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Vivica Fox

Writing and Spelling

Applaud your budding story writer. Hosted by Vivica A. Fox, this episode examines the connection between reading and writing and between spelling and composition. The program features successful methods for encouraging children to write and build their vocabularies. 

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About the program

Writing, spelling, and reading reinforce each other. Spelling helps a child see the patterns in language and understand how words are really put together. By learning spelling, children realize that the English language follows rules, which makes it easier for them to understand those rules when reading or writing. You’ll also meet children’s book author and illustrator Kate Duke (Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One).

This 30-minute program is the fourth episode of our award-winning PBS series, Launching Young Readers.

Spelling patterns

The Johnson School in Charlottesville, Virginia, has its own homegrown reading program called RISE (Reading Initiative for Student Excellence).

Invented spelling

In a Connecticut suburb, first-grade teacher Carol Spinello turns a spelling lesson into something of a game.

Kate Duke: a writer’s secret

Kate Duke, best known for Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One and One Guinea Pig Is Not Enough, frequently visits classrooms to teach kids about plot, character, and setting — without writing down a word!

Blind girl’s story

Kyra is the only blind child attending a public school in Santa Monica, California. With a little extra work, teachers help her meet her full potential.

Parents promote writing

Reading experts explain why parents should create opportunities for their children to write.

Writing poems

In Houston, Lynn Reichle and her second-grade students go on a writing adventure called the Writers’ Workshop.

Watch the program


  • First Place Gold Camera award from the 36th Annual International Film and Video Festival
  • Four Silver Statuettes and a Bronze Statuette from the 24th Annual Telly Awards


Introduction: Writing & Spelling

Funding for the Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series was provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Vivica Fox: Hi, I’m Vivica Fox. When I was growing up in Indianapolis, I loved to write. I used to write about moving to California and becoming a star. Well, you know, it happened. My childhood stories turned into real life. And I’ve never stopped writing. Now I often work with screenwriters to craft my scenes. What I’ve learned is that the eraser is mightier than the pencil. Revising and editing is how you spend most of your time when you’re working on a script.

Vivica: Now, here is a surprising fact. Writing is inseparable from two other skills, reading and spelling. Spelling helps you to see the patterns in our language, to see how words are really built. That means good spellers usually become faster, more fluent readers, too. So if you don’t think spelling is glamorous, remember this. Hollywood loves a quick study. There’s no recipe for writing a hit movie, but there are ways to teach spelling and writing that really work. That’s what this show is all about.

Spelling Patterns (Charlottesville, Virginia)

At the Johnson School in Charlottesville, Virginia, you’ve got to run pretty fast to keep up with the Instructional Coordinator, Dr. Sharon Walpole.

Dr. Sharon Walpole: Okay, so do I need to get an intervention going?

She directs the school’s home-grown reading program called RISE: Reading Initiative for Student Excellence.

Dr. Walpole: How are you, Shawna? You going to have a good day?

Every morning, kids regroup across grade levels for 90 minute of reading instruction.

Announcer voice: “Please dismiss all students to RISE.”

Teachers can focus on a narrow range of skills because groups are based on reading achievement.

These kids are about to find out that spelling makes sense.

Dr. Walpole: Our spelling system is regular. It’s not a mystery, it’s a regular system with some exceptions.

Dr. Walpole: Miss Gorman’s not going to be giving children the message that spelling’s just hard and you have to memorize it. That’s not what spelling instruction at Johnson School is like and I don’t think that’s what sensible spelling instruction’s like anywhere.

Madeline Gorman: Okay, so today for Word Study we’re going to be talking about what we’ve been talking about all week. We’re talking about action words.

Second- and third-grade teacher Madeline Gorman guides Word Study-the explicit and active exploration of words’ features. Rather than memorizing rules, students are discovering spelling patterns.

Ms. Gorman: And we’re going to talk about how we add the “ing” to the verb so we can use it in the past, and in the present and in the future.

Ms. Gorman works with the i-n-g ending because most of her students are starting to spell multisyllabic words.

