Spelling, as a component of the English language can be challenging to master, as there are many spelling rules that must be understood. For example, we all know the rule of I before E except after C, and we cannot forget the rule of “silent” or “invisible” letters, such as the K in Knife. These are just a couple of the multitude of spelling rules. We know that rote memorization is not the most effective way to learn how to spell, as it can be tedious and demotivating for the student. At RMS, we believe that students need to be 21st century learners, and therefore as teachers, we need to develop 21st century teaching techniques when it comes to spelling. Learning to spell needs to be done in a comprehensive, integrated and fun, logical way, if it is to be effective, and if retention of learning is to be long-term. As a result, here are a few of my suggestions on making learning to spell engaging for students, based on experiences with my Grade 5 class.
For teachers of any grade, it is important to nurture the creative element when learning to spell. One of the easiest ways to do this, particularly at the lower grades, is to combine handwriting and spelling activities with tasks such as cutting out letters from magazines, to make a storyboard using a collage of words. Matching words to images cut out from magazines, followed by creating a story using the specific vocabulary, is another great way to help students develop their cognitive abilities, in a fun and engaging way. Using rote learning as a stand-alone teaching method, such as having students repeatedly write words out by hand is largely ineffective. Students may learn how to spell a word, but it is unlikely that they will understand the meaning or context, and be able to use it correctly in a sentence. However, when rote learning is used in conjunction with other techniques that are supported, teachers and parents can differentiate their instruction and make learning how to spell a significantly more dynamic and pleasurable endeavour. Some of the techniques I have found effective are playing word board games, participating in online spelling games, completing puzzles, discovering word patterns, making generalizations about words, or partaking in a spelling bee (as seen in the image below).
As with most things, particularly in teaching, it is important to remember that a one-size fits all approach is not going to work across all grades and for all children’s learning styles. As students develop their own vocabulary, so too will their own reading and writing skills develop. To aid students across different levels of development, it is imperative then that spelling instruction be taught in conjunction with, and as part of, an authentic reading and writing program, rather than a stand-alone subject taught separately.
In my class, one of the ways that I teach spelling is through storytelling. Very simply, in this task, students are provided with a vocabulary list, not unlike the High Frequency Word (HFW) or Dolce Word list used by teachers in the lower primary grades. They are then instructed to use a set number of words to create a story. While this may not sound like a fun activity, students who participate quickly found themselves immersed in a personal competition to see how many words they could use in the creation of a story. The fun part of the exercise is that there really are no rules, with the exception that their writing has to be fluid and fluent, it has to meet standard and accepted writing criteria, and it has to be grammatically correct, proof-read, edited and revised. Recently in my class, to help students understand what a story might look or sound like, I made up a story using forty-one spelling bee words, and included by name, each of the students in the class, by making them a character in the story. The last time that I did this, students were so engaged, that they readily accepted my challenge to write their own stories. To make the integrated spelling and writing assignment fun, the students could write about any topic and the story could be silly, just as long as it made sense and it was not a collection of unrelated sentences. The length of the story did not matter, as long as it met all of the requirements. Using a rubric to ensure that grading was not subjective, students wrote their stories, and interestingly, some of the funniest stories where the shortest ones. As with any creative endeavour, it is important to acknowledge and validate the students’ efforts by providing them with an opportunity to share their stories.
The Take Away
Spelling can be fun, or better yet, it can be made to be fun when you integrate it with other tasks. With a little creativity, by listening to your students (or children) and by being willing to try new things, teachers and parents can help their students and children to improve their vocabulary (and writing skills) by modifying learning tasks and creating learning situations that appeal to more than one audience in more than one way. Give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised!