Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts

Sunday, March 6, 2016

How Many Times Should They Copy the Spelling Words?

Two Teacher Asked Questions:

I have a question that was posed to me be an elementary principal. Her question was, "How many times does a student need to write a high frequency word before they feel secure with it?"  I must admit, I have never been asked this question before, and I cannot find research that addresses this specific question.  

The teachers in my school have kids copying missed spelling words 15 times. Is this a good idea?

            Everyone knows that, in order to accomplish great proficiency, musicians and athletes must engage in a great deal of repetitive practice. It would make sense that readers and writers would need to do the same thing to become accomplished with the words of their language.

            Yet analogies can be problematic. Two phenomena may be strikingly similar, but there are always differences (that’s why they are analogies). There definitely are useful drills in music and athletics, but that doesn’t mean that language works the same way.

            Repetition is important in language learning, but not necessarily the kind of repetition provided by writing a word over and over again.

            I have found no studies on the repetition of word writing or spelling, which surprised me. However, there is a substantial body of psychological research on word recognition (primarily because many psychologists have been interested in memory and word memories are relatively easy to study). None of these studies, as far as I can tell, look at comfort level; they are more likely to consider reaction times, correct responses, and generalization to other words.

            Basically, these studies suggest that the number of repetitions needed to learn a word is about 10-15 times, with lots of variation--among kids and words. For example, poor readers may require 12-25 reps to “learn” a word, while better readers may get away with only 8-12 (Lemoine, Levy, & Hutchison, 1993).

            Of course, words with regular sound-symbol relationships are learned about 25% faster than those with irregular spelling patterns. Studies also show that kids probably aren’t really memorizing words as much as they are becoming increasingly sensitive to intraword segments—combinations of letters within the words (Aaron, Wilczynski, & Keetay, 1998). This is probably why so many studies have found that words are much easier to learn through repetition than are nonwords (Jeffries, Frashish & Noble, 2009).

            Which points out why repetition may not be the best approach to “word memory.” Most of our word memories do not come through brute force memorization, though initially that is all we have. To learn words, people analyze the words for lexical and auditory/orthographic information, and these features are what allows later word recall for reading or spelling. Repetition helps—you can build some kind of word memory through rote repetition. But to develop a powerful, flexible understanding of words, you need to ask yourself, “repetition of what?"

            Kids are likely to learn a lot more words through pattern analysis (e.g., phonics) and the kinds of sorting activities recommended by Don Bear, Shane Templeton, and their colleagues.

            When I was a classroom teacher, I worried less about the number of repetitions kids made when they wrote, than I did about them trying to get them to build a visual memory of the words. I would have them “take a picture” with their eyes. Then I’d hide the word and ask, “Can you still see the picture?” Kids would then try to spell the word from memory.

            Given my success with that, I’m not surprised that the so-called, “Cover-Copy-Compare” method works (Joseph, Konrad, Coates, Vajcner, Eveleigh, & Fishley, 2001; Skinner, McLaughlin, & Logan, 1997). The kids visually analyze a word, then cover it up, try to recompose it from memory, and visually compare their written attempt with the word. That’s a form of repetition, but one with greater attention to building memory than to copying. Similar, the teacher who has kids trying to read or write a word repeatedly, might do better by supplementing or replacing this repetition with guided attention to the particular elements and features of the words (such as, "this 'e' is silent, or this one has two vowels side by side).

            Finally, research suggests that repetition may be important, but such repetition may better be built into language processing than working with lists and the like (Ideda & Morita, 2003). Reading or writing certain words again and again that are embedded in stories or articles, rather than presented list like, seems to provide greater support for learning (it may be a kind of interval training--you see the word, then you see some other words, then you see the word). Thus, writing high frequency words within the context of sentences or paragraphs may place more appropriate memory demands on learners.

          Kindergartners tend to have very limited word memory, while typical second- or third-graders often can learn new words very quickly. This is the result of developing knowledge of sound-symbol relationships and spelling patterns; that knowledge makes words "stickier." As Linnea Ehri has long pointed out, trying to learn a sight word when you are 5-years-old can be a major challenge—depending a lot on repetition and misleading mnemonics (like “monkey” has a tail). However, as kids gain an understanding of the spelling system, sight vocabulary develops much faster; often with very few exposures and no rote work at all.

          Repetition clearly has a role in reading and spelling--part of building that a system of word knowledge is getting some words into kids heads, but word analysis and repetition within natural language should be the major work horses in that endeavor. I encourage teachers to teach sight vocabulary to beginning readers, but I limit such memory work to about 5 minutes per day, and with both sight word learning and spelling, one tries to make such repetition sensible rather than rote. 

          It is true that high frequency words do not have typical spelling patterns, but it is rare that all of their elements are odd (e.g., the vowel pronunciation in "the" is a bit funky, but the /th/ is a more consistent element). Analyzing such words, rather than just repeating them again and again, is a better avenue to long-term learning than copying it over and over again.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Should We Teach Spelling? II

            My last blog entry was written in response to a fifth-grade teacher who wanted to know about spelling instruction. Although teachers at her school thought that formal spelling instruction, like working with word lists, was a bad idea, it turns out that such teaching is beneficial to kids. The same can be said for studying word structure and its implications for spelling, pronunciation, and meaning.

            The best reviews of this research have consistently found that spelling instruction leads to spelling improvement, but it also leads to improvements in reading and writing, so it can be quite important.

            A part of the original letter that I did not include in last week’s entry:

I agree my students have poor spelling abilities but I try and address this issue incidentally through my Writer's Workshop.  I would be one to argue the time issue as I would see a separate spelling program as one more thing I must fit into my short 75- minute block. What are your thoughts on Spelling instruction at a 5th grade level?

            In other words, she might be open to dealing with spelling more directly (and research finds that explicit systematic spelling instruction outperforms this more incidental Writer’s Workshop kind of approach), but she—like many teachers—is struggling with how to get it all in; a 75-minute English language arts period is pretty small.

            In fact, it is so small, that I’m unsure that I could get spelling shoehorned into the mix of responsibilities, standards, and requirements. I start from the premise that students, to reach the levels of literacy that we want for them, are going to have to have about 120 minutes per day of reading and writing work, not 75 or 90.  (In the primary grades, or with older students with seriously impaired reading, I’ll go as high as 180 minutes per day).

            That doesn’t mean that the ELA period has to be more than 75 minutes, but it sure means that some of the essential work kids need to do with (1) words, (2) fluency, (3) comprehension/ learning from text, and (4) writing are going to have to take place beyond the ELA classroom. The idea that the math, social studies, and science teachers aren’t going to have to address any of these issues is a pipe dream.

            I devote a quarter of the time to each of these critical areas of concern. That would mean 30 minutes in this case would be devoted to word knowledge (notice I didn’t say “word study”—that is an activity, not an outcome). I’m saying that I would spend approximately 30 minutes per day, or 2.5 hours per week, working on increasing students ability to read words (decoding), to understand word meanings (vocabulary), and to spelling (which relates both to decoding and vocabulary).

            To accomplish that, in this case, would require expanding these students opportunities to learn to read and write throughout the school day. This is best achieved by having the teachers who share the kids come to some agreements about who will do what. If we are going to spend 2.5 hours per week on student writing, how much of that will take place during the social studies class? If we are going to spend 2.5 hours per week analyzing words and learning vocabulary, how much of that will come in science? And so on. (Past experience tells me it is best to make these commitments by the week rather than the day).

            Once that is determined, then it becomes possible to see who needs to do what. Perhaps, students will study vocabulary formally in some other classes, freeing you up to focus on the spelling issues.

            Additional instructional guidance:

1.     Always link spelling with either phonics or vocabulary meaning rather than as a stand-alone concern. Thus, if you’re a primary grade teacher and you’re teaching phonics, then make spelling, and not just reading, a targeted outcome. Have kids trying to write words, not just reading them. And, if you are teaching older students who have largely mastered their decoding skills, then focus the spelling work on word interpretation (structural analysis, Greek and Latin roots, affixes, and the like), and  having them writing the words based on their knowledge of spelling and not just reading them, makes sense.
2.     Never spend more than 15 minutes on spelling per day.
3.     Formal spelling instruction does not have to take place everyday; 2-3 times per week is probably sufficient at Grade 5.
4.     Don’t hesitate to include spelling work as part of homework (spelling assignments can be easily constructed—more easily than can be done with more complex work, and parents can help with spelling, even when they can’t help with other work).
5.     Memorization is important in spelling, and drill-and-practice can play a small but valuable role. But do NOT have the students writing the spelling words 10 times each as practice. That doesn’t help with memorization (as I can copy something by rote without learning it), and it seems more like a punishment than an assignment aimed at learning. Do have students trying to write a word from memory (take a picture of the word with your eyes, and then with the word removed try to write it--practice until you can).