Ms. Gorman: Okay, so we’re going to take a look at a couple of examples together. I’m going to get you guys to help me read the words and we’ll figure out if it’s a double, drop, or nothing. Okay, so how about this one? Raise your hand if you can read this. Shinelle?

Shinelle: Shaking.

Ms. Gorman: Shaking. Double, drop or nothing?

Shinelle: E-drop.

Ms. Gorman: Shake. Good job, E-drop. Okay, how about this one? Kelsey?

Kelsey: Knitting?

Ms. Gorman: Knitting? What did we do to knitting before we added the -ing?

Kelsey: We put the t.

Ms. Gorman: We added the t. So is that double, drop or nothing?

Kelsey: Double.

Ms. Gorman: Double. Good job. We doubled that t. Okay, how about this one? Trot, can you read that for me?

Trot: Speeding.

Ms. Gorham: Speeding… good job. What’s the base word?

Trot: Oh, speed.

Ms. Gorham: What did you do to it to add the “ing?”

Trot: Nothing.

Ms. Gorham: Nothing. Good. Absolutely nothing. Just added the “ing.”

Dr. Walpole: This is a wonderful time to be restructuring reading programs because we know so much about how children learn to read. It, there’s no real guesswork in it anymore. There is enormous amount of direction available now to people who are really starting to craft reading programs that work for all children.

The RISE program — and the focused efforts of Johnson’s staff–appear to be working. When Dr. Walpole arrived at the school, only one third of students met the Virginia state reading standard at the end of third grade. Two years later, that figure had risen to one half.

Dr. Walpole: My relationship with the teachers here has grown enormously. So that they know that when I’m reading in academic books and trying to cook up new ideas about how to teach our children better, um, that I will respect their response to those ideas. And as they try them in their classrooms I’ll watch, I’ll talk to them about it and we’ll make something out of those ideas that works for our children.

Invented Spelling (Branford, Connecticut)

Carol Spinello and class: …the little yellow chicken thought he’d have a party.

The Mary T. Murphy Elementary School is located in the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut.

First-grade teacher Carol Spinello turns a spelling lesson into something of a game.

Carol and class: “Welcome to my party,” he said to his friends.

Carol: Boys and girls, the next activity we’re going to do using the story of The Little Yellow Chicken is you’re going to plan your very own party.

Class: Yay!!

As kids list things they’d like to bring to the party, Ms. Spinello analyzes spelling mistakes.

Carol: Balloons, good. You might have balloons at your party. What else?

Boy: Bumper cars.

Carol: Bumper cars!

Spelling opens a remarkable window on a child’s mind.

Louisa Moats: If we know how to look at a child’s spelling we can tell what that child understands about word structure, about speech sounds, about how we use letters to represent those. And as it turns out ah, anything that is going to cause trouble with a child’s reading will show up even more dramatically in the child’s spelling and writing.

When a child comes up with an unconventional spelling, it’s not always a sign of trouble.

Carol: I noticed you changed the s to a c. Why did you do that?

Louisa: In fact, kids should be encouraged to try writing words as soon as they know some letters and letter sounds. As they make up spellings, they practice letter-sound connections.

Carol: Tell me what you hear when you say the beginning part. Let’s do the “bump.”

Boy: /B/.

Carol: /B/ /um/ /p/.

Carol: What letters do you hear? Look at me first. What letters do you hear? /B/ /um/ /p/.

Boy: B.

Carol: You have your B.

Boy: O.

Carol: What makes the /um/ sound?

Ms. Spinello uses inventive spelling to coax her students to think hard about the sounds within words.

Boy: U.

Carol: Good for you. Good for you. And listen to what’s following that “u”… /B/ /um/ /p/. /B/ /um/ /p/. What letter is that? Mmmmm.

Boy: M.

Carol: M. So let’s try that again… /B/ /um/ /p/. So what two letters should go before the P.

Boy: U M?

Carol: U M. Good for you!

Working with a kid’s first efforts to string letters together is a great way to show that spelling is a puzzle that everyone can solve once the rules are learned.

Louisa: It is appropriate and in fact beneficial for young children in kindergarten and the beginning of first grade to sound out words they don’t yet know how to spell because if they sound out a word and write it inventively they are exercising their phonemic awareness abilities. And using what they know about sounds and symbols.

