Monday, July 27, 2015

Differentiated Spelling Program: Looking Back

Several years ago, I became disenchanted with the spelling program that I was using. I've been teaching for a long time, and I've used many different spelling programs. And I've hated them all.

A normal person would have said, "Well, this program isn't perfect, but it's what I have. I guess I'll deal with it."

I'm not a normal person. So I embarked on a three-year journey to reinvent spelling in my classroom. Along the way, I learned that the most commonly taught roots are not the ones that appear most frequently; that language is a devious, tricky pathway; and that I will always end up hating a spelling program. And that's okay.

Step One: Identify Words to Teach

One of my biggest issues with the spelling program that I had used in the past is the words. They seemed randomly chosen to fit a pattern. What if I could work in the opposite way--select high-utility words, filter them according to their attributes, and then plug them into spelling lists?

I started typing in words! My first source, of course, was the Academic Word List by Averil Coxhead. I added words 200-500 from the Fry List, the Nifty Thrifty Fifty, words from the Common Core, and words from a Reading Teacher article about character traits.

But just typing the words was too easy. I wanted data! I added columns to the spreadsheet with information about the words--number of syllables, phonograms, root or base, prefix or suffix, mythology link, and use in idioms. It was the work of many winter evenings.

When I was finished, I had an Excel spreadsheet that I thought was amazing. Not many others have thought so. But I didn't care much about how others reacted--my list was a stepping stone, a means to an end. Here it is if you are interested. (To use the filtering capability, you will need to download it.)

The Master Word List

Step Two: Plan Out Units

The next step was to plan out units. Because this was going to be a fourth grade program, I had to involve the others that I work with in this process. We combined our new PA Core Standards with concepts from the Literacy Continuum to do this.

Our units leaned more toward vocabulary and patterns of meaning instead of patterns of spelling. In looking at the core standards, there are so many things related to roots, prefixes, and suffixes that students need. Would I like to do more of the spelling-based patterns? Absolutely! But time is precious, and finite, and I needed to choose. In the long run, I do think that time spent working with prefixes is going to have a stronger impact than time spent working with ei/ie patterns.

Because we work in the real world, we limited our units to 12-15. We were planning to teach spelling on alternating days for 30 minutes at a time. A program that can be completed in one year is better than one that claims to do all things for all students, but can never be finished.

After Year 2 we rearranged some lists, realizing that putting prefixes and suffixes before word roots is better for students who don't have much experience with semantic analysis.

Step Three: Assign Words to Lists

This was my Frankenstein moment--"It's alive!" This was the time to use the filtering capabilities of the Master List to select spelling words. worked! Even better, every list includes high-quality words that students WILL encounter again and again. With each list kids came to me with words that they found in their independent reading books, in their science books, and other academic tasks.

Our lists are tiered lists. On Day 1, students take a pretest with Tier 1 words. Students who reach a certain score work from the Tier 2 list for spelling throughout the week.

Step Four: Create Meaningful Activities

I undertook this step on my own, creating list-specific homework tasks for each list. These tasks are also heavily vocabulary based, with some handwriting included. Of course, I never grade homework, and if you use my materials, please make sure that you don't grade homework either!

 There is also a list-specific spelling test for each list, including both spelling and vocabulary questions.

Everything is included in this folder on Google Drive. You may feel free to use these materials, but obviously do not sell them or distribute them in any other way. Make sure that you are viewing the folder in ABC order so that the files show in the correct order.

Spelling Folder

Step Five: Implement and Reflect

Like every spelling program, this has parts that I love, and parts that I hate. I really enjoy exploring the meanings of words with students each week. Students especially enjoy the drawing tasks, and their creativity shines as they create new and interesting ways to depict the words.

The pretest always invites interesting conversations, as some students try to cheat and correctly spell the words. Why do this on a test that isn't graded? What are they trying to prove? Being open and honest with these discussions gives everyone insight into our classroom routines.

I also like that this program is fairly easy for parents to understand and assist with. Definitions for all words are included in my Quizlet links (you can find them all by clicking on my username here).

Step Six: When all is perfect, change grade levels
Because what's more fun than starting from scratch?

**You may feel free to use and share the Master Word List and the spelling materials here. Please know that these are shared folders and others have added materials! If you find any mistakes, let me know so that I can fix them.

If you especially like them, please consider a visit to my store for other classroom materials.


  1. Emily,
    I just love everything that you do (at least education wise-- don't know you personally). This is, as always, thought out, organized, and practical. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

    I am really bummed that you are moving to higher grades. I hope you will still share adaptations for the younger set.

    My Bright Blue House

    1. Thank you so much for writing! I am glad that you like the spelling. And don't husband teaches third grade, and he always commissions me to write stuff for the younger grades! :)