Archive for October, 2009

Ten Criteria for Effective ELA/Reading Diagnostic Assessments

Diagnostic assessments are essential instructional tools for effective English-language Arts and reading teachers. However, many teachers resist using these tools because they can be time-consuming to administer, grade, record, and analyze. Some  teachers avoid diagnostic assessments because these teachers exclusively focus on grade-level standards-based instruction or believe that remediation is (or was) the job of some other teacher. To be honest, some teachers resist diagnostic assessments because the data might induce them to differentiate instruction—a daunting task for any teacher. And some teachers resist diagnostic assessments because they fear that the data will be used by administrators to hold them accountable for individual student progress.

To ameliorate these concerns, let’s agree to the ten criteria for effective ELA/reading diagnostic assessments:

1. Diagnostic assessments should be designed to be administered “whole class.” While one-on-one time with a student is wonderful; it just isn’t a practical approach for teachers with class sizes pushing forty in many schools. I won’t throw the baby out with the bath water on this one. Individual assessments are sometimes necessary as double-checks or refinements, and an individual fluency assessment is a must for elementary, middle, and some high school students. However, my experience is that effective whole class diagnostic assessments can produce results that are just as reliable and prescriptive as the time-consuming individual assessments.

2. Diagnostic assessments should be brief. Despite the oft-repeated dictum, assessment is not really instruction.

3. Diagnostic assessments should be designed to  measure only what they purport to measure. For example, a diagnostic fluency assessment that produces  inaccurate  results because it uses unfamiliar terminology or difficult names is useless. A grammar assessment that pretends to measure correct  usage by having students match a past perfect participle to its definition does not accomplish its purpose.

4. Diagnostic assessments should measure important ELA/reading concepts or skills. Although we may disagree on a few of the details, few teachers would argue that assessing a student’s reading level is not as important as assessing a student’s ability to correctly name the four classifications of sentences.

5. Diagnostic assessments should help the teacher determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the individual student, and not just those of the class. A teacher needs more information than simply what to emphasize in instruction or what to re-teach to “most” of the class.

6. Diagnostic assessments should be quantitative. Although qualitative assessment, such as a class discussion, is useful to inform direct instruction, internally and externally valid and reliable assessments that produce hard numbers  provide objective baselines for instruction, and guide later formative and summative assessments.

7. Diagnostic assessments should be designed to measure academic skills and abilities within our control. Although cognitive ability, family background, culture, socio-economic status, and language certainly impact what students know, these important variables are beyond the scope of useful diagnostic assessments. We need diagnostic assessments that won’t  isolate these variables. For example, a diagnostic assessment  that measures only the phonetic regularities common to English and Spanish, ignores those sound-spellings exclusive to English that all students need to master. Or as a further example, knowing that there is a racial/ethnic achievement gap in ELA/reading is of less value than knowing the specific components of a literacy gap that teachers can effectively address.

8. Diagnostic assessments should be easy to grade and record. Teachers need to spend their prep times using data to inform their instruction, and less time on correction and paperwork. Well-designed assessments can be multiple choice or matching. Recording matrices need to be designed so that they are simple to use, analyze, and plan for differentiated instruction.

9. Diagnostic assessments should be designed to help teachers inform their instruction. Teachers need specificity. If a teacher cannot teach to the data gained from the assessment, of what use is the assessment? For example, complicated and time-consuming normed reading comprehension assessments provide little instructional practicality. Other than individual reading levels, which can be gained from simple word recognition tests, fluencies, or even the self-administered “five finger method,” knowing the degree to which a student can “draw conclusions” does little to impact instruction. Of course, we need to teach those skills measured by reading comprehension tests or the annual standardized test, but we waste time using diagnostic assessments to glean this data, when we will teach these skills to all of our students anyway.

10. Diagnostic assessments should be comprehensive and not random samples. Qualitative spelling inventories, reading tests, phonics tests, grammar tests, mechanics tests, and vocabulary tests that are based on random samples of skills can only help teachers identify an approximate ability/developmental level or that a student has problems in that instructional area. By their very nature, random sample tests are “missing” something. Good diagnostic assessments are designed to quantify everything that needs to be learned in the particular area of focus.

