Shared Spelling Strategies
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In "Spelling: From Invention to Strategies," Howard Miller begins a lesson on "constructed" spelling by surveying his middle school students, using Goodman, Watson, and Burke's question from Reading Miscue Inventory (1987): "When you are working on a writing assignment and you want to write a word you don't know how to spell, what do you do?"
Here, students are prompted by that question to become more explicitly aware of, and to articulate, the strategies they use while responding in writing to short story previously read by the class. The goal is to encourage (nearly) uninterrupted drafting, while allowing students to slow down briefly to consider the spelling of difficult words, which should become the routine when writing in and out of class. During the post-writing phase, students confer in small groups to share spelling strategies they used after drafting and then refer to standard spelling resources.
Alphabet Organizer: Students use this online tool to organize lists of words alphabetically, create pages for alphabet books, and more.
From Theory to Practice
When students "construct" spelling using sound, sight recall, and analyzing strategies, among others, instead of memorizing lists of words, they produce more accurate (i.e., standard) spelling and increase their retention. In "Spelling: From Invention to Strategies," Howard Miller describes what happened when he asked students to list three things they might do when they want to write a word they can't spell. Over half the students listed "sounding it out" as their main strategy with most of the rest listing "looking it up," and "asking someone" as their main strategies. (Miller, 2002)
This lesson invites students to increase their self-awareness of the strategies they successfully use when they encounter a word they don't know how to spell-without breaking their stride as they draft a piece of writing.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
Materials and Technology
- Pen and paper or word processor
- Sticky notes
- Standard dictionaries
- Spelling dictionaries
Personal Spelling Dictionary handout
Read a short story. (Students will write in response to a short story they have chosen from either an anthology or the class library. If the teacher chooses a story for the entire class, take the previous day's class period to either read it aloud or with partners. Otherwise, use that time for independent reading or assign the story for homework.)
- use their phonological awareness and visual recall.
- use a variety of resources, including dictionaries, spell checkers, and their peers.
- analyze alternative spellings to determine accuracy.
Instruction & Activities
Note: Prewriting and writing activities such as these should become routine classroom practice.
- Generate a list of topics to write about. Students will choose their own topics based their reading, but by brainstorming on general story elements (e.g., plot, character, dilemma) with the class prior to writing, instead of beginning the period by asking them to begin writing, the students can glean ideas from each other as well as see this prewriting strategy in action. For reference when students are stumped for ideas, see What Can I Write About? 7,000 Topics for High School Students (NCTE, 1981; rev. 2002).
- Begin writing an essay on the board or an overhead, possibly using an idea from the brainstorming session (e.g., begin writing about the character development of your chosen story's protagonist). Think aloud to demonstrate your own spelling strategies. Using the word protagonist is a good example here: when you get to it, your writing may slow down as you sound out each syllable, pro-ta-gon-ist.
- Remind students that time for using resources to check spelling will be allowed for after drafting; it’s important not to slow down or interrupt the writing process to check for accurate spellings during this time.
- Students begin drafting their own essays, allowing for alternative spellings of difficult words.
- While composing, students use sticky notes to write two to three variations of words they are unsure of and attach them near the word they used in the essay.
- Students confer with each other in small groups (3-4 students each) on spelling and use of specific words, sharing the sticky notes they made and explaining why they chose the spellings they included in their drafts. This sharing of strategies is to reinforce and make explicit what writers think and do when drafting and considering the spelling of difficult words.
- At this time students can refer to a standard dictionary or a spelling-specific one such as Webster’s New World Pocket Misspeller’s Dictionary.
- Students ask questions to further the discussion.
- Did you sound out the word as you wrote it?
- Did you compare the alternative spelling on your sticky note to see which one "looked" right?
- If you were unsure, how would you find the word in the dictionary?
- What did you discover when you found it in the dictionary?
- Did you sound out the word as you wrote it?
- Personal Spelling Dictionary. Teacher and students create their own personal spelling dictionaries to refer to their own frequently misspelled words. These will be revised throughout the year as some words are mastered and dropped from the list and new words are added. Personal spelling dictionaries should be brief lists of trouble words, containing words that will be used often enough in various writing tasks to be useful. A helpful format is a dual-column dictionary, in which words are listed in the left column and mnemonic devices or other helpful spelling hints on the right. Class-generated spelling dictionaries could be posted on the wall for quick reference.
- At the end of terms or semesters, students can publish their lists in small alphabet books, including as much detail as desired. Demonstrate the Alphabet Organizer for students. Choose Option 2, so that students can list more than one word for each letter. After entering all their words, students can print out their newly revised lists and refer to them during the next term or semester.
- Thinking aloud at the word level. Spelling and word recognition strategies should be in the reading curriculum as well as the writing curriculum. The following passage is from "Simply Irresistible: Letting Our Reading Inform Theirs" by Bill Mollineaux (Voices from the Middle, May 2001).
"While we often consider think-aloud as a protocol for creating meaning, it is also important for figuring out words. Here are two examples of think-alouds from eighth graders. Mark came to the word 'consistent' and tried to sound out each sound, quickly getting lost as he stumbled through the word, slowly articulating each sound "c-o-n-s-i . . . ." He stopped at about that point because those discreet units of sound weren't creating a word for him. Then he said he'd try chunking and saw (in this order) tent, on, and sis. Then he sounded it out again: 'c-on-sis-tent—oh, consistent.' Another student, looking at the same word, went right to the consonant approach and sounded out 'cn-s-s-tnt'; he quickly realized he had said 'consistent.' In both cases, students thought through the words orally, kept reading the words in the context of the entire passage, and 'listened' carefully to the words they were saying as they moved from making meaning at the word level to the passage level." (p. 83)
- Have students explore additional spelling strategies they can use in their writing by reading about these spelling “secret weapons.” Review the strategies as a class or in small groups and ask students to think about which of these strategies they already use and which they might try in the future.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Each work group shares with the class two or three words that they had trouble spelling. The teacher gives oral feedback, commenting on the strategies the groups used to get the correct spelling. Many of these words could be added to the class spelling dictionary for reference. As certain words are incorporated more often into students' writing (thus demonstrating retention), they can be replaced by new words.
- Lists of words can be generated by students during each subsequent literature unit, and a spelling test can be given as a portion of the overall unit assessment.
- As this writing/spelling strategy is repeated throughout the year, patterns of frequently misspelled words will emerge (e.g., homophones or ei/ie transpositions), and strategies can be adapted from them, extending this ongoing activity.