Carol: What do we know about G as a letter? It’s a tricky consonant. What do we know about it?

Boy: It makes two sounds.

Carol: It makes two sounds. It makes that hard sound and that soft sound. And I think you used it here for the soft sound.

Carol: Sitting with that child and saying to them, “Wow, I can see here that you know that g makes two sounds because I can see why you used the word g here.” That is that teachable moment. That’s when I can say to them, “you are right.” That g is making that soft sound but in this case this does begin with the letter j.

Kids shouldn’t get the idea that conventional spelling doesn’t matter. But inventive spelling does help young readers discover spelling patterns on their own.

Carol: It sounded like a j.

It’s an important step on the path to becoming a good speller and, ultimately, a good reader.

Carol: Doing it on a worksheet isn’t going to mean anything to that child but when it’s in their writing, a piece that they own and that they’re proud of, they’re going to be more apt to listen to a particular lesson that pertains to what they need to spell that work correctly.

Katie Duke: A Writer’s Secret

Vivica: Inventiveness is only one stage in learning to spell, but it’s the essence of good writing. One author/illustrator of children’s books who never stops inventing is Kate Duke, best known for “When Isabel Tells a Good One” and “One Guinea Pig is Not Enough.” From time-to-time, she’ll drop in on a school to teach kids about plot, character and setting. And she pulls it off without writing down a word.

Katie Duke: I’m going to draw a mouse or a guinea pig. How many people say mouse? How many people say guinea pig? I like to go to schools because it just renews my feeling of what children are like. So I’m going to draw a guinea pig first. I mean, I remember myself as a child pretty well. This kind of reinforces it. This is a great way to keep in touch with my readers. I find out what makes children laugh, what doesn’t make them laugh, what their current interests are. They come up with great ideas. It boosts me along.

Katie: This is Daffodil, the rich lady mouse. Now, she looks like she’s gotten all dressed up to go somewhere. She’s going to be bringing some flowers to somebody. You want to see them at the pool now?

Class: Yeah.

Katie: It’s a sunny day. I think he needs to have his shades on. And does his friend ever come? When I draw a story with the children, I encourage them to give me ideas.

Class: No.

Katie: It doesn’t come. Ugh, a mystery. That would make an exciting story. So what is Hubert going to do? Is he going to run back to the pool do you think? At some point, it becomes necessary to make…to bring in some action. And the best way to bring in action is to invent a bad guy. Oh, look. Footprints have clause. Yikes. Is Hubert brave enough to follow them?

Class: Yes.

Katie: Yes. He follows the footprints and he finds himself at a? Where? He goes into the woods.

Class: A haunted house.

Katie: Who could live in this haunted house?

Class: A big cat.

Katie: A big cat. Oh, no. Cat does not look friendly. Biding his time. Waiting until Daffodil comes just into the right spot. And then he’s going to pounce. I keep on asking questions and drawing pictures to go along with them to keep the story developing. Look. Hubert looks kind of upset. I try to encourage children to take chances, not be afraid, especially in terms of using their imagination. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a short piece, something that had happened to me over the summer. The teacher gave me the first A I’d ever had on anything I wrote. And she wrote at the bottom, lovely. That was the first moment that I thought of being a writer. I would say to teachers to pay attention to each child and what they have to say. Let them speak. A sword fight. Oh, well.

Class: That would go under question books as well.

Blind Girl’s Story (Santa Monica, California)

At John Muir Elementary School, these kids are just beginning second grade.

Susan Gillam: Put your thinking caps on. Good job. Okay. You’re going to think of lots of ideas for writing. Raise your hand and I’ll call on you.

One students is looking forward to getting more practice with her favorite activity, writing.

Susan: Any other ideas? Okay, Kyra.

Kyra: What you’re going to do this weekend.

Susan: That’s a great idea.

Kyra is the only blind child attending public school in Santa Monica. It takes a little extra work to help Kyra meet her full literary potential. The school district supplies an orientation and mobility specialist as well as a brail teacher and a part-time aide. Kyra’s schoolmates are also happy to lend a hand. One of those who had to work especially hard was Kyra’s first grade teacher.