Over the years I have created, field-tested, and revised a battery of ELA/reading assessments that meet the criteria described above. You are welcome to download a comprehensive consonant and vowel phonics assessment, three sight word assessments, a spelling-pattern assessment, a multi-level fluency assessment, six phonemic awareness assessments, a grammar assessment, and a mechanics assessment free of charge from my website. Most of these assessments are multiple choice and are administered “whole class.” All have recording matrices to help the teacher plan for individual and small group instruction. Once, teachers administer these assessments and analyze the data, many will wish to purchase my teaching resources Teaching Grammar and MechanicsTeaching Essay StrategiesTeaching Reading Strategies, and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary to differentiate instruction precisely according to the data of these diagnostic assessments. Why re-invent the wheel?

Grammar/Mechanics, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Study Skills , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Educational Fads: What Goes Around Comes Around

Teaching is, by its very nature, experimental. We teachers are just as susceptible to snake-oil sales pitches, fads, and cultural pressures as any professionals. And many of the teaching strategies, movements, and philosophies appear years later dressed up in different clothes. Talk to any veteran teacher of a dozen years or more and the teacher will eventually comment on the dynamic nature of education with statements such as “Been there, done that,” “There’s nothing new under the sun,” What Goes Around Comes Around,” “We tried that back in…”

Teachers are also victims of the bandwagon effect. What’s new is questioned, until certain key players buy in. At that point, many teachers become no-holds-barred converts. We teachers are especially vulnerable to new ideas labeled as “research-based,” “best practices,” or “standards-based.” We could all do with an occasional reminder that one of our primary duties as teachers should be to act as informed “crap detectors” (Postman, Neil, and Weingartner, Charles (1969), Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Dell, New York, NY.).

Following is a list of the educational fads that have come and gone (and sometimes come again) over the last thirty years of my teaching. I’ve bought into quite a few of them and still believe that some of them have merit. The list reminds me to hold on loosely to some things that I currently practice and to be open to change. Cringe, laugh, and be a bit offended as you read over the list. Oh, and please add on to the list, which is in no particular order.

1. Writing Across the Curriculum No one really ever believed that math, art, or music teachers should be spending oodles of time teaching writing.

2. Timers Timers used to keep students on task, pace themselves, track their reading speed.

3. Left-right Brain Strategies Some teachers used to have students place bracelets on their left or right wrists to cue brain hemispheres.

4. Self-esteem Teachers developed lessons to promote the self-esteem of students to increase their abilities to learn.

5. Cultural Literacy E. D. Hirsch, Jr. popularized this movement of shared content knowledge in his influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Teachers abandoned free-choice novels and chose core novels that inculcated American values.

6. Multi-culturalism This much maligned approach to education influenced many publishers and teachers to include multi-cultural literature.

7.  Relevance The practice of choosing curriculum and instructional strategies designed to  relate to the lives and interests of students.

8. Clickers Used to track student discussion responses, equitable teacher questioning, and even attendance.

9. Re-learning Early Childhood Behaviors One reading strategy for struggling readers in the 1970s involved re-teaching those remedial readers who never learned to crawl to crawl.

10. Learning Styles I can’t tell you how many learning styles assessments I designed over the years.

11. Experiential Learning Role play, simulations, mock trial.

12. Alternative or Authentic Assessments I once taught an entire year-long sophomore level World History class without giving one traditional paper and pencil test. Think museum exhibits, video productions, interviews, etc.

13. Cooperative Groups Touted as a primary means of heterogeneous instruction in the 1980s.

14. Values Clarification and Moral Dilemmas Two forms of values education that emphasized decision-making and informed moral choices.

15. Gongs Used to focus students’ attention and signal instructional transitions.

16. Critical Thinking Skills Bloom’s Taxonomy, Costa’s Levels of Questioning, et al.

17. Behavioral Objectives and the Madeline Hunter’s Lesson Design Teaching to measurable objectives with connection to prior instruction, guided practice, closure, and independent practice.

18. Standards-based Instruction A movement to identify content standards across grade levels and focus instruction on these expectations. Many state tests were aligned with these standards.

19. Language Experience A reading strategy which used oral language ability to help students read. Teachers copied down student stories and had students practice reading them.

20. Bilingual Education A movement to teach native literacy and celebrate bilingualism in the belief that literacy skills are easily transferred to English.