            I would strongly recommend the purchase of a book like Words their Way of The Spelling Connection to guide your instruction in this area. Lots of good advice and guidance there.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Should We Teach Spelling?

I often hear concerns about our students' poor spelling abilities, and have been thinking about practical ways to address this issue.  Although we want to continue to steer away from memorized lists that are often not retained, I want to get your feedback about incorporating more word study in your ELA block.  I know what you are thinking~ there is no time!  I first want to hear your concerns about spelling, so we can determine a manageable way to address them. 

My word study involves challenging vocabulary from my student's self-selected books and Greek and Latin word study.  I agree my students have poor spelling abilities but I try and address this issue incidentally through my Writer's Workshop. What are your thoughts on Spelling instruction at a 5th grade level?

            This letter raises an interesting issue, and one I don’t hear much about anymore. At one time, spelling was a big focus in the English Language Arts, and reviews of the research on spelling go back to 1919 (Ernest Horn’s classic, that sketched out a vision of the study results that would be fresh even today).

            This letter does a good job of laying out the current beliefs of many (that formal spelling instruction doesn’t work), the concern (that students don’t spell well), a barrier to action (the amount of time available for instruction), and a stab at a solution (editing student writing during Writer’s Workshop).

            Last year, Steve Graham and Tanya Santangelo published an excellent meta-analysis of 53 studies conducted with more than 6000 kids, grades K-12. They found, much as Horn did 96 years ago, that explicit instruction improves spelling. Teachers have long had concerns about the impact of teaching kids words and spelling patterns and the like, but the research has been consistent and clear: such teaching helps students to read and write better, and the gains that they make in spelling from such instruction is maintained over time.

            The premise that this letter is written on—the idea that memorizing words is bad and that such spelling improvement is not maintained—is simply not true, at any grade. Although young children appear to be able to make some gains in spelling without formal instruction, this is not true with older students; they only tend to improve much as a result of teaching and formal study.

            Spelling instruction improves spelling, but it also improves reading ability (and my research from the early 1980s found a clear connection between spelling and word reading and writing for fifth-graders). The impact of instruction on spelling is moderate-to-large, and students who receive explicit spelling instruction not only out-spell those kids who don’t get such teaching, but they do better than those who deal with spelling incidentally through their writing activity in their classrooms.

            I would argue for the study of the spelling of words, including those not selected by the kids, but selected because of the challenge or the principles of spelling that they represent. So, spelling lists can have a place in your classroom. I would also argue for the kinds of word study activities and sorting procedures promoted by Don Bear and his colleagues.  We want kids to learn to spell particular words and we want them to understand how spelling works.

            Spelling is important for a lot of reasons:
  1.  It is included in your educational standards: your community wants kids to spell well.
  2. Spelling is related to reading. If your students can spell well, they will read better. Spelling involves both an understanding of how letters and sounds relate, but it also entails an understanding of the meaningful parts of words (think of the differences in pronunciation of the spelling of words like: democracy and Democrat; declaration and declare; or cats and dogs; our spelling system preserves the meaning not the sound-symbol relationship).
  3. Spelling is related to writing. Students, when they can spell well, are more willing to use a wide vocabulary (they aren’t constrained by fear of misspelling) and they can devote their cognitive resources to formulating and communicating their ideas, rather than worrying about how to construct words.
  4. Spelling problems may draw negative social judgments. Think of Dan Quayle and what people decided about him when he couldn’t spell potato. We also know that writing quality is more likely to be judged negatively by teachers and evaluators when the writing contains misspellings.
  5. Although spell check helps to even the playing field, it won’t solve the problem entirely. If your spelling skills aren’t advanced enough the computer won’t be able to figure out what it is that you are trying to write, and many times a computer mis-corrects such words.
          Yes, I would teach spelling and I would invest in professional development and instructional materials that would support my teachers teaching spelling. 

          How do you make spelling fit the schedule? That’s a bit more complicated and I’ll deal with that in my next blog. But until then, indeed, spelling instruction should have a place in your classroom.