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How to Differentiate Spelling and Vocabulary Instruction

Two of the most common instructional practices in American schools make me cringe. In spite of pedagological common sense, teachers throughout America, from primary grades to high school, continue to pass out the list of 15-20 spelling words and the list of 15-20 vocabulary words on Monday. Students “study” these lists, and perhaps complete an obligatory worksheet, crossword puzzle, or write-the-word-ten-times assignment, and then they are tested on these same words on Friday. It’s tradition. It’s as American as apple-pie. Parents care more about these language-arts activities than any others.

So, what’s wrong with this picture? The weekly spelling and vocabulary test procedures, as described above, make no use of the teacher as an informed practitioner. The first task of an informed teacher is to determine what students already know and don’t know. But, hold on just a minute! Most teachers (at least in the elementary grades) do give a spelling pretest on Monday. True. However, the second task of an informed teacher is to make use of the diagnostic data to differentiate instruction. Oh…well that is different.

The second problem with this picture is one of categorization. Isolating spelling from vocabulary instruction rarely makes sense. The spelling-vocabulary connection is well-established at every stage of word study—from sound-spelling relationships in the primary grades to derivational and etymological influences from intermediate elementary through high school.

So, how can an informed teacher (that is you) differentiate instruction in an efficient manner? Simply follow these five steps:

1. Prepare Give a diagnostic spelling assessment to determine where your students have mastery and where they don’t.  Find the resources you need that truly integrate spelling and vocabulary instruction. Your educational bookstore and online resources will assist—there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Select twenty spelling pattern words that the spelling inventory indicates as problematic for most of your students. Select words that also teach vocabulary.

2. Pretest Dictate the 15—20 words in the traditional word-sentence-word format to all of your students. Have students self-correct from teacher dictation of letters in syllable chunks, marking dots below the correct letters, and marking an “X” through the numbers of any spelling errors. This is an instructional activity that can be performed by second graders. Don’t rob your students of this learning activity by correcting the pretest yourself.

3. Personalize Students complete their own Personal Spelling-Vocabulary List in the following order of priority:

  • Pretest Errors: Have the students copy up to ten of their pretest spelling errors onto a Personal Spelling List. Ten words are certainly enough to practice the grade-level spelling pattern.
  • Last Week’s Posttest Errors: Have students add on up to five spelling errors from last week’s spelling posttest.
  • Writing Errors: Have students add on up to five teacher-corrected spelling errors found in student writing. Oops…this commits you to mark strategic spelling errors in your students’ writing to effectively differentiate instruction.
  • Supplemental Spelling Lists: Students select and use words from the following resources to complete their list (Again, these resources are minutes away at your local educational bookstore on on the web):

For remedial spellers-
Outlaw Words
High Frequency Words
Most Often Misspelled Words
Commonly Confused Words
For grade level and accelerated spellers
Greek and Latin spellings
Content vocabulary—only terms that are commonly used

4. Practice Use direct instruction to demonstrate the spelling pattern. Find word sort resources that apply this pattern with words that emphasize vocabulary development. Additionally, have your students practice their weekly spelling words on their Personal Spelling List by writing context-clue sentences in which the spelling word is defined in the context of the other words and structure of their sentence. This spelling-vocabulary application is an important reading and writing skill and needs plenty of instruction and practice. Use the SALES strategies: synonyms, antonyms, logic, examples, and syllables to teach your students how to surround their spelling words with context clues.

5. Posttest Students take out a piece of binder paper and find a partner to exchange dictation of their Personal Spelling List words. Now, this makes instructional sense—actually using the posttest to measure what students have learned! Have one student complete the entire dictation of the list prior to having the other student dictate. But, you may be thinking…what if they cheat? For the few who cheat…It would be a shame to not differentiate instruction for the many to cater to a few. Truly, they are only cheating themselves.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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