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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!

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Middle School Spelling

Diagnostic Spelling Patterns Assessment

Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

In the Whole Language Movement and concurrent National Writing Project popularity of the 1980s and 1990s, spelling was relegated to the editing stage of the writing process. Teachers were instructed to throw away their spelling workbooks and some states, including California, prohibited state funding for the purchase of spelling programs.

I, like other ELA teachers, cheerfully relegated spelling to the dumpster. After all, one less subject to teach! And, to be honest, the only spelling teaching I ever did was to pre-test on Monday, throw out a word search or crossword puzzle of the spelling words, tell students to study the list, and post-test on Friday. Hardly teaching at all.

During that period of time I was earning my masters degree as a reading specialist. The buzzword(s) of our program was balanced literacy. Upon reflection, I have no idea of what opposite ideologies were being placed in proper balance. We had no phonics (decoding) training, nor any spelling (encoding) training.

For my masters thesis I was able to convince my supervisor to approve a qualitative historical analysis, not the usual experimental design. I chose the reading instruction included in the McGuffey Readers. For 85 years, these readers were the primary instructional tool for American teachers. The readers were not just for primary students: intermediate and middle school tweeners also received instruction in this series.

The readers consisted of morally-based character education stories, vocabulary, phonics, spelling, and a few comprehension questions. As I pored over the editions from 1836 up to the 1920s, I found certain pedagogical refinements, but the instructional methodology was remarkably consistent. As a publisher, I understand the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy; however, consumers have always been suckered by the “New and Improved” marketing strategy, as well. The readers were largely unchanged, in terms of how reading and spelling were taught.

As you might imagine, the juxtaposition of my masters program reading philosophy and that of the McGuffey Readers caused quite a bit of consternation for me. I had just completed six years of middle school teaching and was now at the high school level. Every professional development class that I took and taught ignored the skills of reading and writing and focused solely on the content of literacy. If I mentioned that spelling had been an integral instructional component for most of our country’s history (including the New England Primer and others prior to the McGuffey Readers), it was only in the context of see what outdated forms of instruction those ill-informed educators used to teach.

However, subsequent to the Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read in 2000, I, like so many other ELA teachers who practiced their skills as reading specialists, was confronted with new, consistent reading research findings  that have made me backtrack and see the value of teaching the reading skills found in the McGuffey Readers. In reading terms, structural (or word) analysis is essential for above grade level, at grade level, and below grade level readers. Computer detection of eye-movement and the correlation of good readers look at the sound-symbol relationships within words was convincing. In other words, phonics and spelling (two sides of the same coin) matter.

I took a job as a district elementary reading specialist in Elk Grove Unified School District (the third largest district in California) and, along with a cadre of other bright program specialists, we were able to help improve elementary student reading proficiency percentiles from 45 to 72% within only a few years Elk Grove Unified School District. However, the same growth was not achieved by middle and high school students. Middle school reading proficiency continued to under-perform in the mid 40 percentiles. Our brilliant District Reading Coordinator and Associate Superintendent for Elementary knew why this was so, but the Associate Superintendent of Secondary Education refused to move entrenched secondary teachers toward reading skills instruction.

The false dichotomy of elementary teachers teaching students to learn to read and secondary teachers teaching students to read to learn continues to contribute to the widely recognized middle school slump in reading ability. Only one-in-six of below grade level readers by grade 6 ever improve to at grade level reading. “In the simplest terms, these studies ask: Do struggling readers catch up? The data from the studies are clear: Late bloomers are rare; skill deficits are almost always what prevent children from blooming as readers” (American Federation of Teachers, as published by Reading Rockets).

Middle Schoolers Need Spelling

Middle School Spelling

As a reading intervention specialist, the Response to Intervention movement of the last decade has largely focused on early primary reading intervention. Few middle schools have adopted comprehensive reading intervention programs, and even fewer high schools. Interestingly enough, I have found more remedial reading and writing programs at the community college level than at the high school level, here in California.

So what can middle school ELA teachers do? Advocate for your students, especially those one-in-six students, to develop effective Response to Intervention reading programs in your school and district. Take the plunge and differentiate reading instruction within your classroom. Risk the behavior management challenges and multi-level lesson plans for the good of your kids.

However, if the above seems un-do-able for now, or if you’re in the been there and done thaphase, what small (yet, significant) step can you take to make a difference for your middle school students? Teach spelling. Not the useless pre-test, word search or crossword puzzle, study, and post-test method I used to employ; not the useless pass out and memorize the list of all “No Excuse” spelling words; not the silly requirement to spell correctly your list of hard SAT, ACT, or Academic Word List vocabulary words, but a comprehensive spelling patterns program for grade-level spelling patterns instruction and remedial spelling patterns instruction. Teaching spelling for a small amount of time per week will give your middle school students the biggest bang for the buck, in terms of reading skills development.

Do your middle school students need spelling instruction? Absolutely? Still unconvinced? I challenge you to administer my FREE comprehensive Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and Recording Matrix. It has 102 words (I did say comprehensive) and covers all common spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules. It only takes 22 minutes and includes an audio file with test administration instructions. Once you see the gaps in your middle school students spelling patterns, you’re going to want to fill those gaps.

Get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment FREE Resource:

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