Sunday, August 24, 2008

Can you spell W-H-Y? (Please write it 5 times and use it in a sentence.)

This post is a little bit about teaching spelling. It is really about the ludicriousness of the way some things are taught, without looking at the whole -I think this is what Clay Burell calls "schooliness." Spelling just provides an easy example.

Skipping over the cute example of why spell check doesn't work for every situation- you've probably already seen it- how is spelling taught in your corner of the world?
You know the little vignette, so often dragged out to illustrate how schools are bastions of a time gone by, where the person wakes up after 100-year nap and doesn't recognize anything until he steps into a school? I'm sure the napper in the story walked in on a "spelling lesson."

When I first started teaching, I taught spelling the way I had been taught spelling in school. I devised lists of words I thought my students should know how to spell, gave assignments based on the words and then a Friday spelling test. My students generally did pretty well on the tests, but their spelling in their written work never reflected the fact that they had supposedly learned how to spell the words. It didn't take me too long to come to the conclusion that memorizing a list of words did not equal learning.

So, two questions.
1. What is the best way to teach spelling?
2. How come I learned how to spell? Remember, this is how I was taught spelling...I'm a pretty good speller. Did this approach work for me? If so, why?

I'll answer #2 first. I think that I became a good speller because I was (and still am) an avid reader. I was the kid who always had a book in front of my face. My favorite outing was the library (my idea of heaven on earth) or the bookstore (my parents would drop me off at the bookstore and go shopping, coming back an hour or so later to pick me up). I think that looking at so many words spelled correctly built my visual memory for correct spelling. I am the type who writes the word to look at it to see if it is spelled correctly. Of course, this was only one gift that being a reader gave me.

As for #1: There is a program I like called "Words Their Way" that approaches spelling from a developmental standpoint. It uses the term "word study" rather than spelling or phonics. This appeals to me because I think it is appropriate for students to spend some time deconstructing words to find patterns. It uses various centers and activities and is differentiated, based on stages of spelling development. Of course, it takes a lot of work, on the part of the teacher, to implement a program like this in the classroom. It is much easier to follow a spelling book or use a workbook, have students memorize and give weekly tests.

When I first did away with spelling tests, I found that parents were understanding once I explained my reasoning and approach. It was colleagues that were stunned. "You don't give spelling tests?" It was said with disbelief, even anger, as if I was depriving my students.

Ok? So what...I guess I should get to "the point." Now that I'm a parent, I find myself battling against the tide as my child comes home with homework to memorize a list of words and use them in sentences or occasionally in a story. My daughter is only 7 and yet she already claims to "hate school" and "doesn't like reading." This is extremely painful for me to hear, as you can imagine. My daughter spends 7.5 hours a day in school and often comes home with 30 minutes or more of homework consisting of math worksheets and the aforementioned spelling. I am a strong believer that children need down-time, time for playing and relaxing, time to play sports, time to eat dinner as a family, time to go to sleep early, TIME TO READ FOR PLEASURE. I really believe that the best homework, especially for the early elementary grades, is to read for 30 minutes a night. That's it. I could cite a bunch of research, too, to back me up, but this is just my opinion take it for that.


CB said...

Gosh what a nice first half and painful second half.

That you were an avid reader from way back shows not only in your spelling, but in a million other ways from sentence fluency to voice to word choice (yes, I'm a six traits evangelist, so fill in the other three yourself).

And I think your analysis of why you spell well is reasonable (though I always argue that any idiot can correct bad spelling, but finding somebody who can correct a good speller with weak ideas or imagination is not so easy - another insight from the 6 traits hierarchy).

As for that second half - I've seen websites for parents who oppose homework, with tips and advice and community. I wonder if they might help you take back your child's evenings.

Good luck - my heart goes out to you.

Andrea said...

Thanks so much for the comment (hope I referenced schooliness properly ;)
As for nice/painful....I know, it should have been two separate posts: one about spelling and one about homework. I do that a lot on my blog...just throw out a bunch of thoughts and then hit publish.

If you're a 6 traits evangelist (I'll have to find out what that is) I am a reading evangelist. I attribute so much to my love of reading, including academic success, even career choice. I guess it all comes together for me in homework as rote exercise(ie:write each spelling word 5 times and write in a random, pointless sentence) and kids who don't read for pleasure.

CB said...

Six traits is a writing model that aims to produce, er, writing that readers like to read. So the 6 traits, in hierarchic and logical order, are: Ideas and Development; Organization; Voice; Word Choice; Sentence Fluency; Mechanics and Conventions (where spelling reside). The idea is, no lower trait matters if any of the ones above it are weak.

So you'd like the 6 traits, because it's all about authentic writing meant for authentic readers.

No criticism of the org of this post intended. I'm all about organic writing, and my posts are getting more and more expansive these days, short attention spans be damned '=)

This comment would be easier to write if my wife weren't listening to Britney Spears at the computer next to me....