21. Learn by Doing John Dewey revisited. Gardening and keeping classroom pets were popular recreations of the theme.

22. Cornell Notes Popularized by the A.V.I.D. (Advancement Via Individual Determination), this columnar notetaking strategy originated in the 1950s at Cornell University.

23. Inventive Spelling The practice of guessing sound-spelling relationships to encourage writing fluency. Instruction followed from spelling analysis.

24. Achievement Gap The gap in reading and math achievement between racial subgroups. Later expanded to language and ethnic subgroups.

25. Thematic Instruction Teaching broad-based themes across the curriculum, such as teaching a unit on cooking in which recipes are composed and read, mathematic measurements involving recipe quantities are practiced, the final meal is sketched, using artistic perspective, and the meal is eaten.

26. Time on Task A movement that tried to minimize wasted time, class interruptions, and outside activities (such as assemblies) and maximize minutes of classroom instruction, such as with classroom openers.

27. Whole Language The movement popularized in the 1970s and 1980s that de-emphasized phonics, spelling, and grammar instruction and emphasized reading and writing for meaning.

28. Reading Across the Curriculum No one really ever believed that math, art, or music teachers should be spending oodles of time teaching reading or that “Every Teacher, a Teacher of Reading.”

29. Phonemic Awareness Better described as phonological awareness, teachers played patterns of sounds, emphasized rhythm, and used nursery rhymes to prepare students to match speech sounds to print.

30. ADD, ADHD, Epstein Bar, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Autism, and Others Difficult to diagnose, these conditions introduced educators to Parent Advocates and mandated classroom interventions.

31. Auditory Processing Deficit Disorders and Visual Processing Deficit Disorders New brain research has validated these learning disabilities, but instructional strategies to address these challenges have a questionable track record.

32. Dyslexia Reading difficulties have produced a plethora of remedial strategies, many such as colored transparencies have been dubious, at best.

33. Career Education Students were tracked according to career interests.

34. Community Service Students were required to perform hours of community service as part of course or graduation requirements.

35. Tracing Letters in the Sand Those who believe that spelling is a visual process had students memorize the shapes of letters within words by drawing the outline of the letters.

36. Inquiry Education Instruction based upon student questions and interests.

37. Sustained Silent Reading, Drop Everything and Read, et al In class or school-wide, this practice of silent reading is usually based upon student choice of reading materials without accountability and is designed to foster life-long reading.

38. TRIBES, et al Groups of students, mentored by adults, that build relational and supportive bonds within the school setting.

39. Peer Tutoring A practice in which a smarter student is paired with one less smart to teach the latter.

40. Writers Workshop and Six Traits Movements based upon the writing research of Donald Graves and others that emphasize the process of writing, revision, and publication.

41. Problem-Solving Strategies developed to solve difficult problems in collaborative groups.

42. Rubrics Here a rubric; there a rubric. Holistic and analytic scoring guides that purport to de-mystify and objectify the grading process of complicated tasks, such as essays.

43. Manipulatives Learning mathematical concepts through visual models that students manipulate to understand mathematical processes.

44. Metacognition Thinking about thinking. Strategies that teach reflection on the learning process.

45. Prior Knowledge Usually referred to as a pre-reading or pre-writing strategy in which the student “accesses” his or her background or personal experiences to connect to the reading or writing task.

46. Hands-on Learning Project-based instruction that emphasizes concrete learning making or doing.

47. Realia Using “real” objects to scaffold into abstract learning. For example, bringing in a silver necklace to teach what silver and a necklass mean.

48. Tracking and Ability Grouping Permanent or temporary grouped instruction based upon student grades, test scores, or skill levels.

49. Differentiated Instruction and Individualized Instruction Instruction designed according to the diagnostic needs of individual students, frequently involving group work.

50. Multiple Intelligences Popularized by Howard Gardner, this movement described intelligence aptitudes such as interpersonal intelligence.

51. Powerpoint®, Blackboard, Web 2.0, computer literacy skills, SmartBoards, Video Conferencing and more to come.

52. Color Mood Design Teachers draped soothing colored butcher paper (blue or green) over the teacher’s desk to reduce stress. Teachers stopped using red pens to correct papers.

53. Back to Basics A movement to focus more on the three R’s and less on electives.

54. The Five-Paragraph Essay The model essay, consisting of one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one conclusion paragraph.

