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Kari Sortum

© 2002

Action Research:

Improving Spelling Instruction
An Action Research Project

As a seventh grade teacher, I still spend time on traditional spelling drills and tests. Every week, I give my seventh grade students a spelling list of thirteen words to study. The first ten words come from a list of the most common words used in the English language, and the last three words are vocabulary words. Our week of spelling instruction is structured like this: We briefly talk about the words on Monday, have vocabulary word demonstrations on Tuesday, have spelling sentences due on Thursday, and have a spelling test on Friday. As of last year, students are only required to do one vocabulary demonstration per quarter, and complete spelling sentences two times during the quarter.

I am very frustrated with this spelling program for a number of reasons. First of all, a large majority of the students do not complete the given assignments or study for Friday’s spelling test. To me, this is just a sign of laziness – the spelling assignments are not that rigorous! And therein lies the second problem. The spelling assignments are ineffective and boring. I don’t feel like I am truly teaching any skills. Most importantly, I do not think that students are truly improving their spelling as a result of this program. If students do poorly on a spelling test, there is no accountability for the students still needing to learn the missed words.

Because I have frustrations with my spelling program, I feel that I am wasting class time with the spelling tests and wasting my own time scoring and recording all spelling work.

Burning question:
How can I more effectively teach spelling to my students?

There are innumerable books and articles dedicated to theories on the teaching of spelling. I am going to focus my immediate research on one major source: the March 2002 issue of Voices from the Middle. The articles in this journal all deal with the need for spelling at the middle school level, and each article discusses different methods for teaching spelling. What I like about the articles are the extensive bibliographies at the end of each one. I have included every article from Voices in the Middle in my bibliography, but please refer to the actual articles for more extensive resource materials.

Article reviews:
In the article “Effective Spelling Instruction in the Middle Grades”, Shane Templeton makes four claims about spelling: the English spelling system is logical, learning to spell is a process of conceptual development, students’ spelling correlates with their word knowledge, and good spelling instruction supports both reading and vocabulary development. A teacher must understand a student’s spelling level before good instruction can occur. For example, a student who does not understand the spelling patterns of single-syllable words should not be learning about polysyllabic words. Once spelling levels are determined, word categorization activities (word sorts) are effective techniques for guiding students to recognize spelling generalizations.

Jay Richards, in his article “Taking the Guesswork out of Spelling”, agrees that there is logic in the seemingly random spelling of English words. Teachers must help students discover the organizational patterns behind spelling. Three pages of this article list several (37) critical rules for spelling.

In “Spellbound: Commitment to Correctness”, Gail Thibodeau shares how her department went from a traditional spelling textbook to spelling instruction that is integrated into reading and writing. She and her colleagues have devised a list of “Spelling Unforgivables” – words that “count” against students if they are misspelled. Included in the article are the list of Unforgivables and the spelling mastery lists for grades six, seven, and eight.

Rebecca Sipe discusses the needs of poor spellers in “Supporting Challenged Spellers”. Like Richards, Sipe and her colleagues believe that spelling rules need to be taught. Also, Sipe believes that spelling is best taught within the context of editing because students who are challenged spellers should not be made to feel that they are challenged writers. Four categories of challenged spellers are profiled in the article.

In “Spelling: From Invention to Strategies”, Howard Miller asserts that it is the speller’s burden to communicate effectively. In order to help spellers, teachers can use constructed-response training and can teach proper usage of spelling resources such as dictionaries and spell checkers.

My plan of action:
From these five articles, I have discovered many new ideas about how to approach the teaching of spelling. Because we try to coordinate our curriculums, I want to talk with my school’s other seventh grade Language Arts teacher before I make any definite plans. However, these are some ideas I have for the upcoming school year:

1) If I continue to have weekly spelling lists, I want to reorganize the lists so that each week’s words follow a similar spelling pattern. This way, I can really focus on one spelling rule every week.

2) I would like students to do word sorts as activities to go with the spelling rule lessons. Beyond this, the advanced students can search for interesting word choices in the literature we are reading that fit the spelling patterns.

3) I definitely want to introduce a list of Spelling Unforgivables. Anytime an Unforgivable is misspelled, the student will be responsible for making the correction.

4) Along with the Unforgivables, I want students to keep a spelling journal of common words they have difficulty spelling.

I am most concerned with helping the students who are extremely poor spellers. I would like to see their attitudes toward spelling and themselves as writers become more positive as they learn techniques for figuring out the spelling of words.

I will evaluate the impact my new spelling program has on students through the use of spelling in student writing. I will be able to track how often students misuse the Spelling Unforgivables, and I will be able to informally observe my students’ attitudes toward spelling. Also, I will give occasional small writing assignments that will be checked only for spelling. The students and I will then have the opportunity to analyze what words they are misspelling.

As I move forward in my program, I plan to keep in contact with Edie Stearns, who is also doing action research on spelling. Edie and I will be able to share which strategies are successful and which strategies don’t seem to work.

Miller, H. (2002). Spelling: From invention to strategies. Voices from the Middle, 9(3), 33-37.

Richards, J. (2002). Taking the guesswork out of spelling. Voices from the Middle, 9(3), 15-18.

Sipe, R. (2002). Supporting challenged spellers. Voices from the Middle, 9(3),
23-32.Templeton, S. (2002). Effective spelling instruction in the middle grades: It’s a lot more than memorization. Voices from the Middle, 9(3), 8-14.

Thibodeau, G. (2002). Spellbound: Commitment to correctness. Voices from the Middle, 9(3), 19-22.

Routman, R. (2000). Conversations: Strategies for teaching, learning, and evaluating. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
(I haven’t had time to fully read this book yet, but there is a whole chapter that deals with spelling and it looks useful.)


Creative writing:


Claude’s dark body shadows my every move, craving my attention and wanting to love me.

Every morning as I wrestle my eyes away from the grips of Mr. Sandman, Claude gazes at me. He doesn’t protest that I’m still lying in bed. Instead, he patiently sits and waits for the moment when I spring up and our day will begin. Breakfast is a peaceful time for us to reacquaint our rhythms. Claude does not demand a fancy morning meal. Omelets and waffles are not expected, not even toast. Instead, Claude and I both satisfy our hunger with simple food poured out of a box.

My morning preparations take longer than Claude’s. The minutes pass as I brush my teeth, style my hair, and apply my makeup. By the time I finally feel armored to face the grueling world, Claude has already groomed himself, decided that he looks fabulous, and laid down for a quick snooze. Claude bids me a fond farewell at the door as I head to work. All day long, while I am inspiring, monitoring, and managing teenagers, Claude stays at home and manages the household. The wren family outside the sunroom window is carefully monitored by Claude, and he is easily inspired by the afternoon sunbeams to seek out maximum warmth and leisure.

The rumbling of the garage door alerts Claude to my arrival home, and he is consistently planted at the door to welcome my weary body. By serving as a role model, Claude encourages me to sit, pamper my feet, and nibble on some Chex mix. After supper has been eaten and the last dish has been washed, Claude will sink into the couch cushions with me, keeping me warm as the television emits mindless entertainment. And at night, I love Claude’s contented purr as he snuggles with me under the bed covers.

Claude’s dark body has shadowed my every move, deserving my attention and receiving my love.