Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Spelling Experiment

Toward the end of school, I started to worry about my students' spelling. I had a vague notion that our program wasn't working as well as I wanted. But how could I know?

I tried a little experiment that was time-consuming, but illuminating. After a field trip, I gave students a prompt to write a paragraph. They had 5 minutes to plan, after which I promised that I would tell them how to spell words that they wanted. I wrote all of the words on the dry erase board. Then, they had the rest of the class (about 30 minutes) to write their paragraphs.

I looked at their paragraphs to give them a general writing score, based on the domains of focus, content, and organization. But I also counted up the misspelled words to find a percentage of correctly spelled words. I found that, for the most part, the percentages were in the high 90s, which I thought was pretty good. (For the first time in my life, I actually had a real use for a stem and leaf plot!)

But it was the next step that told me the most. I tabulated the misspelled words, filling two sheets of paper with information about which words students were misspelling and how many students were misspelling them. These were the words that students didn't know they were misspelling. Remember, I had filled the dry erase board with the "harder" words they wanted to have spelled for them, mostly the proper nouns and specific vocabulary that related to our trip.

And I saw some interesting patterns. Students were very weak with contractions. "Different" was frequently misspelled, along with words with complex vowel patterns. There were also the predictable problems with are/our and there/their/they're. Contrary to what I expected, students were pretty secure with high frequency words, with the exception of were/where.

Although it did take a great deal of time, I found this useful. Instead of just a vague funny feeling that my students weren't very strong with spelling, I had real data. I knew which kinds of words were problematic for students. I knew which students were lagging behind, and which were most proficient.

As I plan for next year, I know that I want to do this again in the first few weeks of school. I don't think that a spelling percentage, on its own, is a particularly useful piece of data. However, when combined with a list of the words that students are misspelling, this percentage can become a powerful planning tool.

1 comment:

  1. Emily, as you say that time spent will be invaluable. I teach adults who are learning English as a second language and I did some research on their spelling errors and since then a great deal of my work has been based on that data. The analysis told me for example that as I'd expected vowels were the biggest problem, especially when there were two together or they had a weak pronunciation. So I have had to find ways to help them with those. There may be stuff that's useful to you on my blog which is devoted to spelling at .