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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Should We Teach Spelling? Part 2

May 8, 2015

My last blog entry was written in response to a fifth-grade teacher who wanted to know about spelling instruction. Although teachers at her school thought that formal spelling instruction, like working with word lists, was a bad idea, it turns out that such teaching is beneficial to kids. The same can be said for studying word structure and its implications for spelling, pronunciation, and meaning.

The best reviews of this research have consistently found that spelling instruction leads to spelling improvement, but it also leads to improvements in reading and writing, so it can be quite important.

A part of the original letter that I did not include in last week’s entry:

I agree my students have poor spelling abilities but I try and address this issue incidentally through my Writer's Workshop. I would be one to argue the time issue as I would see a separate spelling program as one more thing I must fit into my short 75- minute block. What are your thoughts on Spelling instruction at a 5th grade level?

In other words, she might be open to dealing with spelling more directly (and research finds that explicit systematic spelling instruction outperforms this more incidental Writer’s Workshop kind of approach), but she — like many teachers — is struggling with how to get it all in; a 75-minute English language arts period is pretty small.

In fact, it is so small, that I’m unsure that I could get spelling shoehorned into the mix of responsibilities, standards, and requirements. I start from the premise that students, to reach the levels of literacy that we want for them, are going to have to have about 120 minutes per day of reading and writing work, not 75 or 90. (In the primary grades, or with older students with seriously impaired reading, I’ll go as high as 180 minutes per day).

That doesn’t mean that the ELA period has to be more than 75 minutes, but it sure means that some of the essential work kids need to do with (1) words, (2) fluency, (3) comprehension/ learning from text, and (4) writing are going to have to take place beyond the ELA classroom. The idea that the math, social studies, and science teachers aren’t going to have to address any of these issues is a pipe dream.

I devote a quarter of the time to each of these critical areas of concern. That would mean 30 minutes in this case would be devoted to word knowledge (notice I didn’t say “word study”— that is an activity, not an outcome). I’m saying that I would spend approximately 30 minutes per day, or 2.5 hours per week, working on increasing students ability to read words (decoding), to understand word meanings (vocabulary), and to spelling (which relates both to decoding and vocabulary).

To accomplish that, in this case, would require expanding these students opportunities to learn to read and write throughout the school day. This is best achieved by having the teachers who share the kids come to some agreements about who will do what. If we are going to spend 2.5 hours per week on student writing, how much of that will take place during the social studies class? If we are going to spend 2.5 hours per week analyzing words and learning vocabulary, how much of that will come in science? And so on. (Past experience tells me it is best to make these commitments by the week rather than the day).

Once that is determined, then it becomes possible to see who needs to do what. Perhaps, students will study vocabulary formally in some other classes, freeing you up to focus on the spelling issues.

Additional instructional guidance:

  1. Always link spelling with either phonics or vocabulary meaning rather than as a stand-alone concern. Thus, if you’re a primary grade teacher and you’re teaching phonics, then make spelling, and not just reading, a targeted outcome. Have kids trying to write words, not just reading them. And, if you are teaching older students who have largely mastered their decoding skills, then focus the spelling work on word interpretation (structural analysis, Greek and Latin roots, affixes, and the like), and having them writing the words based on their knowledge of spelling and not just reading them, makes sense.
  2. Never spend more than 15 minutes on spelling per day.
  3. Formal spelling instruction does not have to take place everyday; 2-3 times per week is probably sufficient at Grade 5.
  4. Don’t hesitate to include spelling work as part of homework (spelling assignments can be easily constructed — more easily than can be done with more complex work, and parents can help with spelling, even when they can’t help with other work).
  5. Memorization is important in spelling, and drill-and-practice can play a small but valuable role. But do NOT have the students writing the spelling words 10 times each as practice. That doesn’t help with memorization (as I can copy something by rote without learning it), and it seems more like a punishment than an assignment aimed at learning. Do have students trying to write a word from memory (take a picture of the word with your eyes, and then with the word removed try to write it — practice until you can).

I would strongly recommend the purchase of a book like Words Their Way or the Spelling Connections series to guide your instruction in this area. Lots of good advice and guidance there.

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