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Making Sense of Guided Reading

I’ve got to be careful on this topic. I’ve got family members who teach using guided reading, as well as plenty of colleagues, and their students are learning to read. Within the past 35 years, guided reading has become an educational given, accepted common sense, and an all-or-nothing teaching reading strategy. For Fountas & Pinnell and Teachers College, the guided reading method of teaching students with leveled books is a cash-cow. However, all-too-often educators assume and practice what has not yet been proven. Such is the case with guided reading.

Guided Reading

How to Tweak Guided Reading

Guided reading is based upon two theoretical premises: Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development theory and Bruner’s (1986) application of that research to learning theory in what he termed as scaffolding.  From these premises, Marie Clay, New Zealand’s godmother of guided reading, believed that students learn best in instructional level texts (Vygotsky’s Zone), guided by a teacher to independence (Bruner’s scaffolding), and then on to more and more challenging instructional texts in what she coined as the “ladder of progress.” Clay’s methods of determining independence (91–94%) is running records assessment.

Clay’s guided reading method sounds reasonable and practical. Simply put, it’s the Goldilocks principle: Don’t have students practice in books that are too hard (frustration level); don’t have students practice in books that are too easy (independent level). Instead, have students practice in books that are just right (instructional level) with teacher assistance.

Within the last 35 years, we have made enormous strides in determining readers’ levels of comprehension and matching them to levels of text complexity through Lexile testing or informed teacher judgment using running records. However, we have not yet proven that practicing at optimally determined reading levels produces more learning than reading text that is “too easy” or “too hard.” And we just don’t know if learning is best facilitated with Clay’s ladder of progress model. Is there such a thing as an optimal instructional reading level?

Dr. Timothy Shanahan argues, “Basically we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory”(https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/leveled-reading-making-literacy-myth). He elaborates on the guided reading practice of using leveled texts to match optimal reading levels of instruction:

Of the studies that have directly tested the effects of teaching students to read with books at their “instructional level,” not one has found any benefit to the practice. There are several studies that have found no benefit to doing this and there are some that have found it to be harmful (that is, it reduces the students’ opportunity to learn). There is no set level at which texts need to be for students to learn from them, but if the texts are too easy (and traditional instructional level criteria are apparently too easy) learning is going to be limited. This has been found across a variety of grades from Grade 2 through high school and both with regular classroom students and learning-disabled students (https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/a-gallimaufry-of-literacy-questions-and-answers).

In fact, the authors of the Common Core State Standards would argue that students (with teacher assistance) learn more from complex i.e. frustration level text than instructional or independent text. My son read the entire Harry Potter series as a fourth-grader. While the first few books were add an accessible reading level, the last few certainly were not. My son gained two reading grade levels in a matter of months by reading text at his frustration level.

At this point, I know I’ve lost half of my readers. Teachers believe in the value of research only to a certain extent. When challenged by new or different research that is contradictory to accepted notions, teachers tend to retreat to their own experience. Generally, teachers believe in what they’ve been taught, how they were taught, and what they are now doing. Guided reading teachers see success in their students and the kids are learning to read. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Leveling Books

Guided Reading

However, for the remaining half of my readers: When they understand that the research does not prove what the majority of teachers are doing, they work through their cognitive dissonance and become more critical consumers of ideas and practice. They’re not afraid to distance themselves from the herd and try something new. A chance to add more tools to their tool belts.

My take is that we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some of guided reading is research-based and makes complete sense: the structural and instructional components of flexible ability grouping, meaningful busy work for rest of kids, reading with the teacher on a daily basis, and authentic assessment are proven and effective instructional strategies; however a few tweaks are in order. We don’t and shouldn’t abandon guided reading entirely as some Science of Reading colleagues advocate. However, I would ask teachers to try a few adaptations.

My suggestions to make sense of guided reading:

  1. Rather than trying to fine tune your guided reading groups by adding more discrete reading level groups, think of combining groups to maximize instructional minutes, minimize independent work, and improve behavior management. Especially consider doubling the size of the teacher-led guided reading group and reducing the number of total groups. Check out these 10 group rotation schedules.
  2. Look to other means of assessment to determine reading needs and group placements, in addition to running records. Teachers don’t like to hear this, but we are not completely objective evaluators. According to Dr. Louisa Moats, “The reliability of oral reading tests and running records is lower than the reliability of more structured, specific measures of component reading skills. Teacher judgment of the cause of specific oral reading errors (e.g., miscue analysis) tends to be much less reliable” (https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/reading_rocketscience_2004.pdf). (Download my FREE diagnostic assessments.)

    Sam and Friends Phonics Books

    Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

  3. In addition to leveled reading groups, use this alternative assessment data  to drive instruction within your guided reading group stations. Flexible groupings can help you teach r-controlled vowels to a group, or the soft /c/ spellings, or non-decodable sight words, etc. to needs-based groups, formed according to diagnostic assessments. My Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books are perfect examples of how to use skill-based guided reading groups. Each of the 54 decodable books includes a running record, but placement in the Sam and Friends series is determined by objective assessment.

The benefits…

  1. Fewer groups means less prep for guided reading groups and other independent learning stations.
  2. Less wasted instruction. When teachers notice reading errors during guided reading or running records which they wish to address via mini-lessons, some, but not all students will benefit.
  3. Targeted needs-based instruction is more efficient than mini-lessons.
  4. Students will progress quicker with the addition of assessment-based instruction.
  5. Less $. Those Fountas & Pinnell A to Z leveled books are expensive. Why not purchase fewer levels?
  6. Less tracking. Traditional guided reading groups stay quite similar from the start to end of the school year, with notable exceptions.
  7. Better behavior management. With fewer groups, fewer transitions are necessary. With more students in the teacher’s group, less idle hands are making mischief.
  8. More teacher-student time.