55. Multi-sensory Education Using the five senses to teach a concept or skill.

56. Learning Centers Resources placed around the classroom that allowed students to explore learning on their own.

The writer of this blog, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula: Teaching Grammar and MechanicsTeaching Essay StrategiesTeaching Reading Strategies, and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or training.

Grammar/Mechanics, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Reasons Why Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction

Every ship’s captain knows how to turn a ship around to rescue a “man overboard.” The “Williamson Turn” involves turning the helm hard to starboard until the heading of the ship reaches a 60 degree course change and then it’s thrown hard to port to complete a net 180 degree course change with the ship going back in it’s own wake. Compensation is made for each ship’s propulsion characteristics, the winds, and tides at that point on the sea. Nowadays that maneuver can be computer-assisted.…

In a recent tragedy, a ship failed to rescue a “man overboard” in time because it took the ship so long to reverse course. Education faces a similar crisis today. The “man overboard” consists of  millions of students who are failing to acquire the education that they deserve. Standardized assessments continue to show that this achievement gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. Indeed, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.

The problem is not that educators can’t identify the “man overboard”; assessment data certainly does that job. The problem is motivational and has consequences. Turning the ship around for one lost soul disrupts the cruise for the many. Turning the ship around means acknowledging that mistakes have been made and that the old ways of doing things may not work anymore (if they ever did work). Turning the ship around requires much more work, a willingness to try new things, and a degree of discomfort among all stakeholders in the educational establishment. In particular, turning the ship around for teachers means differentiating instruction, according to the diagnostic needs of their students.

Following are 12 reasons why teachers resist differentiated instruction.

1. We tend to teach the way that we were taught. Teachers tend to value familiar instruction. “If it worked for me, it should work for my students” is a consistent rationale for choosing instructional materials and teaching strategies. However, most teachers tend to be the ones who caught on to traditional, undifferentiated instruction. What worked for us may not work for today’s culturally diverse students.

2. We tend to use the instructional materials that are prescribed (district adopted). We use these resources not because we have carefully examined all available resources to match them to the needs of our students, according to diagnostic data. We use these because there is pressure to do so from administrators, peers, or “the district.” Then, we cut and paste with add-on materials. We wind up diluting the impact of the original materials, especially in canned reading or math programs. For example, in the widely used “Open Court” reading program, many  teachers teach the kernel of the program, but ignore the “workshop” component that differentiates instruction and, instead, paste in supplemental direct instruction.

3. Newton’s First Law of Physics: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. Teachers continue to use what they have used before. Comfortable with the familiar materials and strategies, teachers rarely re-invent the wheel. Teachers tend to resist external forces, such as reading coaches, administrator mandates, and new teaching innovations because these forces take teachers out of their comfort zones. Differentiated instruction brings up a host of uncomfortable issues: classroom management issues, additional teacher preparation, additional grading and record keeping-just to scratch the surface.

4. Newton’s First Law of Physics: The converse of the law is that every object in a state of rest tends to remain at rest unless an external force is applied to it. Every teacher has issues of laziness. Teaching is an energy-zapping profession. Relationships with students, parents, administrators, and other teachers drain the reserves of any professional educator. Professional learning “opportunities” in differentiated instruction, added on to the end of a teaching day in a staff meeting or university course work for salary advancement crowded into an already-busy-life can become the straws that break the backs of the best camels. Anyone think teacher burn-out?

5. Although teachers prize their independence and academic freedom to teach how we want, we are generally conformists. Being part of the “team” means accepting instructional compromises. We all agree to teach this novel, we all agree to do test preparation, we all agree to use Cornell Notes, we all agree to use these assessments, we all agree… not to disagree too much. There is no “I” in team. Teachers who differentiate instruction necessarily minimize their time commitment to the agreed-to scope and sequence of instruction or the unit-ending common assessment. There is tremendous peer pressure to teach like everyone else and avoid differentiation.

6. Lack of preparation time direct impacts teacher inability to treat students as individuals. Differentiated instruction requires more planning time, more analysis time, and more re-teaching time. Teaching colleagues rarely have sufficient time to plan together and learn from each other-not to mention time to break down the counter-productive peer pressure toward conformity to the status quo.