Susan: Teaching Kyra in first grade required a lot more work. Every single thing that I was going to have visually for the other students, I had to have brailed for Kyra two weeks in advance.

Kyra: I had a fish.

Kyra’s mother does her own part to propel her daughter’s education.

Kyra: My fish never bit me. I really liked my fish.

She raised Kyra just as sighted kids should be raised to become readers, lots of reading aloud, an early introduction to letters, and opportunities to play with words. Kyra’s mother has learned to set the bar high.

Kyra: My sister had a fish, too, but hers lived longer.

Barbara: My expectations for Kyra evolve every day. When we first learned that she was blind, one of the questions I asked which seems so silly now is, well, how will she learn to smile?

Barbara: That’s really a great story. He never does say how I got the fish to die.

Barbara: I quickly learned that smiling comes from inside. It doesn’t come from mimicking what you see from somebody else. We realized that she had a great interest in writing, an enthusiasm for writing when she was four or five years old and she started writing stories. She really learned to write before she learned to read. I love the essay that she wrote about Martin Luther King. And I love that essay in part because at one point she mixes up who’s black and who’s white. And she writes about how Rosa Parks was white.And she was arrested because she didn’t give up her seat to a black person. And I just love that aspect of the essay.

To better prepare her for success in a sighted world, Kyra’s parents decided to enroll her in public school rather than in a school for the blind.

Barbara: With proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a mere physical nuisance. The rest of the world needs to learn to recognize the capabilities of what blind people can do. And once they do, then a lot opens up.

With the help of her parents and the staff at her school, Kyra is reaching new heights as a writer.

Parents Promote Writing (Seattle, Washington)

Judy Britt: I had a little girl in my classroom who was reading the lunch menu for the day. She was all excited that she could read the words. She put her finger up to the menu and pointed to the syllables as she was saying hamburger, French fries. And then she got to the word catsup. Catsup. “Oh, Ms. Brent. We’re having cat soup for lunch today.”

It comes naturally for parents to help their kids develop all kinds of skills.

Hamilton McCulloh: Good.

At least as important as learning to throw a ball is gaining the skill to turn a phrase with words on a page. Reading experts say parents should create opportunities for their children to write.

Hamilton: What is it called when it’s a grand slam?

Connor: Grand salami.

Kids who write get the chance to sound out words and translate sounds into letters.

Hamilton: Connor wrote a letter to Brett Boone today who plays second base for the Mariners. He’s a big baseball fan, big Mariners fan. It’s just another opportunity for him to sit down and write something.

Dr. Barbara Foorman: If you think about it, writing is the end coding of speech print. So as I spell the word cat, I’m sitting there and I’m segmenting the sounds in speech, C-at. And I’m writing them down. So you’re actually going through the alphabetic principle. And your ability to do that informs your reading, which is a decoding of print sound. So these two processes go hand-in-hand. We start reading in kindergarten and grade one. We should start writing just as soon.

Maureen McCulloh: No, it’s art-i-choke.

Connor: Oh, I thought it was artchuck.

Maureen: What vowel do you think it is?

Connor: I.

Maureen: That would be right.

Having a child make a shopping list is an easy way to practice spelling.

Maureen: What makes that Ch sound? Like chewing?

Connor: C-h.

Maureen: That’s correct. Apples.

Connor: Okay. A-p-p-e-l. I mean, l-e.

Hamilton: He gets more confident every time he writes something. And he pays very close attention to punctuation, spelling. He’ll ask if he needs to with some help on something. How’s the letter going, Connor?

Connor: Good.

Writing is a lot more than spelling out words. It’s the process of giving shape to ideas. As Connor composes a letter, he must think about this audience; in this case, his grandmother, as well as his reason for writing.

Hamilton: And just get the process of writing something, a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s something that we talked about. And it’s just good for his writing skills.

Writing and reading reinforce each other. As children become better writers, they’re probably going to read better, spell better, and think more clearly, too.

Writing Poems (Houston, Texas)

Lynn Reichle: Where have the unicorns gone? Into the flowery moment of dawn.