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FREE GRADES 4-8 Vocabulary Resources and Lessons

Watch the short (less than a minute) YouTube videos to see the resources and lessons. Click on the link in the YouTube product description to safely download the resource or lesson from my Pennington Publishing Blog. Subscribe to my YouTube Channel to get more FREE ELA and reading daily resources and lessons. Great for distance learning!

Videos with Vocabulary Resources and Lessons

Grades 4-8 Vocabulary Instructional Scope and Sequence

Download the free weekly word lists for full-year vocabulary instruction. Aligned to the Common Core Anchor Standards, this comprehensive instructional scope and sequence provides grade to grade instructional continuity and features the research-based Academic Words List for tier 2 vocabulary instruction.

The 25 Greek and Latin Power Words

The 25 power words are formed from the highest frequency Greek and Latin word parts and are included in over 60,000 words. Get the list, the research sources, and accompanying worksheets.

FREE Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test

Check out the Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits with FREE Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test.

FREE Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test

Check out the Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits with FREE Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test.

FREE Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test

Check out the Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits with FREE Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test.

FREE Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test

Check out the Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits with FREE Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test.

FREE Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test

Check out the Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits with FREE Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Test.

For teachers looking only for a solid one-year vocabulary program, check out the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits (grades 4-8). The 56 Vocabulary Worksheets include

Pennington Publishing's Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit

Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit

Multiple Meaning Words and Context Clues (L.4.a.); Greek and Latin Word Parts (L.4.a.); Language Resources (L.4.c.d.); Figures of Speech (L.5.a.); Word Relationships (L.5.b.); Connotations (L.5.c.); and Academic Language Words (L.6.0). Students learn ten Tier Two and Tier Three words (the words recommended in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects) each week. Want to check out sample lessons? Preview This Book.

If you’re just interested in the vocabulary worksheets, flashcards, and test, skip the videos. Here are FREE samples of vocabulary worksheets from this comprehensive program–ready to teach in your class today. Each resource includes directions, four grade-specific vocabulary worksheets, worksheet answers, vocabulary study cards, and a short unit test with answers.

Get the Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

 

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Don’t Teach with Grammarly®

Keep Grammarly out of the Classroom

Don’t Teach with Grammarly

I hesitate to summarize what Grammarly® does because everyone has seen one or more of its ubiquitous ads. Most of us have clicked “Skip Ad” hundreds of times on YouTube to avoid the Grammarly® advertisement. But let’s allow a quick explanation for the uninitiated: The Grammarly® Chrome extension and Microsoft plugin automatically detects and helps correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, and style mistakes (in the premium version) in writing. Sometimes a short instructional lesson is included. The new version also provides a plagiarism detector. Two versions are available: the free program with limited utility and the premium program with advanced features.

My take is that the artificial intelligence largely does what it claims to do. And I would say it catches more errors than the Microsoft Word® spell and grammar checker and Google Tools. Moreover, were I writing for my business (I am), I would use the extension and recommend it to others as one tool in their writing toolbox. In fact, I ran this article through the free version of Grammarly® and it caught both spacing errors and a few typos. Thanks! I happily ignored its displeasure with my intentional fragments.

So, if Grammarly® does what it advertises, why shouldn’t teachers teach with Grammarly® and encourage their students to use the program with their writing assignments?

To buy-in to my advice, teachers will need to somewhat buy-in to my premise. I freely admit that not all will. My premise is that teachers have stuff to teach that kids need to learn and that our students simply don’t know what they don’t know, but teachers do, should, or could know to help students improve their writing. Following are my five reasons not to teach with Grammarly®.

1. Don’t teach with Grammarly® because it promotes incidental learning.

Merriam-Webster provides these synonyms for incidental: accidental, casual, chance, fluky, fortuitous, inadvertent, unintended, unintentional, unplanned, unpremeditated, unwitting. I align my teaching (and parenting) much more with the incidental antonyms: calculated, deliberate, intended, intentional, planned, premeditated (https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/incidental).

Now this is not to say that we don’t learn incidentally. We certainly do. When a child touches a hot stove, she learns to avoid doing so in the future. However, when a parent and child are standing in front of a hot stove, I expect the grown-up who knows better, to say, “Don’t touch that hot stove,” instead of waiting for incidental learning to take place.

My point is that using Grammarly® to teach your students to improve their writing reinforces incidental learning. Incidental learning makes no connection to prior learning. Incidental learning limits learning to what students have known, have experienced, and what they write. Incidental learning keeps writers in the boxes of their own previous experiences. It’s Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

My take is that teachers should largely dictate what students learn in their writing to get them out of their boxes. Teacher expertise in how to teach writing should drive instruction, not the student writing itself. Teachers know what students know and don’t yet know; teachers know how to build upon previous instruction and extend learning; teachers have the informed judgment to teach Paula this and Percy that; teachers can be selective, prioritizing what needs to be learned and what can wait for another day. Teachers have a plan to get student writing where it needs to go. A teacher would never lead students on a treasure hunt, walking willy-nilly in search of incidental clues to where the treasure is located. Good writing teachers know how to read the treasure map and guide their students to the big red X step by step.

2. Don’t teach with Grammarly® because it limits assessment data.

When students use Grammarly®, they will have fewer writing errors, but this comes with a significant cost. Students’ rough and revised drafts are important sources of formative assessment. By using Grammarly®, teachers will not see the patterns of mistakes that their students are making. The Grammarly® feedback is limited to numerical data e.g., number of grammatical and number of spelling errors. Because no record of writing issues is maintained, the teacher will not be able to identify issues which need to be taught to the class as a whole or to the individual student.