7. The influence of university professors in teacher training programs and continuing education programs can inculcate a bias toward one instructional philosophy. Far from teaching teachers to weigh all options to effectively differentiate instruction, often times individual professors or institutions use their platforms to promote their own agendas.  These overt biases inflicted upon the captive audiences of teachers, who need units of instruction to teach and advance on the salary scale, cause teachers to be wary of change and reticent to try new teaching strategies. Furthermore, professors tend to focus on the theory, not the practice, and so teachers are not equipped to differentiate instruction within their classrooms.

8. Administrator-teacher relationships are optimally viewed as professional and collegial with differences simply being ones of roles and tasks. Practically, administrator-teacher are management and worker relationships. The fact that administrators wield the one-sided powers of evaluation and teacher grade-subject-or schedule assignment make teachers conform to some degree to the wishes and tone of the administration in any school. Teachers who don’t play the game to a certain degree may find their input marginalized or their services outsourced to another site.

Administrators tend to see the “big picture” and offer macro-management solutions such as curricular standards, intervention programs, and schedule options that track students according to ability. They don’t see the micro-management issues within the classroom, for example, that Johnny can’t read well and won’t learn to read well because the teacher can’t or won’t differentiate instruction.

9. Teachers of all age levels are pressured to cover the content, cover the standards, and cover the material that will appear on the standardized test. Teachers are evaluated on what and how they teach and cover the content, not on what the students learn. Differentiated instruction adjusts the focus from teaching to learning. Teachers’ mapping guides and instructional scopes and sequences are all about direct instruction of new content or group review of old content. Differentiated instruction requires re-learning content not-yet-mastered by students.

10. Teachers view the process of teaching as a matter of one’s own taste and relegated to secondary status compared to the teaching content. Differentiated instruction puts process and content on the same level playing field. How a student is taught becomes just as important as what is taught because the degree of success is measured by what is learned.

11. The emphasis on rigor with high standards has led  many teachers to abandon differentiated instruction. Teachers need to help students “catch up” through scaffolded instruction, while the students concurrently “keep up” with rigorous grade-level instruction. However, teachers often feel the pressure to do the latter at the expense of the former.

12. Standards-based instruction has made many teachers abandon differentiated instruction. Comprehensive standards and emphasis on teaching to standards-based tests has re-focused many teachers on the what of teaching at the expense of the how and why of teaching. For many teachers, teaching the “power standards,” that is the standards most often tested on the yearly test, are more important than teaching to the needs of individual students. As one colleague once told me, “My job is to teach the grade-level standards, if students have not yet mastered the previous years’ standards, that is the fault of their teachers. I have to do my job, not theirs.”

The writer of this blog, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula: Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Teaching Essay Strategies, Teaching Reading Strategies, and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or training.

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How Not to Teach Context Clues

To most intermediate, middle, high school, and college teachers, teaching context clues means helping students consciously identify and apply strategies to figure out the meaning of unknown words through hints in the surrounding text. These hints include pictures, syntax, text format, grammatical constructions, mood or tone, mechanics, and surrounding words that provide synonym, antonym, logic, or example clues

Many of these teachers would also label the structural analysis of the unknown word itself as a context clue. Using morphemes (meaningful word parts, such as Greek and Latinates), syllabication strategies, grammatical inflections, and parts of speech also can help students figure of the meaning of unknown words. Some teachers would also include using hints outside of the text, such as prior knowledge or story schema in their definition and application of context clue strategies.

Teaching context clues for the purpose of contextual vocabulary development is widely accepted and practiced. However, there is another application of context clues that is not as widely accepted and practiced. This use of context clues is highly controversial and stirs up intense debate about how to teach reading.

Because the initial task of teaching students to read largely falls upon the shoulders of primary teachers, these teachers tend to be more familiar with this debate than their colleagues who teach older students. However, the underlying issues of this debate are just as relevant to intermediate, middle, high school, and college teachers who teach “reading to learn.”

The issues of this debate involve whether context clues should be used as the primary strategy for word identification. Word identification generally means the process of pronouncing words by applying reading strategies. Word identification should be distinguished from word recognition, which generally means the ability to recognize and pronounce “sight words” automatically, without applying reading strategies. The role of  context clues in word identification is the crucial issue behind the Reading Wars.

