Friday, July 29, 2016

Spelling and the Writing Portfolio


Tired of those pesky, endless spelling mistakes? Begin by celebrating writing—cuddling up with your child on the couch and happily reviewing last year’s writing . . .

Each home school year, my children engaged in weekly freewriting and some type of written narration (on either history, literature or science). Each month, we had a writing project that was taken through full editing.

Also each month, all of their writing was shared and individual pieces were selected (by my kids) to go in their writing portfolio. These selections included favorite freewrites, drawings, cartoons and fully edited projects. The history narrations went into a history portfolio, as well. Science tended to remain as separate projects.

Each fall, we began our school year by sitting in our pajamas watching the neighbors head for the bus. We were usually excited because we traditionally spent that first week doing three things:
  1.      Going on local field trips
  2.      Creating photo albums of summer memories
  3.      Reviewing our writing portfolios from the prior year
While reviewing our writing portfolios, we discussed what we liked about the prior year’s work, and what we wanted to repeat or change. Inevitably, we would come upon some wonderful piece of writing that was a favorite, albeit messy, sloppy, or poorly spelled. Inevitably, a child would frown over a piece because it wasn’t “good enough.” Of course, I would express why I liked the writing piece (content appreciation), but I would also explore why they did not like it anymore. Usually each child would express these concerns: sloppy penmanship, misspelled words, or some organizational flaw.

In these moments, I would pull out a notepad and together we would set some goals for the school year. We would make note of writing strengths to build on. Or writing ideas to explore. (My kids were always suggesting projects!) But also, we would decide on those handful of words that needed to be spelled correctly, and then we would select which word was going to be the priority spelling target for the month. Typical words might include: went, when, they, come, coming, some, because, sure, write, were, where, etc.

I would save the list (made by them and in their own handwriting!) and we would review progress and set new goals as the year progressed. What could be better than that?
Spelling confusions are difficult habits to break. Personal ownership is a difficult attitude to instill in our kids. The more we encourage our children to assess (and appreciate) their own skills, and set goals for themselves each year, the better their attitude and success, overall. Parents get to move from being a drill sergeant to becoming a coach, and maybe even a cheerleader. 

If you don’t have a formal writing portfolio from last year, dig out all those papers and spend your first week creating one. You can reminisce about the things everyone learned, what they liked, and what they didn’t. Your kids will get to have a voice in their school year, and you can help them create personal achievement goals—encouraging them to think big, but create small steps they can obtain.

~Rita

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Spelling Revealed

There are exciting changes happening in the world of spelling!

While most of us don’t think the words exciting and spelling can be used in the same sentence, it is possible. After decades of teaching spelling the same old way—testing kids on word lists—changes are afoot. Linguists are crossing into the field of education, giving new understanding to spelling and how best to teach it.

Possibly the worst spelling method, the “Sight Word” method, was taught to my children in their early years in traditional school. This method uses all the words included in the “first 100 words” list, encouraging kids to memorize what the word looks like. Unfortunately, memorizing words doesn’t work, and the lists consist of a bunch of words that have nothing in common. Like all test-driven spelling programs, the hope is that kids will be motivated to get good spelling grades, and therefore, study hard enough to remember. In fact, my children did get good spelling grades, but their spelling skills were mostly unchanged in their original writing.

In my years in Catholic school, I was taught using a traditional phonics approach. The traditional phonics approach to spelling looks like this: teach a phonics rule, practice lists of words that fit the rule, then learn all the exceptions to the rule. For example, there is a phonics “silent-e” rule that states that the single silent-e creates a long vowel sound, as in the word <make>, but there are many words that defy that rule, such as <come>, <house> and <give>. Those words aren’t exceptions, they just follow different spelling rules we need to learn—and teach!

Linguists share the many jobs of the silent-e, as well as the insight that words are spelled based on their history, or etymology, not based on phonics rules. In fact, one linguist, Gina Cooke renamed “sight” words as “insight” words. Thanks to these insights, spelling can be taught from an etymological perspective.

I teach spelling using a combination of the methods, because we use many pieces of information when we spell. Here is how our complex language system analyzes our complex spelling system:
  1. We track sounds that we hear in a word (using our phonology skills)
  2. We learn spelling expectancies for the sounds we track (using pattern recognition and word-form memory skills to learn orthography)
  3. We attend to the grammatical structure of words (using our syntax skills)
  4. We understand word meaning (using our semantic language skills)
  5. We understand how words are built and which words are related by origin (using knowledge or word structure known as morphology)
An acronym for this complex spelling method is POSSM: phonology, orthography, syntax, semantics and morphology. When we teach spelling to our children, we want to learn and teach from a POSSM perspective.

Here is a fun lesson to consider:
  • Rule: words that share the same job tend to share spelling patterns.
  • Most question words share a spelling pattern. Do you notice a spelling pattern?
  • Even more fascinating is that most corresponding answer words share a spelling pattern. Let’s look at that pattern by lining the words up to see for ourselves.


Many of our question words begin with a <wh> spelling pattern, and many of our answer words (especially old-fashioned ones) share a <th> pattern. Learning words together in their patterns can help us remember to spell question words with a <wh>! This can be especially helpful for children who confuse the spelling of <where> versus <were>!


When we teach spelling in relation to meaning and grammar, spelling becomes more interesting and it begins to make sense. History plays a primary role in spelling, so teaching spelling along with the history of the English language is a means for helping spelling stick! 

~Rita

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Four Areas of Language

Research on the reading and writing brain, for both typical and struggling readers and writers is very exciting, and informs much of my teaching. Understanding that the entire language system has regions that are accessed when reading and writing, and that these systems need to further develop, as well as network together in an efficient and effective manner, helps us to understand the complexity of writing across all developmental stages. There is a reason that writing takes time and attention, encouragement and practice.

Virginia Berninger, a researcher at the University of Washington, summarizes recent theories about the reading and writing brain in her book Brain Literacy for Educators and Psychologists.  She coined this terminology to reference how the brain processes and utilizes specific language domains for speaking, listening, reading and writing:

Language by mouth = speaking
Language by ear = listening
Language by eye = reading
Language by hand = writing

If you think of your entire language arts program as centered around helping your children to develop these four areas of language—both independently and in tandem—you begin to think differently about language arts, and why it is called an art! How wonderful to find strategies that teach in a top-down manner—from the whole to its parts—as well as from a bottom-up method—from the parts back into the whole. In this way, you can study a tree to learn about the forest, and study a forest to learn about the trees.

Copywork, if taught intentionally, can help children
learn trees by studying the forest
and learn the forest from studying the trees.

Whole to parts and parts to whole!



In looking at my language tree model, you will notice that the roots are the foundations of a typical language arts program that teaches and strengthens reading and writing—phonics, punctuation, grammar, spelling, handwriting (manuscript, cursive, and eventually keyboard) and vocabulary. We need to teach these skills within a forest—practicing them in both reading and writing—in order for the consolidation of these skills to develop in a meaningful way. Remember that reading and writing are not innate abilities, so exposure is not enough. We want to explicitly teach skills and practice their usage. Explicit teaching is what I call “intentional” teaching!

~Rita