I’ve read numerous testimonials from teachers claiming that requiring students to use Grammarly® saves them grading and correction time, and that their students’ use of the program frees them up to concentrate on writing content, not the trivial issues of typos, grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling. Yes, reading a paper with these errors can set off English teachers’ collective obsessive compulsive desires to fox what is broken; however, this comes with the job description and does require feedback to change student behavior and work ethic. The ostrich head-in-the-sand approach that assumes that these deficits do not inhibit writing (a false assumption) and aren’t important to master have largely been discounted in writing research.

3. Don’t teach with Grammarly® because it reinforces the fallacy that writing is about being correct or incorrect.

Grammarly® does a fine job at error detection and correction. However, its limitations and scoring reinforce the notion that if writing contains no errors it must be good. Anyone who has tried no calorie ice cream knows that this is not the case.

The quantitative scores that the program assign for writing submissions are a poor substitute for balanced scoring rubrics, and teachers who use the Grammarly® scores as feedback or as part of the students’ assignment grades have noticed how students adapt. Less risk-taking in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. Less complex syntax. Fewer complex sentences. Less creativity.

Besides, teachers know that good writers often intentionally disobey rules of grammar, mechanics, and sentence structure. Writing is both science and art. English has flexible grammar and mechanics rules to meet the needs of its writers, but artificial intelligence is not helpful in contextualizing usage. For example, serial (Oxford) commas are demanded in certain writing genres and style guides, but are unacceptable in others. The rigid rules of computers often need to be adapted to human variables. One example should suffice from author Joel Burrows.

The first classic I threw into Grammarly was chapter one of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And oh boy, Grammarly® did not like that. The program gave this chapter a woeful performance score of 69/100. The performance score “calculates the accuracy level of your document based on the total word count and the number and types of writing issues detected.” Grammarly informed me that this chapter contained 118 spelling mistakes, 160 cases of incorrect punctuation, and 44 grammatical errors. The app also claimed that this masterpiece has 28 “wordy” sentences – which Grammarly® notates as “writing issues” (https://thewritersbloc.net/we-need-talk-about-grammarly).

Teachers who encourage or require students to use Grammarly® often say that they are equipping students to write independently and use valuable tools. However, students tend to over-rely on the editing features of this program and unquestioningly accept corrections (even when they are ill-advised).

Finally, although corrective writing feedback can certainly be valuable, Grammarly® is extremely black and white in its corrections. Some teachers have gone so far as to describe its grammar and style comments as “arrogant.”

4. Don’t teach with Grammarly® because it creates lazy and tech-reliant writers.

Good teachers know that doing too much for a student is doing too little to help them learn. Teachers who heavily edit rough and final drafts, like copy editors, spoon feed students and make them teacher-dependent. Teachers who require students to use Grammarly® are merely transferring that dependence to a machine. Grammarly® is addictive. Students begin to rely upon Grammarly® and its suggestions and stop thinking for themselves.

For example, when a student continues to write “beleive” and can simply click the correction in Grammarly® or other spell checkers, the student will never learn to apply the before e spelling rule. Correcting is not teaching. Now don’t get me wrong, I do favor some corrective response, but only when coupled with in-depth instruction and accountability for learning.

In writing, practice makes perfect. Revision and editing are the tough stuff of writing practice, but Grammarly® and its quick fixes reduce and limit that practice. Using Grammarly® to correct spelling, mechanics, usage, and grammar robs students of the learning experience. When something is “done for them,” they don’t have to know why the issue needs correction or revision. So, students will continue to make the same errors in future compositions. Plus, using Grammarly is a poor substitute for proofreading. Grammarly® can only check what’s there. It can’t proofread for content inconsistencies, connections, train of lot, line of argument, omissions, etc.

5. Don’t teach with Grammarly® because it provides only minimal writing feedback and some of that is incomprehensible for students. Let’s take a look at an example from the Grammarly® website. We’ll focus on the first sentence: “If you would have told me a year ago that today I would have finished a marathon, I would have laughed.”

Grammarly Example from Website

As I’ve noted, the focus of Grammarly® is error detection and correction, and in this example it does a good job highlighting and correcting the writing issue. Much better than either Microsoft Word® or Google Tools:

However, the Grammarly® explanation of the writing issue is scant and largely incomprehensible for most students. The phrasing, “unreal conditional” is confusing and it assumes knowledge of the conditional mood that most students do not have as prior knowledge, but do need to learn. Additionally, the suggestion, “Consider changing the verb have to a different form” assumes a sophisticated understanding of not only verb tense, but also of verb forms. Correct advice, but not helpful advice. Students won’t learn much, if anything, about the conditional mood and forms of the “to have” verb from the Grammarly® writing feedback. Would your students take the time to google “conditional” and “to have verb forms” to understand the writing feedback? No, they will simply accept the correction, had, and move on. Students will make the same mistake the next time (which may be on the next writing assignment or weeks later). Simply put, Grammarly® does not teach.

The hope is that over time and repeated reminders of their errors, students will begin to internalize and produce error-free writing. Teachers know that repetition does not always produce learning, especially when the repetition is not immediately practiced. Baseball pitchers can throw thousands of pitches, but will never improve until a pitching coach carefully and skillfully analyzes the pitcher’s mechanics, suggests and models adjustments, and observes and provides feedback on the correct mechanics in repetitive practice.

Teachers know that anything worth teaching is worth teaching well. Effective writing instruction requires deep learning and significant practice.