On one side of the battle are the “Phonic-ators.” These “defenders of the faith” believe that teaching phonemic awareness and phonics should be the primary means of teaching word identification. Fair to say, these teachers place more emphasis on the graphic cueing components of reading, that is the alphabetic code, syllabication, and spelling, than do those on the other side of the battle. The “Phonicators” de-emphasize the use of context clues to “guess” the meanings of words and teach students to decode words in and out of context. These graphic cueing folks are easily identified by their sound-spelling wall posters, their phonics and spelling worksheets, their assessment data matrices, their spelling workbooks, and their decodable paper-book stories. Their file drawers are filled with Jeanne Chall, Marilyn Adams, and Keith Stanovich article summaries.

On the other side are the “Whole Language Junkies.” These “defenders of the faith” believe that extensive shared, guided, and independent reading teaches students to read as the readers gradually acquire the reading strategies (with a heavy emphasis on context clues) to identify words in the context of reading. Fair to say, these teachers place more emphasis on the semantic (meaning-making) cueing components of reading, such as the use of context clues, than on the graphophonic (visual and phonemic) components of reading. These folks are nowadays less easily identified, because their side is currently re-trenching in today’s “No Child Left Behind” educational  environment. But, you usually can tell who they are by their CLOZE procedure worksheets, their vast collection of miscue analyses, their personal class library of over 1,000 books (crowding out the spaces set aside for spelling and grammar workbooks), and their signed wall posters of Ken Goodman, Margaret Moustafa, and Stephen Krashen.

Although the generals argue over tactics, the strategic goals of both sides have much in common. Both believe that their tactics should lead to independent meaning-making, that is, reading comprehension should be the objective. Both agree that reading automaticity (fluency) is important and that their teaching methodologies, that is, the sound-spelling connections for the “Phonic-ators,” and the  “psycholinguistic guessing games (Goodman)” for the “Whole Language Junkies,” will best lead to efficient, accurate, and “unconscious” word recognition. Both believe that reading is a complex and interactive process, in which prior knowledge and cognitive ability are important variables to actively address.

So, having identified the two uses of context clues, that is vocabulary development and word identification, is using context clues for word identification a bad thing?  My view is that it can be when it is taught as the primary strategy for identifying words. I personally tend to lean on the research that proficient readers rely more on the graphophonic (visual and phonemic clues) as their primary strategies for word identification, while struggling readers tend to rely on context clues as their primary strategy for word identification.  Kylene Beers, in her book When Kids Can’t Read, summarizes the problem of using context clues for word identification: “. . . discerning the meaning of unknown words using context clues requires a sophisticated interaction with the text that dependent readers have not yet achieved.” The proof is in the pudding: if good readers do A, and bad readers do B, then teachers should teach A more than B.

It does makes sense that readers need to learn a variety of strategies for word identification so that when one method fails, they have other back-up methods to assist. Explicit graphophonic instructional strategies should serve as the first line of attack and semantic instructional strategies, using context clues, should serve as back-ups.

Find multiple choice reading assessments on two CDs, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages on eight CDs, 390 flashcards, posters, games, and more to differentiate reading instruction in the comprehensive Teaching Reading StrategiesFor individual sound-spelling worksheets that correspond with the comprehensive TSV Spelling Assessmentspelling rules with memorable raps and songs on CD, spelling tests, Greek and Latin affixes/roots worksheets, syllable practice, spelling gamesvocabulary games, and more to differentiate spelling and vocabulary instruction, please check out Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary.

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Visual Spelling Strategies

When Visual Spelling Strategies Do Not Make Sense

Spelling is primarily an auditory, not a visual skill. Visual cues should never be applied to phonetically regular words. Spelling strategies such as tracing letter shapes in sand or outlining the letters in a spelling word have long been discredited. Although visualization strategies such as picturing the spelling word and spelling it backwards may have some short term benefit, there is no transfer to other spellings. Indeed, relying on visual memorization of each individual spelling word is highly inefficient.

For example, written languages such as those used in Asia take much longer to learn. Elementary age students spend enormous amounts of time memorizing and practicing the logographic symbols/pictographs that will enable them to write their own language. In contrast, using the English sound-spelling system (the alphabetic code) which relies upon only 45 speech sounds is highly efficient. About half of English spellings exactly match their sounds.

At this point, many will be thinking “Yes, but half of English spellings do not match their sounds. True enough, but abandoning the half that works is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead of bemoaning the English sound-spelling irregularities and jumping ship to ill-advised spelling strategies which rely upon purely visual strategies, we need to build upon the solid foundation of the English sound-spelling system. To mix metaphors, I like to think of spelling in terms of how a batter should face his or her opponent—the pitcher. Good batters train themselves to look for the fast ball, then adjust for the curve. Good English spellers do likewise; they look to use the sound-spelling system and syllabication skills to problem-solve spellings and then adjust, as needed, to other strategies.

