Frequently Asked Questions

Tell me about your spelling curriculum.

My spelling program focuses on really teaching kids; every week I'm teaching kids lessons that help them learn something new about how words are spelled and how to have better spelling in their writing.

Back to top

How much time should teachers and kids spend on spelling?

I'd recommend, at most, one strategy topic and one pattern topic each week, depending on what you think your kids already know and need to learn. The lessons vary somewhat in length; many can be done in fifteen minutes or so, while others may run longer or can be carried out over two days. I've also suggested follow-up ideas, often involving just a brief return to the idea as part of writers' workshop later in the week. I believe that in most classrooms today not much time is spent on spelling, in contrast to classrooms as recently as the 1980s, when traditional spelling textbooks were close to universal. Those programs typically had about 20 minutes of activities a day in a one-week unit, in practice mostly done as seatwork, although they all recommended active teaching as well. Most teachers don't use them anymore, and, in my experience, often don't have much of a spelling curriculum because they aren't sure what to use instead of a textbook. Yet many teachers believe that they should be spending fifteen or twenty minutes a day on spelling and do so through commercial programs (other than traditional textbooks), ideas from books they've found at teacher stores, or ideas of their own devising. What I'm proposing is that yes, we should teach spelling, but in a way that builds on the writing kids are doing and their natural interest in language and in ways that promote active thinking and don't take up tons of time. So let's see what that might look like.

Back to top

How should I fit these lessons into my literacy curriculum?

It can be useful to think of this curriculum in terms of what it looks like during the course of a week, and then again during the course of a whole year. Picture a classroom where writers' workshop takes place every day. On Monday, a spelling strategy lesson could be part of that day's workshop: for instance, inviting children to work with a partner to see, after finding a particular word (chosen by them or provided by you) in the dictionary, how they know they've found the right word. The lesson would also include a bit of explicit teaching on your part that would help them carry out the task. After that lesson but before moving into the rest of the workshop, you might ask them to do a brief free write about what they learned about using the dictionary.

On Wednesday, you might do a lesson about how to tell if words start with a c or a k, ask the class to keep an eye out for words starting with the /k/ sound as they read and write that week, and check in on Thursday. Thus you have two lessons, of about 15 minutes each, and two shorter "touching base" moments.

The lessons are written so that carrying them out in the order they're written works well, but you may also choose to teach lessons according to what you see in your students' invented spelling patterns and spelling strategies. Appropriate indicators are listed with each lesson, but here's one example: if your students suddenly start realizing that they're still not finding a lot of their misspellings when they edit, it would be the perfect teachable moment for a few lessons on how to find all the words whose spellings need fixing (Strategies 26, 28).

Not all lessons will work or be needed in every classroom or grade level. Although there are 65 lessons in this curriculum, your students probably won't need all of them; they're likely to either already know some of the material or not be ready for it yet, depending on grade level. Within a school, lessons can be repeated at different grade levels, with greater sophistication as kids get older. You also might start out the year with just one lesson a week, follow your instincts as to what's likely to be useful at any given time, and, particularly on weeks when no topic seems obvious, pick lessons that the kids just might be interested in. The suggested sequence is there for those who'd like it, but being spontaneous and responsive to what you see kids doing already can also be very effective.

Back to top

Will my child be learning lists of words?

No, because we've learned that this isn't a good use of time (Wilde, 1990). Kids given a big list of words may be able to learn them for the test, but they typically don't transfer them to their writing. What we will do is help your child figure out what words he's missing a lot in his writing and "learn them cold" so that he'll never get them wrong again. But we focus on only one word at a time so that it's really learned forever.

Back to top

What's this invented spelling I keep hearing about? Isn't spelling just supposed to be correct?

The term invented spelling came along in 1971 when some researchers (Chomsky, 1971; Read, 1971) realized that young kids, preschoolers in fact, were writing words before they started to read, when all they knew was the names of the letters. They were truly inventing these spellings, since they came up with them on their own without any teaching. We now use the term to talk about any spelling that a writer comes up with on her own; these spellings don't come out of thin air but are based on what the writer knows about language. The great thing about inventing a spelling rather than asking somebody is that it gets you to think; in fact, first graders who wrote with invented spelling did better on tests of phonics and spelling than those who didn't (Clarke, 1989).

Back to top

So when do you expect kids to spell correctly?

It's gradual. Here are the components, which are typically happening simultaneously: First, kids pick up a lot of words from their reading. Second, in class we explore how to get more words right in their first draft; for instance, maybe the word is on the word wall where they can see it quickly, or there are words they use a lot that they should just memorize. Third, they learn how to edit their writing for spelling. These processes are all going on all year, and kids still use invented spelling for words that they don't know when they're first writing.

Back to top

What can I do to help my child be a better speller?

