I did not intend for this blog to be a confessional, yet I feel compelled to confess to yet another of my many missteps in the classroom, this time around spelling instruction. In the January 5, 2021 Psychology Today article “Why Spelling Instruction Should Be Hot in 2021,” J. Richard Gentry highlights the current research around why explicit spelling instruction is critical to growing skilled readers. When the reader sees that Gentry references the work of Mark Seidenberg, Louisa Moats, Daniel Willingham, he/she knows they’re in for some information backed by solid research!
Back to confessions: For a large part of my teaching career, I held on to the belief that explicit spelling instruction was tedious, boring, and unnecessary (likely a fallout from whole language theory). There were several years in my fifth grade classroom where spelling instruction was centered around words that each student wanted to know how to spell. They developed their own weekly spelling lists, built around words from topics we were studying in school, family members’ names, or personal interests. The connections in their word lists were loose, to say the least. In addition to self-made lists (which were a nightmare to manage!), I avoided anything that looked like a worksheet with (God forbid!) targeted spelling patterns. (Worksheets, by the way, could be a topic for an entirely different post.) To make matters worse, I convinced colleagues to adopt this method of spelling “instruction.”
There were also many years when we essentially avoided spelling instruction, altogether. When parents expressed concern about lack of spelling instruction, we assured them that current research (was it Ken Goodman’s Whole Language theory???) didn’t support the need for spelling instruction. My colleagues and I often had conversations that included thoughts like, “Parents crave weekly spelling lists because it’s an easy thing to help their kids with, and they are used to spelling lists from when they were kids in school.” I still don’t know that sending a weekly spelling list home, with a pretest on Monday, writing missed words five times on Wednesday, and posttest on Friday is best practice. But I am confident that explicitly teaching spelling patterns, giving students time to practice decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) words with taught spelling patterns, and providing texts that contain taught spelling patterns is best practice. From Gentry’s article,: “As a general guide for covering the proposed content [a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum] about 15-20 minutes daily or 30 minutes three times per week should be allocated to spelling instruction. Application in writing should be varied and continual.” (Moats, 2005/2006, p. 42-43).
Warning: this paragraph is going to get rather technical… From Gentry’s article, “The spelling to read movement spotlights the importance of spelling for orthographic mapping and spelling’s role in automatic word reading which drives reading comprehension. The critical role of spelling for reading is a focus in recent refereed journals in neuroscience and cognitive psychology as well as in recent books by reading scientists and educators (See for example Seidenberg, 2017; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Moats, 2020.)” Orthographic mapping involves permanently imprinting phoneme and grapheme connections in the brain. More specifically, from Linnea Ehri’s 2014 research article, Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning,: “Orthographic mapping (OM) involves the formation of letter-sound connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory. It explains how children learn to read words by sight, to spell words from memory, and to acquire vocabulary words from print.”
Ehri goes on to describe this development in phases, which is the foundation for EL Education’s K-2 Foundational Skills Block. Those four phases (further broken down into microphases) describe the characteristics of students’ skills acquisition within each phase: Pre-Alphabetic, Partial Alphabetic, Full Alphabetic, and Consolidated Alphabetic. These phases, and their subsequent microphases, form the core of the instruction that our kindergarten through second grade teachers are delivering in Fort Madison Community School District. Further work with spelling patterns, as well as many other reading skills, occurs in EL Education’s ALL Block for third through fifth grades. Yee Haw!!! We finally (as of Fall 2019) have a solid reading curriculum in place! Furthermore, we were able to adopt EL’s 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum in the fall of 2020.
As I reflect on the purpose of this blog, prompted further by questions from my husband (“Tell me again… Why are you spending so much time on this thing if you don’t have to write it???”), I’m reminded that the first goal I listed when launching this blog was “Document my learning journey as a teacher, coach, and student.” I read LOTS of books and articles about reading and writing instruction, but the true test of my understanding about what I read is being able to intelligently (Ha!) recap what I’ve read and learned. Writing about this learning “seals the deal” in my brain… kind of like orthographic mapping! This idea about the importance of (students) writing about what they are learning is highlighted in the amazing book, The Writing Revolution by Dr. Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler… also worthy of an entire blog post of its own.
I’m not confident that I fully understand the intricacies of orthographic mapping or how to seamlessly implement solid spelling instruction, but I am confident that I will continue to read and write about it. In an effort to quit beating myself up over ineffective past practice, I am reminded that the best we can do as educators is, “Know Better, Do Better,” an idea beautifully expanded on in a book of the same name, Know Better, Do Better, by Meredith Liben and David Liben. Thanks, again, for the inspiration to embark on this journey, George Couros! And thanks, readers, for plodding through this messy expedition with me!