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Edie Stearns

© 2002

Action Research:

Why can’t my 5th graders spell?

What I Already Know:
I know a few things about spelling. I have never seen the value of weekly spelling lists because the “knowledge” gained from them never transfers to my students’ day to day spelling. Never. I also know that the memorization of a list of words is very low on any intelligence organizer. (ie Bloom’s Taxonomy), therefore my students are not using the best part of their brains when doing rote memorization. I know that spelling is developmental. I also know that parents like spelling lists because they know how to “do” spelling lists, even though studying for the weekly test takes lots of time for many families, time that could be better spent reading. I know that if I quit spelling lists cold turkey, many families would not like it. I also know that the standardized spelling scores for our district have been below normal for quite some time, but no changes have been made in our curriculum. We still give the weekly spelling tests that go along with our reading series.

Why I am Interested in This Topic and What I Want to Know:
I am a writing teacher. Words excite me, especially the words of young children. But, if their words are lost because of misspellings, the reason for writing is lost. By the fifth grade, I believe many of the developmental stages of spelling should be finished and I expect more concerned, informed spellers than I am actually getting. Why are our scores lower in spelling than in any other area? What can I do as a 5th grade teacher to make spelling meaningful and logical? I want the acquired knowledge in spelling to transfer to their everyday writing. I want it to make sense.

Routman, Regie. Invitations: Changing as Teachers and Learners K-12. New Hampshire: Heinemann. 1994. ISBN 0-435-08836-x
Routman emphasizes an integrated approach to spelling rather that the traditional memorization of lists. “The evaluation of spelling should be a natural part of the writing process.” She suggests looking for the problems students are having in their real writing and addressing the spelling rules through mini lessons that are presented to the students and involve their participation.

Routman, Regie. Conversations: Strategies for Teaching, Leaning and Evaluating. New Hampshire:Heineman. 2000. ISBN 0-325-00109-x. Here, Routman reveals research about how children learn how to spell. The largest determining factor is if a child is a competent reader. If so, he or she will also be a competent speller. Therefore, “attending to a student’s overall literacy development before focusing on spelling results I more meaningful spelling work and greater overall achievement.” Writing and spelling go hand and hand and should not be separated.

Gambrell,L., Morrow, L., Neuman, S., Pressley, M., editors. Best Practices in Literacy Instruction. New York: Guilford Press. 1999. ISBN 1-57230—443-X.
In this comprehensive text, it is stated that children learn spelling the best through basic phonics instruction. (analogic phonics instruction). By using Word Walls, children at young ages can begin to see patterns of rhyming words. Unfortunately this resource did not provide any insight in what I can do with my 5th grade spelling instruction.

Ganske, Kathy. Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling and Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford Press. 2000. ISBN 1-57230-559-2.
Ganske maintains that “fluent reading a writing depend on a well-developed knowledge of spelling patterns and their relationship to sound and meaning. There should be some direct instruction here, in the form of a “Word Study”, but these words for word study should come from the students’ reading and writing. She provides a sample schedule for a weekly word study that is based on a sort method of discovering spelling patterns. There is a lot of self-discovery for the student with this method.

Fountas, I., Pinnell, G. Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3-6. New Hampshire: Heinemann. 2001 ISBN 0-325-00310-6.
Word sorting, again, is the preferred method of spelling instruction. I really liked the word sort charts on pp. 378/9.

Gentry, J. Richard. My Kid Can’t Spell! Understanding and Assisting Your Child’s Literacy Development New Hampshire: Heinemann. 1997. ISBN 0-435-08135-7.
Now this is the man to read in the subject of spelling. I liked it so much, I ordered his newest book about spelling. He makes tons of sense!

**Another wonderful resource was Voices in the Middle Vol. 9 No. 3, a journal by NCTE. The entire issue was devoted to spelling research and instruction. Kari Sortum reviewed these articles for her project and so I suggest you look at what she wrote**

Plan for the Coming School Year:
I am slowly but surely going to revamp my spelling instruction. I am going to teach spelling in context of the kids writing (what I see they’re having trouble with) and I am going to create lessons and word lists based on spelling and phonics rules. I plan on giving a pre test at the beginning of the year, as well as keep a portfolio of my students’ writing and then give a post test at the end and examine their spelling in their writing pieces to see if I can quantify this study. I want to see if this new instruction can make a difference.


Creative writing:

(An excerpt from a longer essay)

Later that year—as it was kickball weather, it must have been April-- I was playing kickball with the sixth grade boys. I was standing in line waiting my turn to kick the ball when a group of the most popular eighth grade girls asked if they might talk to me. I was nervous. One of the girls, Linda Polanski, who had long blond hair and who wore lots of creamy blue eye shadow, grabbed my arm and pulled me into the midst of her group. She yanked open the collar of my shirt.

“Why do you always button your top button? You look like Mike Munster!”

Carolyn Miller, big-breasted and consequently popular with the boys, was next. “Look at your eyebrows! They’re all grown together,” she said. “You should learn how to pluck them or you’ll have a face like Frankenstein’s!”

The other girls tittered. Linda patted me on the back a few times. I understood the gesture to mean, “OK, we’ve had our fun. You can go now.” I was wrong.

“You still wear an undershirt?” Linda asked. “I can’t believe your mother hasn’t gotten you a bra yet.”

“I guess you don’t really need one,” added the voluptuous Miss Miller, “since you haven’t even started growing yet.”

They laughed and I ran to a grove of trees in the first graders’ area of the playground. I cried alone under a wide oak in the grove that day, but part of me was grateful to those girls