So, if you’ve bought into my original premise “that teachers have stuff to teach that kids need to learn and that our students simply don’t know what they don’t know, but teachers do, should, or could to help students improve their writing,” and a few of my arguments against teaching with Grammarly®, you may be interested in a writing feedback tool that keeps you, the teacher, fully in charge of your writing instruction.

e-Comments

The e-Comments Chrome Extension

You can save time and provide better Google docs annotations with quality canned responses. The e-Comments Chrome Extension allows you to insert hundreds of Common Core-aligned writing feedback comments into your Google docs and slides. Comments are completely customizable. Add and save your own, including audio and video files. Our floating e-Comments menu contains four writing feedback comment sets for grades 3–6, 6–9, 9–12, and College/Workplace. You can also add your own comment sets for different classes and assignments. Read our Quick Start User Guide or watch our comprehensive video tutorial to get grading or editing in just minutes!
Download the free trial version of e-Comments on the Chrome Web Store. Use any of hundreds of canned teaching comments or create your own, including audio and video, to provide actionable writing feedback with accountability on student writing. These comments don’t just identify writing errors; they explain the writing issues and offer problem-solving approaches for revision. So much better than Grammarly®, Microsoft Word®, or Google Tools. Need an example? With one click on the floating e-Comments menu (look below right), a teacher might choose to insert all or part of the following comment (look below left) into a student’s Google doc or slide to address a student’s overuse of the “to be” verb. Now, that’s a writing tool that helps you teach and your students learn!
e-Comments Options

e-Comments Menu

e-Comments

















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Spelling Tests and Instruction

Spelling Tests

Spelling Assessments

Years ago I attended a four-day training by Dr. Shane Templeton, an author of a new program titled Words Their Way®. Dr. Templeton drove down to Elk Grove to in-service our cadre of 18 reading specialists. An entertaining presenter, he demonstrated the theory of five developmental spelling stages and introduced the Qualitative Spelling Inventory (later reworked and published as the Primary Spelling Inventory, Elementary Spelling Inventory, and Upper-level Spelling Inventory.

From Dr. Templeton’s training, I developed numerous district and site level in-services for teachers interested in word study, primarily spelling. For each training, principals provided Words Their Way® for each teacher, and our district adopted the spelling inventory as one of our elementary literacy placement assessments. Teachers dutifully engaged their students in exploratory word sorts and other activities recommended for each spelling stage. After a two-year investment in the Words Their Way® approach, here’s what our reading specialist team and teachers found:

Virtually no gains on both standardized tests and our other writing, reading, fluency, spelling, syllabication, and phonics posttests. Our elementary students’ reading scores were mired in the 40th percentiles. The inductive Words Their Way® approach to word study and other similar approaches to spelling, phonics, and vocabulary acquisition were not paying off. Teachers rightfully complained that the Words Their Way® instructional activities took up inordinate amounts of their literacy block time.

Fortunately, our district chose to change direction and adopt a direct instruction, explicit and systematic phonics program: Open Court for kinder-third grade. Within two years our scores improved to the 70th percentiles. Grades 4-6 students improved as well upon later adoption of the program and because students coming out of primary had such a solid foundation. An interesting anecdotal sidebar: In our highly transient and growing district, our reading specialist team found that new transfer students in grades 4-8 were woefully unprepared for the rigors of multisyllabic expository text. As a result, our literacy leadership team created diagnostic assessments and instructional activities for site-level literacy intervention classes.

One of these diagnostic assessments, the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, was my primary contribution. The test grew out of the Words Their Way® spelling inventories, which indicated a need for different levels of spelling instruction. However, unlike the inventories, we reading specialists and our district teachers wanted teachable data, not just placement test data. Rather than discover that a fourth grader was scoring in the “Within Word” developmental spelling stage, we wanted to know precisely which spelling patterns had and had not been mastered to target instruction for our grade level and reading intervention students, rather than spend inordinate amounts of class time with exploratory word study and word games.

My reading specialist colleagues were ruthless revisers. We argued over many test items, but finally achieved consensus on a comprehensive assessment that mirrored the Open Court phonics program sound-spellings and added the conventional spelling rules which applied to the “Syllable Juncture” and “Derivational” spelling stages of Words Their Way®. We field tested the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment in grades 4-8 and teachers found that this comprehensive assessment provided much more teachable data than did the old spelling inventories.

To compare the more popular Words Their Way® spelling inventories to the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, I’ve put together a four-minute video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aczs81Jhcz8 to compare test items and determine which assessment provides the most teachable data. I’ve also included the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment (with audio file), recording matrices, and sample spelling worksheets as a free download in case the video convinces you to do so. Just click the link in the YouTube description.

Unfortunately, the Open Court® program, which did such an admirable job with decoding and comprehension had no systematic spelling instruction. As you know, decoding (phonics) is the one side of the words coin and encoding (spelling) is the other. Our spelling scores remained far below our phonics scores. Principals, who tend to always be about test results, demanded spelling curriculum. However, publishers remained reticent to invest monies and resources in outlier states, such as California, because just a few years back at the height of the whole language movement, State Superintendent of Instruction, Bill Honig, refused to adopt spelling workbooks for the state and directed principals to squash direct spelling instruction.

I was tasked by a school principal from the highest performing elementary school (out of 33) in our district to develop curriculum to “get my spelling scores up.” For that entire school year, two days a week, I continued to refine the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and write targeted spelling pattern worksheets to correspond to each test item. Students benefited from my hyper-focus in the reading intervention class I taught after school and grade-level teachers snatched up my targeted worksheets to use in their classrooms. Yes, our spelling scores shot up through the roof on the spring standardized tests.

Differentiated Spelling Instruction Programs

Differentiated Spelling Instruction

The next year I published (with district permission) my own spelling workbook for reading intervention. Over the next few years, I wrote five grade-level spelling programs (grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8), using the best of the Words Their Way® instructional components (word sorts, book searches, games, etc.), but using a much more efficient deductive approach. Each program retained the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and the corresponding spelling pattern worksheets, each with a formative assessment, that teachers found so valuable to pinpoint spelling instruction. The result? The Grades 4-8 Differentiated Spelling Instruction programs, designed to help students catch up while they keep up with grade-level spelling instruction.

