Friday, July 30, 2010

Differentiated Spelling in the Classroom

What is the best way to manage spelling in the classroom? When I was a student, everyone had the same list every week. But this is not the best approach. A single list will be too hard for some students, but too easy for others.

Over the years, I've experimented with several different ways to differentiate spelling. Each one has its own benefits and drawbacks.

One classroom, multiple groups
I tried this when I taught in middle school. After administering the Words Their Way spelling inventory, I grouped students into three groups based on their level. I had a Within Word Pattern group, a Syllables and Affixes group, and a Derivational Relations group.

The benefits of this arrangement are clear--students had words that matched their developmental levels. However, it turned out to be very difficult to implement. Each week I had three lists to juggle, and I had to create time in the classroom schedule to meet with three different groups for pretests, teaching, and post-tests. I felt like I was going crazy!

I didn't have the Words Their Way word list books when I was doing this. These books would help tremendously. In fact, my husband uses them to support multiple spelling groups in his third grade classroom. He has been doing this for several years and finds it worth the time it takes to manage. His secret is to use one routine homework assignment for all groups, with targeted word sorts for students according to their levels.

One classroom, differentiated list
When my language arts block took a time cut, I knew that I couldn't do multiple groups any more. But I still wanted to differentiate. I solved the problem by creating tiered lists. Each week, we studied a spelling pattern. Students were placed in a basic list or a more challenging list based on how they did on a spelling pretest.

For example, a list including different spellings of /au/ (aw, au, and ong) might include a word like launch on the basic list, and distraught on the more difficult list. All students would study the root for the week, aud-, as it fits the pattern and is a source for learning vocabulary words.

This turned out to be very workable. I could spend time doing whole group lessons that focused on the spelling pattern or principle. Students would spend their time studying the simpler words that had the pattern, or the more difficult ones. All students would work to learn the meanings of the words. The spelling test consisted of whichever word list students were responsible for learning that week, plus some multiple choice vocabulary questions.

The tricky part with this arrangement is creating the lists. I posted the full set of lists that I created for free over at TeachersPayTeachers. Once the whole thing is put together, it becomes a fairly simple routine.

Multiple teachers, multiple groups
If you have several teachers who are willing to work together, you can try regrouping students according to their spelling level. The benefits of this are clear. Not only will students be working with words at their developmental level, but teachers will only have to plan for one group. Hooray!

Of course, there are some drawbacks to this. It can be difficult to schedule, as you need a time period in which all teachers can switch. We found that, for three classes of fourth graders, we really needed to have 4 or 5 teachers. This is because students at the lower levels needed smaller groups. Luckily, we were able to pull in the special education teacher for our team, which worked quite well for all of us. Students working at the Syllables and Affixes level or Derivational Relations level had larger groups, while those who were struggling had smaller groups.

Another problem is keeping track of work between the groups. This year, we're hoping to make working on spelling a non-negotiable task for all students at the start of the day. We want to make sure that there is time in the school day for students to practice their words. When we leave it for homework alone, there will always be some students who don't complete the assignments and don't progress.

Which is best?
Each one of these methods can work, and can help students to become more successful with spelling. The key is creating a system that works for you, and for your students. When you keep the focus on learning patterns, listening for sounds in words, and linking spelling to vocabulary, you can make spelling work for all of your students.


  1. I can see your problem and like the way you look at related patterns. I wondered if I could just throw something into the mix? What about gettig rid of spelling lists altogether? And tests? I don't remember ever going home with a list of spellings to learn and we weren't plagued with spelling tests. It didn't do me any harm! Maybe your school stystem doesn't allow this, but perhaps the idea's worth exploring.
    The Spelling Blog

  2. I just started teaching 4th grade and am not familiar with the spelling program at my school. I tried to get the full list but it says the link is broken. Any way you can send to my email?

    I would really appreciate it!