Lots! The most important one is to encourage your child to read, because that's how we learn to spell most of our words. If she's writing at home, you can talk with her about how she comes up with her spellings and how she edits for spelling. You don't want to be too picky or heavy-handed about this; for most children, editing a few spellings makes more sense than trying to get every word right, which can be tedious until they're a little older. Dictionaries and spellcheckers make good gifts; I can recommend some. Check the annotated bibliography.

Back to top

What are spelling journals and how are they used?

We're all familiar with writing across the curriculum, and spelling, just like other subject areas, can be a focus of writing. I'm therefore suggesting that you invite your students to keep a spelling journal. The spelling journal is intended to be both a resource collection (such as lists of common words, pages for the students to fill in words they want to remember, or activities done during your weekly lessons) and a home for children's thoughts and ideas about spelling. At the end of most of the lessons, I've included a writing topic for children to do in their journals. Each writing idea is meant to be a suggestion for reflecting on the lesson, and shouldn't be seen as a rigid prompt.

Here's how I'd introduce the journal: Every week when we do spelling lessons, I'm going to ask you to write something about what you thought about the lesson or what you learned. We're going to have spelling journals to keep all these ideas in one place. This will also be a place to keep lists of words you want to learn or have trouble with, and anything else that relates to spelling. When I ask you to write about a lesson, I'll give you an idea or a title, but these are just starting points; you can go in your own direction, and might even want to come back a day or two later and add some more. At the end of the year, it'll be interesting to look back and see how your ideas and thoughts about spelling have changed.

You may want to initiate the use of the journal at the beginning of the school year by asking students to write about one or more of these topics or others: What do you think about spelling? What are your spelling goals for this year? How did you learn to spell?

Writing entries in the spelling journal serves two purposes. First, it gets students thinking, in particular by reframing their new knowledge and putting it in their own words. Second, it's an assessment tool for the teacher. You can read every student's journal entry after a single lesson to get a sense of how it went and what they seem to have learned.

Alternatively, you can read a single student's entire journal, particularly a student you're concerned about, to see whether she's grasping the knowledge contained in the lessons. Additionally, lists of words and other information in the journal are, of course, useful resource tools for kids.

Back to top

Is this approach to spelling more focused on exploration or mastery?

The focus is on exploration rather than mastery. Let me explain. Have you, as an adult writer, mastered when to use double letters in words? Of course not. (Even if you think you have, you'll see!).Apropos of this, I recently attended the Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is just what the title sounds like, except that it has adult actors playing the twelve year-old characters. At one point one of the contestants was asked to spell a word, and he spelled part of it, and then thought out loud, "One l or two"? A woman in the audience in front of me whispered "one" to her companion, but I knew it was two, and so did the character. How did I (and he) know? Well, I just knew the word (as did the character, or rather, the playwright), and that's why adults generally get double letters right. The principles involved are too complicated to master beyond a certain point, but we can certainly explore them. For instance, a word that ends with a consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) pattern usually doubles the consonant before a suffix starting with a vowel, as in saddest. That's worth teaching to elementary school students. But a lesson on it doesn't mean they'll always remember to do it, or that they'll know that c usually turns into ck when you double it, but not always, so that you'd write "We were picnicking when they sicced their dog on us." And why do the British write travelled when we write traveled? The double letters in other words serve functions like indicating a preceding short vowel (comma), but then why doesn't delicate have a double l? Surprisingly, linguists have theorized and convincingly demonstrated that giraffe has a double f to show that the stress is on the second syllable (Chomsky and Halle, 1968). But then there's carafe. Why do kiss, hall, and puff end with double letters? Because we usually don't end words with single s, l, or f. (Though only in some cases: they're single in cats, awful, and half because these are, respectively a plural, a suffix, and a blend).

Back to the idea of exploration versus mastery. If I were to teach you every single rule for consonant doubling in English, it would be very unlikely that you'd master them in the sense of always applying them correctly to a word you didn't already know how to spell, particularly given that any word could potentially have a double consonant. Be honest now—do you sometimes forget which letters are doubled or not in accommodate? I could tell you the rules involved (the m's show that the preceding vowel is short, the ac is a suffix that remains intact when preceding another c), but would you have mastered them well enough to apply them the next time you got stuck on accelerate? (And hey, why isn't there a double l in accelerate?) You get the idea. The rules for many spelling patterns are complicated, and it's not always clear when they apply and when they don't.

Fortunately, as a literate adult you get the double letters right most of the time. Why? Two reasons: you've seen the words already, and you've absorbed information about how the pattern works, even if you can't put a rule into words. You use double p's in apple and poppy because they just wouldn't look right otherwise (APLE and POPY—ugh!) But that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile, and sort of fun, to learn and speculate about why we have double letters and how they work. Kids tend to find these explorations interesting, since they know that they still have a lot to learn about written language, and any topic is interesting if you approach it in a way that promotes discovery. Understanding the value of what children will get out of these lessons can ensure that we don't have inappropriate expectations of mastery. (However, as we'll see, each lesson does have goals, and student learning can and should be assessed.)