About 30 % of the phonetically irregular words can be taught by combining and applying the eight conventional spelling rules with the ten syllable rules. The conventional spelling rules, such as the i before e rule cover a huge amount of ground. Syllabication skills that apply the  common English, Greek, and Latin morphemes (meaning-based syllables) with grammatical inflections, such _ing cover still more ground.

The remaining 20% require rote memorization. Unfortunately for beginning spellers, many of the most common words in the top 100 most frequently used words are derived from Old and Middle-English spellings. These spellings do not match their sounds and are often referred to as Outlaw Words. Although the term conjures up images of bad guys in black hats, the term is quite accurate. These irregular spellings live outside the law of the sound-spelling system. Some of these words are pure Outlaw Words, such as once, which derives from Old and Middle-English. Other words incorporate foreign word parts that may be phonetically regular in another language, but not in English.

Common single-syllable Outlaw Words, such as once, should generally be memorized by repetitive practice. Old school flashcards do the trick as do drill and kill software programs. Careful diagnosis makes sense. A good Outlaw Words Spelling Assessment is just as important to use as is an Outlaw Words Reading Assessment. After all, students should be learning what they do not know, not rehearsing what they do know.

When Visual Spelling Strategies Do Make Sense

However, troublesome multi-syllabic words that are used less frequently, such as colonel, need special treatment. Of course, many of these words are essential components to an academic vocabulary. With these words, visual spelling strategies do make sense. After all, Confucius did say a picture is worth a 1000 words.

When using a visual strategy with an unknown multi-syllabic word, the speller needs to focus on the troublesome part of the spelling. For example, with the French word colonel, the letter “c” and the ending “nel” are not the spelling difficulties. The “c” is phonetically regular, i.e., the spelling exactly matches the sound and it follows the conventional spelling rule that the initial /k/ sound followed by an “o” is spelled with a “c.” The “nel” is a common suffix covered by the syllabication rules and is also phonetically regular. Thus, the speller should build upon the known and adjust to the unknown “olo.” It is important to boost the confidence of  struggling spellers y reminding them that they know most of the word and that there is just a small bit that needs to be memorized.

Applying a colorful picture to the unknown portion of a multi-syllabic word can aid the long-term spelling memory. When associated with the vocabulary (meaning of the word), a picture can be especially memorable. For example, to memorize the “olo” in colonel, the speller could draw a head on top of the “l” with a plumed helmet and a uniform onto the “o’s,” which serve as epaulets (the colorful shoulder decorations designating military rank). Introduce this “picture spelling” with simple multi-syllabic words such as principal, in which the “pal” is incorporated into a friendly principal’s face or dessert, in which the “ss” is incorporated into a lighted birthday cake with the “s’s” serving as candles.

When used as an appropriate instructional component of a comprehensive spelling program, visual spelling strategies, such as these “picture spellings” do make sense. For example, a weekly Personal Spelling List of unknown words, derived from an effective spelling pre-test, could have a Memory Key column that requires the speller to make note of the spelling rule, syllabication rule, or “picture spelling” that will help best in word study.

Students enjoy creating these memorable Memory Keys, including the “picture spellings.” Of course, students will find the troublesome “pp” spelling in disappointment and go wild with the picture, but what is memorable for a student is not always memorable for a teacher :).

For more visual spelling strategies, individual sound-spelling worksheets that correspond with the comprehensive TSV Spelling Assessmentspelling rules with memorable raps and songs on CD, spelling tests, Greek and Latin affixes/roots worksheets, syllable practice, spelling gamesvocabulary games, and more to differentiate spelling and vocabulary instruction, please check out Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary. Also check out Differentiated Spelling Instruction, the complementary fourth through eighth grade (Levels A-E) standards-based spelling series, designed to integrate instruction in spelling, structural analysis, and vocabulary. Each level has 32 weekly spelling pattern lessons and all the resources needed to differentiate spelling instruction: spelling pattern word lists with spelling sort worksheets, formative and summative assessments with recording matrices, review games, memory songs with MP3 links, supplementary word lists, and more.

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