Lynn Reichle and her second-grade students are about to begin a writing adventure.

Lynn: And aren’t her words just wonderful?

Developed at Columbia University, the framework Ms. Reichle uses is called The Writers’ Workshop.

Lynn: She just didn’t say that it went to a flower, did she? No. To a valley of flowers.

The tight link between reading and writing in this program appeals to the Principal, Dr. Anne McClellan.

Dr. Anne McClellan: The reason we chose our writing program is there’s research out there that says we need to make writing real for the kids. And also to use best models and we thought why not connect the reading and writing which is what the research says and showcase the author’s voice through wonderful pieces of literature.

Lynn: I would like to get some suggestions of what you are going to begin with today. Leila?

Leila: Where do leaves go when they blow away.

Lynn: Yeah, where do they go? Zach.


Lynn: Rebecca?

Rebecca: Where do shells go in the ocean?

Not all teachers present writing as explicitly as Ms. Reichle.

Dr. Foorman: A lot of teachers were not teaching writing. We began to investigate the few teachers that were and we saw not only were their children better writers but they were also better readers.

It’s now time to move from planning to the next stage of writing: drafting.

The kids fan out and begin their own stories.


Most kids work alone, but Ms. Reichle is always available to help…and to introduce them to the next critical stage of writing: revising.

Girl 1: I need it. How could it leave me in shame? Although I know there’s no one to blame. Just like that, the seasons run by. Bye bye spring. Adios summer. That’s a bummer.

Girl 2: Where do the bees run?

Lynn: Okay.

Girl 2: Eager to leave the deadly hum of silence, pass cities of waves, soaring in the air, past yesterday’s cry of the rooster, past opposites of colors.

Lynn: Even though you repeated the word “past” a lot, it didn’t make me want to stop hearing it, so that’s good. I like that.

Girl 2: It just put an exciting touch to it.

Lynn: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. Reichle arms her students with powerful guidelines for editing-the final stage of writing.

Lynn: We’re not going to use tired words, right? And you, you know what some of the tired words are, right? Jessica?

Girl: Pretty.

Lynn: Pretty. What else?

Boy: Beautiful.

Lynn: Beautiful.

Lynn: And that’s where the literature comes in also. These books are filled with beautiful language and sophisticated words. And that also helps them to figure out another way to say it.

Girl: What if we need to use the tired words?

Lynn: If you need to use a tired word, I want you to think really hard another way you can say it.

For the kids, the best part of Writer’s Workshop is sharing their stories. And research shows that peer discussion helps them become better writers, too.

Lynn: Did you circle your favorite line? Circle your favorite line. Your favorite one so far.

Boy 1: Where does time go? It goes into yesterday and then tomorrow, and then it goes into today. Where does time go? It ticks away in the day.

Girl 3: Where do shells go? In the deep ocean blue, in the bumpy lumpy sand, where do shells go?

Boy: Where have the Pegasus gone?

Writing is grueling for many children, but Writers’ Workshop makes it easier. With a structured approach and a gifted teacher like Ms. Reichle, these children are developing their skills-and even discovering that writing can be fun.

Lynn: I think how this helps the children—it makes them become life-long writers. It makes them comfortable; they have no inhibitions about writing.

These students are preparing for the challenges ahead, gaining the power to write their own happy endings.

Close & Credits

Vivica: My favorite character from childhood was Curious George. He wanted to learn about everyone and everything. I’m a lot like that, too. I think my own curiosity springs from my own curiosity springs from my early experiences with reading and writing. Here’s where a teacher like my first grade teacher, Mrs. Jones, can make a big difference. If you teach children to read, write and spell and then inspire them to explore for themselves, you’ll get kids with imagination and the power to think. And then like my man Curious George, they’ll be ready to take on the world.

Announcer: To learn more about Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers and how you can help a child learn to read, visit PBS online. You’ll find tips for parents, classroom strategies for teachers, and profiles of children’s book authors, all at [music]

Announcer: Funding for the Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series was provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. You may order the five part Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series on VHS or DVD. Individual episodes are also available on VHS. To order, call 1-800-228-4630.