Word Study= The New Spelling

Here’s  an article that I wrote for the upcoming Window- our quarterly publication for parents.

If you are of my generation, memories of spelling instruction go something like this:  a list of words was given out on a Monday, you spent the week memorizing the words, and you were tested on the spelling of words on Friday.  Often, you forgot the words by Monday, and the whole process started over again.  The instruction was often disconnected to anything authentic, and the whole exercise was rather meaningless.  You had little opportunity to manipulate word concepts or apply critical thinking skills.

We use a more modern approach to teaching spelling these days- Word Study.  The umbrella term word study includes teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and vocabulary development.  This instructional model teaches students many strategies that will help them grow as readers and spellers.

The Word Study approach taps into students’ natural curiosity by asking them to think about words and the way they work.  Students analyze words for patterns and features so they can generalize beyond isolated, individual examples to entire groups of words that are spelled the same way. The Word Study approach has students asking questions such as “What do I hear in this word?  What patterns are in this word?  What other word is this word like?”

This approach also teaches students to use this same kind of critical thinking to learn new vocabulary.   When students apply this analytic lens to unknown words they encounter in their reading they ask “What do I know about this word that will help me understand it?” For example, after studying the Latin root –rupt, a student can use what he knows about the words erupt, disrupt or interrupt to help him figure out the meanings of the words rupture, corrupt, and bankrupt.  When students think about words and their relationships with each other, their vocabulary grows exponentially.

Like reading and writing, spelling develops along a continuum.  At different stages of development, students tackle different kinds of spelling patterns.  In our K-5 classes, Word Study instruction is differentiated based on student need.  Teachers use a common assessment tool to evaluate students, determine their developmental level, and group them for instruction.  Once students are placed in the appropriate group, the teacher will use an instructional sequence that will help students move to the next developmental level.  Students are reassessed periodically and the grouping can change as needed.

On one end of the spectrum of spelling development, you will find students studying the basics of phonics: letter sounds and sounds at the beginnings and endings of words.  As they progress to the next stage, vowel sounds and letter blends are introduced.  Next, students will study how endings and syllables come together to form longer words.  Later, as students become fluent in spelling, the focus of word study shifts to studying how meaning influences spelling.   They will study prefixes, suffixes, base words and word roots to generate the spelling and meaning of literally thousands of words.

The core activity of our Word Study program is sorting words.  This is the process of grouping sounds and words by specific characteristics and patterns.  Current research on how the brain works teaches us that the brain likes to perceive and generate patterns, making connections between information rather than storing information in individual tidbits.  Students sort words and make discoveries about the way the English language works. They compare and contrast word features and discover similarities and differences within the categories.  This hands-on approach means that students cannot be passive receptors in the learning process.  They have to actively engage in the construction of knowledge, which means they are more likely to retain and be able to use what they are learning.

In the Lower School, we began the shift towards using the Word Study approach last year.  Our primary resource is the Words Their Way program by Shane Templeton, et al..

Providing robust Word Study instruction requires teacher expertise.  In March, we look forward to hosting one of the authors of our Word Study program, Dr. Shane Templeton, for three days of professional learning.  Dr. Templeton has spent his career researching spelling and vocabulary development.  He will help us learn more about this area of literacy development and ways to improve our instructional practice as well.

Spelling instruction looks different than it did when we went to school, and it should.  We know more now about how spelling develops over the course of childhood, and more about how the brain works.  At TAS, we are proud to offer a program that combines the most current research with the best instructional strategies so that we can prepare our students not just to spell, but to think as well.

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