If you are like me (and I’ve spoken with enough people about this topic to guess that you are), you remember your spelling lists from school. Starting sometime in elementary school and lasting through high school, they were a weekly occurrence. If memory serves, they started with about 5 words apiece, then 10, then 20 words per week.
The quizzes were simple – lined paper, teacher reading the words two times each, asking if we needed repeats, and passing the papers forward. Those words were never explicitly heard from or about again. I’ve been trying to think of the words I was taught as part of spelling instruction. For all of the what must have been hundreds of words, only one – ennui – is still in my head. The reason? Spelling lists were how I was taught to spell, but they were not how I learned to spell. Instead, I learned to spell by reading, writing and discussing words in context. Any word I know how to spell now or use correctly grammatically is a result of the need to learn that word as a reader and writer.
So, when thinking about the shift St. Vrain elementary teachers are making in their literacy practices, it makes sense that we would move to support our students by giving them learning experiences rather than “being-taught” experiences. Isolated spelling tests show limited-to-no transfer of skills. Students can ace a spelling quiz and then immediately misspell any of that same list of words on a piece of writing for class (Loeffer, 2005).
While we may remember with fondness (or at least sentimentality) our experiences with Friday spelling tests, quite frankly, we can do better for our kids by giving them the tools they need to study, decode, analyze, and determine the meaning and spelling of the words they encounter and want to use.
We Can’t Catch All Words “If schools started with five [rare vocabulary] words for every school day in kindergarten, students would be 100 years old before all of the words had been covered,” write Elfrieda H. Hiebert of TextProject and University of California, Santa Cruz and P. David Pearson of the University of California, Berkeley (generative, 2016). There are simply more rare words out there than our teachers could ever hope to include on weekly spelling lists. Additionally, attempting to anticipate which words individual students will need is a Sisyphean task.
Students Need Vocabulary Tools. Recognizing the lack of evidence that isolated spelling instruction improves students’ phonemic awareness, St. Vrain teachers are utilizing a number of instructional practices to help students decode and analyze words, their meanings, and their possible uses. All of this is part of a comprehensive approach to vocabulary instruction. This includes helping students understand word families, developing key phonemic awareness, investigating root words, and examining word structures. These approaches to learning and teaching vocabulary have proven to be effective (Wallace, 2006) at not only helping students learn the words in front of them, but helping them be better prepared to learn words they will encounter when they leave the classroom and are reading on their own.
Where’s the Spelling? If we are thinking about vocabulary instruction, what happens to the spelling lists I mentioned above and we all likely remember from our childhoods? To be frank, spelling lists and spelling in isolation are instructional practices of the past. A 2014 analysis of studies of spelling instruction (Graham, 2014) found that such practices had little or no effect on students actually learning to spell. This doesn’t mean spelling is irrelevant. In fact, it means quite the opposite: helping students to think about how words are spelled and asking them to explain what they notice about the spelling of words they are learning is a component of improving students’ vocabularies.
Where Do We Go, What Do We Do? Teachers across St. Vrain Valley Schools are shifting and building upon existing practices to help students think about the many tools they can use to analyze and find meaning from the words they encounter and use as writers. A key piece with the addition of the new ReadyGen curricular resources to existing vocabulary resources is putting multiple tools in the hands of our teachers to help create personalized pathways to improved vocabulary. But teachers are only one component of students’ literacy. What can families do to support their children’s learning?
- Throughout the year, the language arts office will publish a Wednesday blog post with a weekly strategy for building family literacy practices. You can subscribe to those posts or follow them here.
- Talk to your school’s literacy and classroom teachers about what vocabulary words and strategies they are using to support your child’s learning, and ask how you can support those strategies at home.
- Visit your local public or school library with your child, let them choose books that look interesting, and read. Across the board, studies have shown families that read together produce children who have much better literacy skills than their peers who had little-to-no experience with family reading. Better yet, as you are reading, have your child point out words they think are new and interesting. Then, have conversations about what those words might mean.
Committing to Text-Based, Meaningful Experiences. While it’s tempting for me to say our students should experience spelling lists and tests because it’s the way I (and likely you) remember school, the fact is we know more than my and your teachers knew or understood about language instruction when we were growing up. Because of that, we owe it to our children to give them the contextualized, meaningful experiences and tools we know help them to learn and be more successful as readers, writers, and thinkers. Besides, all those lists ever brought me was ennui.
Loeffler, Kelly A. “No more Friday spelling tests? An alternative spelling assessment for students with learning disabilities.” Teaching exceptional children 37.4 (2005): 24.
“generative vocabulary instruction – TextProject.” 2014. 25 Aug. 2016 <http://textproject.org/assets/library/resources/Hiebert-Pearson-Generative-vocabulary-instruction.pdf>
Wallace, Randall R. “Characteristics of effective spelling instruction.” Reading Horizons 46.4 (2006): 267.
Graham, S. “Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and …” 2014. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11145-014-9517-0>