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Words Their Way® Spelling Inventories v. the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

Spelling Assessments

Diagnostic Spelling Tests

Teachers who are committed to differentiated and individualized spelling to help students catch up, while they keep up with grade-level instruction believe that spelling assessment should inform their instruction. The relevant question for this presentation is which spelling inventory or assessment provides the most teachable data for grades 4–post secondary students who struggle with spelling.

We’ll take a look at the two most popular spelling diagnostic tests, the Words Their Way® Elementary Spelling Inventory (ESI) and the Upper-Level Spelling Inventory (USI) and compare these to the Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Differentiated Spelling Instruction Diagnostic Spelling Assessment (DSA).

What’s the Same?

The ESI is designed for kindergarten–sixth grade; the USI is designed for upper elementary, middle school, high school, and post secondary students. The DSA is designed for grades 4–post secondary students. Note that Words Their Way® also provides another spelling inventory which will be excluded from our comparisons: the Primary Spelling Inventory, which is designed for kindergarten–third grade

The ESI, USI, and DSA  tests are administered in the traditional word–example sentence–word format, and the focus spelling appears at the beginning, middle, and end of words. Only the focus spelling is corrected. For example, if the focus spelling is short /o/, the misspelling of the double consonant “gg” would not be marked incorrect for the test item foggy. Thus, “fogy” would be marked correct, but “fuggy” would be marked incorrect. All 3 spelling tests include features analysis on recording matrices. Each of the 3 tests diagnostically points to areas which need spelling remediation and practice for individual students.

What’s Different?

However, the purpose of the ESI and USI inventories differs from that of the DSA. The ESI and USI have been designed to identify which of the 5 Words Their Way® developmental spelling stages matches the spelling competencies of the assessed students. In contrast, the DSA has been designed to identify which specific spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules have and have not yet been mastered by the assessed students.

The test administration differs in that the ESI and USI administrator may stop an individual’s test when the student has missed 8 items in succession because the test is in order of difficulty. Students taking the DSA take the entire allotted amount of test items assigned to each grade level. Note that the DSA includes a recommended audio file for test administration.

Finally, the composition of the ESI and USI differs from that of the DSA. The ESI and USI test sample words for each of the program’s 5 developmental spelling stages. The ESI includes 10 single syllable words and 10 multisyllabic words; the USI includes 6 single syllable words and 19 multisyllabic words. The ESI has 25 test items with 62 measurable features, and the USI has 31 test items with 68 features. Both assessments use some words to assess more than one orthographic feature. For example, the test item,  float, assesses knowledge of the “fl” consonant blend, the “oa” long /o/, and the “t” consonant.

In contrast, the DSA assesses all common spelling patterns introduced in previous grade-level spelling programs and reading. Fourth grade students complete the first 64 test items to assess kindergarten–third grade spelling patterns; Fifth grade students complete 79 test items to assess assess kindergarten–fourth grade spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules; Sixth grade students complete 89 test items to assess assess kindergarten–fifth grade spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules; Seventh grade students complete 98 test items to assess assess kindergarten–sixth grade spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules; and eighth grade, high school, and adult students complete 102 test items to assess assess kindergarten–seventh grade spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules. Unlike the ESI and USI inventories, all test words are multisyllabic to attempt to isolate the sight word variable, and only one spelling feature is assessed per test item.

Which Test Provides the Most Teachable Data?

Now, let’s get down to comparing the specific test items for each of these three spelling tests to determine which test provides the most teachable data to help teachers remediate the spelling deficits of their students. To see all kindergarten–third grade spelling pattern test item comparisons, check out the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aczs81Jhcz8 

Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

Which Test Data Would You Prefer?

Most teachers prefer comprehensive spelling assessment data, rather than sample spelling features. Rather than learning that a child is spelling in the “Within Word” developmental stage, most teachers would prefer knowing which specific “Within Word” spelling patterns have and have not yet been mastered.

In our example chart, both Words Their Way® inventories provide minimal test items for the Silent Final e. To be fair, remember that the purpose of these inventories is to determine students’ developmental spelling stages. These test items in conjunction with other vowels, consonants, blends, and digraphs do accomplish their purpose. However, learning students’ spelling stages does not indicate what students know and what students do not know within those spelling stages. 

For example, the Silent Final e test items on the Words Their Way® inventories only show whether students know the “a_e” and “i_e” spellings. Teachers have no data on the “u_e” long /u/ and long /oo/, “o_e”, “le”, “i_e” as in motive and as in submarine. Students may have mastered some of these spellings, but teachers do not know, so students are forced to study all Silent Final e spelling patterns, as well as all vowel, consonant, blends, and digraphs. Hardly efficient assessment and instruction.

In contrast, because the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment tests all common spelling patterns, teachers will learn which of the 9 Final Silent spellings their students know and do not know (plus all the other common spelling patterns in the “Within Word” stage as demonstrated in the video link above). As a result, teachers can target spelling instruction to what students need and avoid teaching what students already know. Effective spelling instruction need not take up too many instructional minutes. In fact, many teachers have abandoned the Words Their Way® programs because of time constraints.

Additionally, although the Words Their Way® authors claim that their instructional approach is word study, including spelling, syllabication, phonics, writing, and vocabulary, other instructional approaches simply work better and are more efficient.

Differentiated Spelling Instruction Programs

Differentiated Spelling Instruction

Compare the Words Their Way Spelling Inventories and their plethora of word study resources to the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and the resources in the Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Differentiated Spelling Instruction. Each of the latter’s full-year spelling programs include weekly grade-level spelling pattern tests and spelling sorts, summative spelling assessments, and remedial spelling worksheets corresponding to each test item on the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment with sorts, rhymes, book searches, jumbles, and a writing application which serves as a formative assessment. Also get supplementary word lists, spelling songs, and spelling review games. These no prep, minimal correction programs take much less class time than Words Their Way® and other programs. Plus, at $29.99 and the 10% discount (enter code 3716 at checkout), every teacher can afford the spelling program designed to help students catch up while they keep up with grade-level spelling standards.

