunting. If you can just take one thing and start there, you will be helping your students in a more effective way. Maybe that’s aligning your spelling words to your phonics lessons. Or, providing effective daily spelling instruction in school. Whatever you choose, take it one step at a time and give yourself time to adapt to a new way of doing things! Don’t feel pressured to implement new changes overnight.