Sunday, October 12, 2008

Spelling in The New Millennium

The teaching of spelling has changed over the past few years. I believe for the best. Many student who are afraid of writing down a word, can now feel free to get their thoughts on paper using “Wild Mind”, as Natalie Goldberg call it, to access their ideas. They need not be hampered by “Monkey Mind”, which slows them down, tells them they cannot spell and should not write. It is the teacher or parent hanging over their shoulder who criticizes every word. The student then begins to write less and to be safer when they are putting together their ideas. I tell students to entitle their work “First draft”, which gives them permission to work over their writing and to play with the words until it says just what they need it to say. We workshop their ideas and then, after we are sure the content is meaningful, we will spend time peer-editing or using a word processor to improve their spelling.

I like to have students work on various pieces of writing at any one time. This is what good writers do. There should be many works in progress, until they feel they have a final draft. Work should be read several times before it is truly ready to be considered ‘finished’. I know, as a published writer, that it takes many editors, much work and time to bring a work up to standards. Gone are the days when we belabour the process by painstakingly writing work out many times until we are satisfied with it. Now text can be shifted, lifted, checked and rechecked at the same time that we check for spelling and grammar.

I start every day be listing the work I want the students to accomplish. I go over the “To Do” list, outlining some details that require explanation, and all begin their tasks. The students wander in, read the list and take their places at various points in the room. John, for example, has a story he has pre-written; he jotted down details, previously having gotten a mental start on it, he will go to the computer and put on the headphones. He is using Co-Writer to type. It reads the word he has typed, once he hits the space bar. If it finds a matching word it will show him several choices. This works fairly well, but works best with a computer that is peculiar to the child and for which students have their own personal dictionaries. It is far easier for them to match to a word bank of words than the thousands of words available in a dictionary. Tomorrow, we will be getting some IT help in working with Dragon Naturally Speaking (DNS), which converts his speech to text.

Research shows that it is far less effective for students to attempt matching words in such a way than to guess at what it is they want to say and then have it edited by someone else later. Peer tutoring (Burks, 2004) is far more effective, as it is far lees time consuming. I can sit with a student, after they have the gist of their work typed electronically, then spend 3 minutes checking out the homonyms, which is what most dictionaries find. In fact, formal spelling lessons seem to have little impact on spelling.

My husband is a perfect example of this. He has had a 30% hearing loss all of his life. He is, likely, the worst speller and the best-read person I know. Devouring 3 or 4 historical books a week, he cannot hear the difference between “pin” and “pen”. Imagine this disability compounding over his lifetime? Spell check does not work for him any better than it does for many of my students. With an inability to get close to an approximation of the word, he has often been unable to approach the correct spelling. I can understand this problem in my students. The English language is a difficult one, in which many words are derived from many different languages. The have evolved and been assimilated into every day use. Words such as rhythm and might are terribly difficult to find if the student is missing the “H”, for example.

Interactive writing and mini-lessons on words student need to know, as well as a word wall, are of far more benefit to the learner. I keep a word wall, which is based on current themes. The students refer to them as they begin the writing process, no matter what the topic. To encourage the stream of consciousness flowing I refuse to help a student correct spelling during prewriting or first draft writing lessons. I give them the out, “Spelling doesn’t count!” at this time. They understand that good writers reflect, edit and revise in a series of steps. We worry over traditional spelling later. The result is an effective use of teacher time and student learning.

Entering the writing process prepared to write, with a plan, with training and instruction, with or without a keyboard, seems to add to the quality of writing. Computer assisted instruction can demonstrate a higher engagement rate, if the teacher has training and uses a process method of teaching. But in terms of spelling results, it is in the writing or typing in the creation of a word that students learn how to spell a word. Students need to learn those sound and symbol connections and develop an understanding of patterns, more than they need to be able to spell check a piece of writing. Good readers, of course, become good spellers. Good writers become better writers through practice and a mastery of a huge personal list of words that mean the most to them.

Burks, M. (2004) Effects of Classwide Peer Tutoring on the Number of Words Spelled Correctly by students with LD. Intervention in School & Clinic, 2004, VOL 39; PART 5, pages 301-304.
Goldberg. N. (1990). Wild Mind, Living the Writer’s Life. Bantam Books.
Rymer , R. & Williams, C. (2000). "Wasn't That a Spelling Word?": Spelling Instruction and Young Children's Writing. Language Arts, Vol. 77 No. 3, January 2000.
See also: Watch & Learn: Spelling: Word Families

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