The Differentiated Spelling Instruction programs are easy to teach. We even provide two quick YouTube training videos to ensure your success!

Get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, Mastery Matrix, and Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

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Individualized Spelling Patterns Instruction

In this article, teachers will learn how to how to diagnose and remediate the spelling pattern deficits of their individual students to help them “catch up while they keep up” with grade-level spelling instruction. To read my article about how to differentiate and individualize grade-level spelling instruction, click How to Teach Spelling. First, let’s forget what we have heard about older students who are poor spellers:

“Once a bad speller, always a bad speller”; “You can’t teach an old dog new spelling tricks”; “Einstein was a horrible speller”; “Spelling is only an editing skill”; “Now that we have spellcheck, spelling doesn’t matter.”

Reading research demonstrates that your students can learn what they’ve missed while they learn grade-level spelling rules and patterns. But, first you need to determine specifically what your students do and don’t know and how to fill any gaps in their spelling knowledge. Let’s not waste valuable instructional time re-teaching what they already know. Instead, use the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment to pinpoint exactly what they need to learn. I’ll provide a FREE download at the end of the article.

Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

FREE Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

But, wait. Most of the teachers in my school use the Elementary Spelling Inventory found in Words Their Way. Isn’t that just as good?

In a word, “No.” The Elementary Spelling Inventory includes 25 words. The test is designed to indicate which developmental spelling stage each of your students has and has not yet mastered. Laying aside the theory of developmental spelling for our purposes (many notable spelling researchers including Louisa Moats and Richard Gentry dispute this theory), the individual test results only narrow down the spelling deficits to general stages. Knowing a student’s developmental spelling stage does not tell the teacher what to teach and what not to teach within that spelling stage.

In contrast, the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment provides that specificity. Reference the graphic to see examples of how much more teachable data is provided by the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment than that provided by the Elementary Spelling Inventory.

Yes, the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment takes a bit longer to administer and correct, because it tests all of the common spelling patterns. However, the included audio file makes administration simple. Total test administration time is less than 25 minutes.

  • Grade 8 students complete words #s 1–102 to assess all kindergarten–seventh grade common spelling patterns. 
  • Grade 7 students complete words #s 1–98 to assess all kindergarten–sixth grade common spelling patterns. 
  • Grade 6 students complete words #s 1–89 to assess all kindergarten–fifth grade common spelling patterns. 
  • Grade 5 students complete words #s 1–79 to assess all kindergarten–fourth grade common spelling patterns. 
  • Grade 4 students complete words #s 1–64 to assess all kindergarten–third grade common spelling patterns. 

The Diagnostic Spelling Assessment uses multisyllabic words to isolate the variable of sight word knowledge. The test is ordered according to the research-based instructional phonics sequences of instruction. After all, encoding (spelling) is the opposite side of the same coin as decoding (reading). Spelling and reading are mutually dependent and research is clear that good spellers and good readers tend to be good writers (Adams, 2011; Gentry & Graham, 2010; Moats, 2005; Reed, 2012).

How to Administer the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

Preparation

Pass out binder paper and pencils. Model how to number the test items on the board and tell students to number accordingly.

Administration

I recommend using the audio file, which includes the test directions, spelling words, and example sentences. The test pacing is exactly timed to ensure proper and controlled testing. Additionally, make-up tests for absent or newly enrolled students is a simple task with the audio file.

However, some teachers prefer to read the directions and dictate the words and example sentences themselves.

Introduce the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment to students. Say—

“This is a test to see if you can accurately spell the words I say out loud. I will first say the spelling word; then repeat it; then use it in a sentence; and then repeat the spelling word once more. Listen carefully because I won’t repeat the words after the test is finished. Please print the spelling words.”

Don’t elongate the vowel or consonant sounds to emphasize spellings. Keep a consistent pace of about seven seconds per test item. Any longer and students will lose their place or begin daydreaming. Since this is a long test, teachers may elect to take a short stretch break in the middle of the test administration.

Grading

Grade the assessment, marking only the specified sound-spelling pattern for each word.  In other words don’t mark the word wrong because of other spelling errors in the word. For example, if the sound-spelling pattern is Long /a/ “__ay” and the word is “payment,” the student spelling of “paiment” would be wrong, but “paymunt” would be right. This selective grading isolates the sound-spelling pattern problem areas for each student. I’ve found that instructional aides and parents are quite capable of accurately grading and recording the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment with minimal training.

Recording

The teacher, instructional aide, or parent charts the individual skills that your students have not yet mastered on the mastery matrices. Yes, these recording matrices are provided in your FREE download. Record a slash (/) for un-mastered skills, and leave the box blank for mastered skills. Make two copies of the matrices: one for student reference and one for teacher reference.

Post one set of the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrices on a wall at the rear of the classroom for student reference. Note that teachers may choose to list students by identification number rather than by name on these matrices. Keep the teacher copy in a binder at your desk.

How to Remediate Spelling Pattern Deficits through Individualized Instruction

Each of the spelling test words corresponds to the Spelling Patterns Worksheets. Count and total the slashes (/) for each of the spelling patterns on the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrices to determine how many of each Spelling Pattern Worksheets you will need to copy. Copy these worksheets and group them in separate numbered  file folders.

The Spelling Pattern Worksheets are designed to help students master the previous grade-level Common Core Language Spelling Standards. Each worksheet lists the sound-spelling pattern focus, example words, a spelling sort, a rhyme or word search activity, word jumbles, a short writing application, and a sentence dictation formative assessment. Students progress at their own rates to master previous grade-level spelling patterns. Yes, sample Spelling Pattern Worksheets are included in your FREE download.

