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Spelling Word Lists by Grade Levels

As an MA Reading Specialist and author of quite a few spelling curricula (eight at last count), I’m often asked about spelling word lists by grade levels. Which words are right for which grade levels? Is blank (substitute any word) a third or fourth grade word? Which spelling words are the most important ones to practice?

We Americans are fixated with lists. From Letterman’s Late Show Top Ten to Blackwell’s Ten Worst Dressed List, we pay attention to them all. Lists influence big money. For example, universities invest millions of dollars to adjust staffing, course offerings, and campus improvements to better their annual U.S. News and World Report rankings.

We American are also fixated with grades. We sort and categorize anything of value by grade. From diamonds to education, we esteem these divisions even when the placement criteria overlap or have dubious or arbitrary merit. In education, we divide our new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) into grade levels, although many standards are simply repeated in each grade level. See the CCSS spelling standards in the Language Strand as a prime example.

Of course, educational publishers promote and encourage our list and grade fixations. Lists and grade levels, such as with spelling instruction, sell more books. For example, no publishers in their right minds would offer a one-volume comprehensive spelling program, when separate grade level programs with separate spelling lists would sell more. Publishers of spelling curricula have been doing the latter for years. A brief history is illuminating:

American English Spelling Word Lists by Grade Levels

As early as 1783, Noah Webster published his first edition of what became widely known as The Blue-backed Speller. He began “with the alphabet and moving systematically through the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, then more complex words, then sentences.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_Webster His grade level lists were used by teachers in multi-grade, one-room school houses and these divisions were further solidified with spelling bees. Webster’s 1806 dictionary sold poorly but served as the foundation for subsequent dictionaries bearing the Webster name.

By the 1840s, Webster had lost market share to the works of William Holmes McGuffey. McGuffey’s 1836 publication of his Eclectic Reader became wildly popular and McGuffey spun off his success with his 1846 Eclectic Spelling Book. McGuffey set out to standardize American spellings along the lines of Noah Webster’s 1806 dictionary and used Webster’s diacritical marks, as well as his “orthography, pronunciation, and syllabication (Preface).” Interestingly, McGuffey keyed his early spelling lists to the alphabet and not to the sound-spelling system. For example, his alphabet card for W has a picture of a wren and the spelling wren. Of course, the wr_ has the /r/, not the /w/. His lists are organized along the same lines.  Lesson 16 is titled “The Various Sounds of U” and has 44 words which include short /u/, long /u/, r-controlled /ur/, and others.

So, grade level spelling programs and word lists have been around for all of U.S. history. Educational movements to the contrary have proven to be short-lived. California removed grade level spelling books from its state adoption lists at the height of the whole-language movement in the 1980s. Principals were instructed by school district personnel to direct teachers not to use grade level spelling workbooks, and in some documented cases principals were even told to confiscate grade level spelling programs. More eclectic approaches such as Rebecca Sitton’s No Excuse Spelling Words program (more lists) replaced the grade level spelling programs. However, with the return to phonics-based instruction in the 1990s, grade level spelling programs and word lists returned.

Spelling Word Lists by Grade Levels: What Makes Sense

Ideally, spelling instruction would be tailored to individual student needs. However, our “factory system” of American education, which divides students into grade level instruction by age with accompanying grade-level standards is not likely to change.

Accepting this reality, it does make sense to establish a scope and sequence based upon research-based spelling patterns. Although there are no “set in stone” fourth grade words or fourth grade spelling patterns, there are spelling patterns that build upon previously mastered spelling patterns. The developmental nature of spelling has been well-established in orthographic research. Additionally, there is simply no doubt that good spelling instruction dovetails with good vocabulary instruction. As the reading-spelling connection is well-established for the primary grades, so is the vocabulary-spelling connection thereafter.

Of course, most grade level spelling programs and word lists are predicated upon the specious notion that spelling instruction equals spelling learning. Teach it and move on. Or add on a simplistic review before moving on. No attention is paid to whether the spelling patterns have actually been mastered or not. However, a spelling-vocabulary program for intermediate and upper elementary, as well as middle school students based upon diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments is certainly possible. A spelling-vocabulary program of “grade-level” spelling patterns and word lists organized in a meaningful instructional scope and sequence combined with individualized remediation of previous foundational spelling patterns is certainly possible.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, 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 lessons. The lessons also 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, Usage, 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 PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK  to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, 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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