What do you do when a kid asks you how to spell a word?
The standard procedure, as practiced by many, is to refer the student to the dictionary. But this is a lengthy process--and, for many students, a frustrating one. Looking in the dictionary can take a student up to six minutes. (I know, because I've timed it!) When I'm teaching writing in a 40 minute time block, I can understand why a student would be reluctant to use up precious writing time just to find the spelling of one word.
As adults, most people use a very practical spelling strategy: Find someone who is a good speller, and ask them. Depending on the expertise of others is not a bad strategy.
So, when students ask me how to spell a word, I used to just jot it down on a sticky note. But this spring I wanted to try something new. What could I do that would give some of the work back to the student? What could I try that would be more supportive than just referring the student to the dictionary?
I decided to use a version of Wheel of Fortune. When a student asked me for a word, I put lines for the number of letters in the word. This gave me instant information on which word parts and syllables the student was able to spell, and which were problematic.
When a student asked to spell disturbing, I put the lines on a sticky note:
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
She tried it out on the lines, checked with me, and quickly went back to writing. The lines offer an added bit of support, especially for words with doubled letters and odd vowel patterns. If a student thinks that she has spelled the word correctly, but has a letter left over, then she knows (without my intervention!) that he has to go back and rethink.
Sometimes, I needed to give a little more support. Depending on what I knew the student has trouble with, I provided some chunks. For example, one struggling speller asked how to spell tractor.
I gave him this:
_ _ _ _ _ o r
I wanted to see if he could come up with the complex consonants in the first syllable. The -or ending, however, is a little odd, so I wanted to give that part to him.
Another student asked how to spell architecture. This is a pretty complex word! I wrote:
_ _ c h i _ _ _ _ _ _ _
I was pretty sure that this student knew the ending -ture, but the Greek ch is often new to fourth graders. I couldn't resist telling him a bit about the Greek ch and why words from Greek often show this hard ch sound. (Think about it: school, scholar, architecture, archaeology...!)
What is so neat about this strategy is that it allowed me to get instant information about what students could and could not do. I could see exactly what part of the word caused the problem, and do a little quick teaching about the pattern or the exception. For students, the lines for letters made it a little more like a puzzle, and they were more willing to retry a word several times.
I knew this strategy had taken root when I saw students using it with one another. "How do you spell later?" one student whispered to another. When I looked over, I saw that her neighbor had drawn out lines for her. It's always neat to see kids teaching one another.