Let’s look at the individual instructional components. The format of the Spelling Patterns Worksheets is intentionally similar to promote independent student work. The spelling pattern  is listed first and connects the sound to the spelling. For example, Spelling Pattern Worksheet #47 (numbers vary per program) lists: oo Sound as in woodpecker “_u_” and provides the FOCUS: The oo sound heard in woodpecker can b spelled “_u_” as in put. Notice that blanks are included in the spelling pattern. Each represents a missing sound-spelling. In this case, the “_u_” spelling is missing both beginning and ending consonant sounds. No syllable can be written as a consonant–u (oo sound). No syllable can be written as a u (oo sound)–consonant. Both consonants must be included to write a syllable. For example, put could be written as put to show the spelling pattern.

The next instructional component is the SORT section. Students use pronunciation, analogous spelling patterns, and the spelling marks and blanks to categorize the spelling pattern words. Notice how the Spelling Pattern Worksheet #47 sort provides the key components of the /ion/ spelling rule. Students are told the rule up front and apply the rule with the spelling variations. Unlike “other discovery sorts” in which the spelling rule must be learned inductively, don’t leave your students guessing! Teach and apply the explicit rule. Here a teacher might opt to have the student(s) listen to, practice, and memorize the /ion/ spelling rule with a little help from the “Ending /ion/ Rule” spelling song. The author’s grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Differentiated Spelling Instruction programs include conventional spelling rule songs and raps.

Students also complete a RHYME or BOOK SEARCH activity. For spelling patterns conducive to rhyming, such as the “aw” spelling pattern, four rhyming words which apply the /aw/ spelling are provided. For other non-rhyming spelling patterns, students use their sustained silent reading book or a class novel to write example words which use the focus spelling pattern with their corresponding page numbers.

Additionally, students complete four JUMBLE words, which include the focus spelling patterns. Students quickly discover that using the spelling pattern clues helps them unravel the jumbled words A multisyllabic Bonus JUMBLE is included. For example, in Spelling Worksheet #48, knowing the “al” spelling pattern helps students identify also; the “awl” spelling patterns helps identify drawl; the “aw” helps with pawn; and also helps with the Bonus jawbone.

Finally, the WRITE section requires students to apply the spelling patterns to additional words, not listed on the Spelling Pattern Worksheet. This spelling pattern application serves as the formative assessment to determine whether students have or have not yet mastered the individual spelling pattern.

Correction and Formative Assessment

After completing a Spelling Pattern Worksheet, the student self-corrects and self-edits with a different color pen or pencil from one of the Spelling Patterns Worksheets Answer Binders. I suggest making several of these binders and storing them in different parts of the classroom for student access. Tell students that they receive the same credit for completing a worksheet with errors and different color revisions with the correct answers as they do for completing a worksheet without errors. It’s the practice that’s important. This procedure eliminates the incentive to cheat. Note that no answers are provided for the WRITE formative assessment.

When finished correcting the worksheet, the student comes up to the teacher’s desk to mini-conference. If the student has self-corrected and self-edited the practice section and “passed” the WRITE formative assessment, change the slash (/) into an “X” for mastery on the appropriate box on the mastery matrix and record an A on the student’s worksheet. Convert the A to points, if you use a point system for grading. For example, 10 points for an A. Note that the teacher determines the level of mastery for each WRITE formative assessment.

If the student has not yet mastered the spelling pattern or patterns, you have two instructional options:

1. If the student understands the spelling pattern after the mini-conference, direct the student to re-do the WRITE formative assessment and return for re-correction.

2. Record a a instead of an A and direct the student to move on to the next worksheet. The student will have the chance to re-do the worksheet after completing the rest of their assigned worksheets. Award half-credit, say 5 points, for a .

Here are a few Helpful Hints to ensure instructional success. 

Tell students to begin with the lower numbered Spelling Pattern Worksheets and to complete only those worksheets indicated by slashes (/). Tell them that they won’t receive credit for completing worksheets without slashes because they have already mastered those spelling patterns.

After a student has mastered a Spelling Pattern Worksheet, direct him or her to change the slash (/) into an X for mastery on the appropriate box on the matrix. Using pencil of course. Filling in the X gives students a sense of accomplishment and motivates students to complete additional work. Don’t forget to mark the X in your teacher binder, as well.

Set an expectation as to how many Spelling Pattern Worksheets must be completed per week. Teachers may choose to have students and/or parents set specific goals. Monitor student progress and adjust expectations as needed. Worksheets may be completed in class or for homework.

Maintain a productive work environment by managing time. Limit the mini-conference to no more than 30 seconds. The focus should be on the WRITE formative assessment, not the rest of the worksheet. Also, manage crowd control by limiting the length of your mini-conference line to three students. Waiting students can sign up for their places in line on the board and then work on their next worksheet until their turn arrives to conference. Finally, establish group norms regarding talking, helping peers, and work ethic.

Want to see how to use the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and Spelling Pattern Worksheets? Check out this four-minute video!

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Differentiated Spelling Instruction

Grades 4-8 Spelling Programs

Differentiated Spelling Instruction is a complete grade level spelling program built upon conventional spelling rules and developmental spelling patterns. Five programs are available: Grade 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. This digital download (eBook) program includes all resources teachers need to individualize instruction. Developing a weekly spelling plan that differentiates instruction for all of your students is a challenging task for even the best veteran teacher, but help has arrived! There is no better spelling program for your grade level students, GATE students, special ed, ESL/ELD, and below grade level students. Perfect for RtI.

Plus, get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and the targeted spelling pattern worksheets you need to remediate previous grade level spelling deficits for all your students. Now that’s effective differentiated and individualized instruction! Your students can catch up, while they keep up with grade level spelling instruction. You’ll also appreciate the helpful resources in the appendix, including how to study spelling tips, spelling proofreading, word lists, spelling rule memory songs (Mp3s), and spelling review games.