Back to top

How do I work with parents who expect their children to use spelling lists?

So many teachers have told me that they've stuck to a traditional, word-list based spelling program because parents seem to expect or indeed demand it. They don't expect medicine or clothing for kids to be the same as when they were young, so why do they want spelling preserved in amber? I think it's not so much nostalgia (too many adults have bad memories of spelling tests!) as it is stereotypes. Spelling lists have an air of rigor, tough expectations of kids that may also seem to be prerequisite for them to get by in a world that prizes perfect spelling. When teachers don't follow this model, they're suspected of being lax or permissive.

In a phrase, here's what we need to do: share our knowledge with parents. The reason we're thinking about different approaches to spelling these days is more like why medicine has changed than why fashion has changed: we know more than we used to. The two big things that we've learned about are how spelling develops and how the writing process works. That's why this curriculum deals with patterns—since research (see Wilde, 1992, for citations) tells us that kids go through levels of acquiring them on their own as they go through the elementary school years—and strategies—since research, including my own (Wilde, 1987), shows that writers can use a number of different ways to come up with spellings and edit their work for correct spelling.

How should we go about telling parents what we're doing and why? Either in person or in writing is valuable. Wouldn't it be fun to do a parent night on spelling? You could work on a lesson or two with them; One-Second Words (Strategy 9) and The /k/ Sound (Pattern 2) work well with adults. The FAQs below can also be used for presentations to and discussions with parents.

We can talk with parents individually as well. I once had a very successful conference with a mom who was concerned about her son's spelling; all I did was walk her through a sample of his writing, pointing out why he spelled words the way he did and focusing on what his spellings revealed he knew about written language. (The CD-ROM included with this curriculum has examples of my conversations about kids' spellings.) This student wasn't a particularly strong speller compared to his classmates, but he was where he was, so what was most useful was to show evidence of knowledge and thinking, to reassure his mom that he wasn't just a bad speller but was an actively developing one.

If you have a newsletter for parents, you can include occasional information about your spelling program, as well as spelling stories and vignettes from your classroom (like the bananna story I began with). If using this curriculum is a big change from what you've done with spelling before, you may want to send a letter home at the beginning of the year—but I know you're wondering what exactly to say to parents, so I've provided answers to frequently asked questions to provide suggestions for your communications with them.

Back to top

What is the role of spelling in standards and testing?

If a state or school district has standards for writing, spelling and other conventions will almost always be part of them. Most frequently, there are multiple standards for writing that include an expectation that as students go through elementary school, their spelling will be increasingly readable and then increasingly correct. It's often included as part of a "conventions" standard, sometimes under the framework of the six traits of good writing (Culham, 2003).

Spelling used to be assessed by standardized tests, typically by asking the student to pick the one misspelled or correctly spelled word out of a group of four and bubble in the answer. Today, it's most common for spelling to be part of an assessment that involves writing to a prompt, so that spelling is considered in the context of the student's writing. This is, I believe, a positive change in the direction of more authenticity and relevance. Students may or may not be allowed to use dictionaries and other references when taking these state tests; I believe it's best if they are, since the assessment then measures kids' ability to spell under realistic conditions and isn't so dependent on their natural spelling ability and which words they happen to know.

How can teachers best work with standards and testing in the area of spelling? The good news is that asking students to work toward an age-appropriate level of spelling correctness is a perfectly reasonable expectation, much more so than asking them to know how to spell a fairly random selection of words. This entire curriculum is geared toward that goal, and, I believe, will help students do well with spelling when writing for a state assessment.

Is there anything more specific that teachers can be doing to help students prepare for the tests, not in the sense of skewing the results but rather in order to help them demonstrate well what they're able to do? As with all writing, good self-expression is the main point, but teachers can help children realize that this is a situation in which spelling does indeed matter, and that they want to show the test scorers how well they can spell if they're really trying to get it right. Should you encourage students to stick to words they know how to spell, particularly if dictionaries aren't allowed? Well, the trade-off is that their writing will be weakened if they aren't using the full expressive range of their vocabulary, and test scorers will presumably be forgiving if a fourth grader misspells meteorologist, while giving her credit for knowing the word in the first place.

Some teachers have told me that since spelling and other conventions are part of state standards and testing, they feel they should have a traditional, list-based spelling curriculum. But this, despite its other drawbacks, isn't even a good fit with contemporary assessment of writing. It seems most logical that if students are being assessed on how they spell when they write, the best preparation is a curriculum that helps them spell better when they write.

Back to top

Copyright© 2019 Heinemann. A division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All Rights Reserved.