The program is easy to teach. We even provide two quick YouTube training videos to ensure your success!

Get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, Mastery Matrix, and Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Spelling

Whether using a spelling program or a collection of spelling resources, most teachers apply this traditional method of spelling instruction:

How to Teach Spelling

  1. Pretest a list of 15−20 themed words on Monday. Students pass in their tests for correction. The themes might be holidays, months of the year, animals, plural words, words with prefixes, words ending in “tion,” the vocabulary words from social studies or a reading selection, etc.
  2. Assign some form of spelling practice using the pretest words: a crossword puzzle, a word search, write each word ten times, partner quizzing, use each word in a sentence, etc.
  3. Ask parents to practice the words with their children.
  4. Posttest on the same list of words on Friday.

How’s that working for your students? Are you seeing tangible evidence of spelling improvement in their writing?

My guess is “No, you aren’t.”  After all, you’re reading an article titled, “How to Teach Spelling.” 

Fair to say that the traditional instructional plan makes 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. The second task of an informed teacher is to make use of the diagnostic data to differentiate and individualize instruction.

So, how can an informed teacher make sense of the Monday spelling pretest to differentiate and individualize spelling grade-level instruction? Simply follow these four steps:

1. Pretest 

Dictate 15—20 words in the traditional word-sentence-word format to all of your students on Monday.

Of course, the words do matter. Rather than selecting unrelated theme words such as described above choose a spelling program or do the Google work to create weekly word lists designed to teach the English-American orthographic system. In other words, the conventional spelling rules and developmental spelling patterns. Check out the spelling sequence of instruction I use in my Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 spelling programs. Unlike the themed word lists (including the all-too-common teacher practice of combining vocabulary word memorization (a good practice) with spelling (a bad practice), teaching these spelling rules and patterns will improve your students’ spelling ability.

Display the spelling pretest words with the spelling patterns identified in boldface. Teach students to self-correct their own pretests by circling any misspelled spelling patterns.

2. Personalize 

Now, use the diagnostic data your students have provided by personalizing the weekly spelling list. Tell your students to copy up to 10 of their pretest spelling errors to begin a 15−20 word personal spelling list. For younger students, the personal spelling list can be kept in a spelling notebook or word study notebook. For older students, the personal spelling list can be placed following a binder divider labeled “Spelling.”

Students supplement their pretest errors to complete their 15−20 word personal spelling list with the following resources:

  • Writing errors: Have students add up to 3 spelling errors marked in student writing.
  • Last week’s posttest errors: Have students add up to 3 spelling errors from last week’s spelling posttest.
  • Supplemental spelling word lists: outlaw (non-phonetic) words, most often misspelled words, commonly confused words, and the 450 highest frequency words. However, not the words which students already know how to spell. Parents should dictate these word lists and create an unknown words list for their child. Student pairs can also produce this diagnostic data.

If created from these resources, the weekly 15−20 word personal spelling list will be a list of 100% unknown words for each student.

Spelling Pattern Sorts

3. Practice

Have students practice weekly focus spelling pattern by completing a spelling sort of the spelling patterns within the conventions spelling rule. For example, in the chart to the right, four spelling patterns comprise the .ion/ spelling rule. No crossword puzzles, word searches, write each word ten times, partner quizzing, use each word in a sentence, etc.

Do teach your students and their parents how to study. Circle problem spelling patterns. For non-phonetic spelling words, teach students to create their own picture spelling words. For example, for the irregular schwa ending syllable in principal, circle the “pal” spelling and use the circle as your friendly principal’s face. Or  for the commonly confused words: desert-dessert, circle the one “s” in desert and attach palm branches on top; circle the “ss” in dessert and attach two lighted candles on top to create a birthday cake.

4. Posttest 

On Friday (or why not test every two weeks for older students?) tell students to 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! 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. Have the partners correct the posttest and do so yourself.

See it in action! Check out this four-minute video to review the Pennington Publishing 1. Pretest 2. Personalize 3. Practice and 4. Posttest plan to differentiate and individualize grade-level spelling instruction.

Now that you know how to differentiate and individualize grade-level spelling instruction, HOW WILL YOU HELP REMEDIATE PREVIOUS GRADE LEVEL SPELLING PATTERN DEFICITS FOR YOUR STUDENTS? Read the next article, INDIVIDUALIZED SPELLING PATTERNS INSTRUCTION, to learn how to use the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment (a FREE comprehensive spelling patterns assessment audio file) to determine individual spelling pattern deficits. Students complete targeted worksheets corresponding to the spelling patterns they missed on the diagnostic assessment.

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Differentiated Spelling Instruction

Grades 4-8 Spelling Programs

Differentiated Spelling Instruction is a complete grade level spelling program built upon conventional spelling rules and developmental spelling patterns. Five programs are available: Grade 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. This digital download (eBook) program includes all resources teachers need to individualize instruction. Developing a weekly spelling plan that differentiates instruction for all of your students is a challenging task for even the best veteran teacher, but help has arrived! There is no better spelling program for your grade level students, GATE students, special ed, ESL/ELD, and below grade level students. Perfect for RtI.

Plus, get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and the targeted spelling pattern worksheets you need to remediate previous grade level spelling deficits for all your students. Now that’s effective differentiated and individualized instruction! Your students can catch up, while they keep up with grade level spelling instruction. You’ll also appreciate the helpful resources in the appendix, including how to study spelling tips, spelling proofreading, word lists, spelling rule memory songs (Mp3s), and spelling review games.

The program is easy to teach. We even provide two quick YouTube training videos to ensure your success!

Grammar/Mechanics , , , , , ,