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Saturday, 18 April 2015

My spelling programme - the Essentials first.

Spelling is a somewhat contentious issue.  As I have worked in a variety of schools I have seen a variety of spelling programmes.  Some I found underwhelming, others I found overwhelming.  Some people swear by Joy Allcock's Switched onto Spelling or  Spelling Under Scrutiny, and some by Gaye Byers programme, while there are those of us who believe that the best place to start is with the NZCER researched Essential Lists.

I am a strong believer in the value of learning these lists first.  NZCER's research has proven that these are the words most used by children as they develop their writing schools during primary school.  So doesn't it make sense that we, as teachers, ensure they can successfully write using these most important words of all?

The New Zealand Curriculum sets some general indicators of what it expects students to by doing at each level for writing:

Level One:
  • Spells some high-frequency words correctly and begins to use some common spelling patterns;
  • Begins to use some strategies to self-correct and monitor spelling;

Level Two:
  • Spells most high-frequency words correctly and shows growing knowledge of common spelling patterns;
  • Uses a range of strategies to self-monitor and self-correct spelling
Level Three:
  • Demonstrates good understanding of all basic spelling patterns and sounds in written English;
  • Uses an increasing range of strategies to self-monitor and self-correct spelling;
Level Four:
  • Demonstrates a good understanding of spelling patterns in written English, with few intrusive errors;
  • Uses an wide range of strategies to self-monitor and self-correct spelling;
The Literacy Progressions give a little more detail of the expectations for spelling and students progress on their writing journey.

After one year at school:

  • using their developing visual memory to accurately write some key personal words and some high-frequency words (Examples of high-frequency words appropriate at this level could include most words from Essential List 1 and some words from Essential List 2 in Croft (1998)). 
  • encoding (spelling) unfamiliar words by using their developing knowledge of phoneme– grapheme relationships, which enables them to:
    • recognise and write most sounds of English in at least one appropriate way (for example, s, t, ch, ow, k, f, oy)
    • recognise that there can be different ways of representing the same sound (for example, phone/father; keep/cat)
    • apply sound–letter relationships in order to write words they want to use (for example, catapulla)
  • encoding (spelling) unfamiliar words by using their developing knowledge of morphology to write word endings correctly (for example, jump/jumped; boy/boys)
  • using classroom resources such as wallcharts and picture dictionaries
    After two years at school:

  • using their developing phonemic awareness to form new words aurally by changing or taking out some of the sounds in a word or by adding new sounds to words
  • using their visual memory to spell personal vocabulary as well as high-frequency words, which could include most of the words in essential lists 1 and 2 as well as some of the high- frequency words in essential lists 3 and 4  (These lists are in Croft (1998). They are examples only, and teachers may refer to other reputable lists of high-frequency words).
  • encoding (spelling) unfamiliar words by:
    • using their knowledge of diverse phoneme–grapheme relationships to write some of the sounds of English in different ways (for example, photo, laugh, Friday)
    • applying strategies such as sounding out words, making analogies to words that sound or look the same, and using known chunks and rimes
    • using their increasing knowledge of morphology to correctly spell word endings and other morphemes (for example, greatest, florist)
    • applying their knowledge of simple spelling rules (for example, using -es for plural nouns ending in s, such as buses)
    After three years at school:

  • using their visual memory to spell personal vocabulary and high-frequency words (e.g., many words from essential lists 1–4 and some from list 5 and list 6.  These lists are in Croft (1998). They are examples only, and teachers may refer to other reputable lists of high-frequency words);
  • encoding (spelling) unfamiliar words by:
    • using their knowledge of phoneme–grapheme relationships, along with their developing awareness of spelling conventions, to select correct spelling patterns for sounds in words (e.g., spelling the k sound correctly in both catch and kitchen)
    • applying their growing knowledge of useful spelling rules (e.g., the rules relating to adding simple plural suffixes such as those in baby/babies and half/halves) and their growing knowledge of morphology (e.g., adding a d to hear to make heard)
    • applying their expanding knowledge of graphemes (e.g., of graphemes such as or, awe, oar, and oor, which record similar sounds) to write words correctly;
    By the end of Year 4:
    encoding (spelling) by:
    • using their knowledge of diverse phoneme–grapheme relationships (e.g., ship, chef, ocean, station, special), of the meaning and spelling of morphemes (e.g., root words and affixes), and of common, reliable spelling rules and conventions
    • using their visual memory to help them spell personal vocabulary and high-frequency words correctly (the high-frequency words include most words from essential lists 1–4 and many from essential lists 5–7.  These lists are in Croft (1998). They are examples only, and teachers may refer to other reputable lists of high-frequency words.);

  • expanding their writing vocabulary by using strategies such as:
    • applying their knowledge of the meaning of most common prefixes (e.g., un-, sub-, pre-, non-) and most common suffixes (e.g., -ful, -ly, -tion, -able/-ible, and -ment)
    • using reference sources (e.g., dictionaries and thesauruses) to check the meanings of words and to find new words;
    By the end of Year 6:

  • using their knowledge of how words work (e.g., knowledge of diverse phoneme–grapheme relationships, of common, reliable spelling rules and conventions, and of the meanings and spellings of morphemes), along with their knowledge of word derivations, to fluently and correctly encode most unfamiliar words, including words of many syllables;
  • correctly spelling all high-frequency words (High-frequency words at this level could, for example, include all those in the lists of essential words in Croft (1998)) used in their writing;
    By the end of Year 8:

  • fluently and correctly encoding most unfamiliar words (including words of many syllables) by drawing on their knowledge of how words work (e.g., in terms of diverse phoneme– grapheme relationships, common and reliable spelling rules and conventions, and the meanings and spellings of morphemes) and their knowledge of word derivations;

  • NOTE:  References to Croft's Essential Lists have been called NZCER's Essential Lists in all other places in this blog post.  They are one and the same.

    And as much as I detest even mentioning National Standards, which are no longer relevant as of 2018, spelling is mentioned in the document when it comes to making OTJs (Overall Teacher Judgements), and the NZCER Essential Lists are explicitly mentioned, as demonstrated in the Education Gazette article Writing 'At' THE standard - What does it mean? from 8 November 2010:

    After 1 Year at School
    • is able to write some key personal words and some high frequency words correctly;

    After 2 Years at School
    • can spell most of the high frequency words in the NZCER Essential Lists 1 and 2 and some of Essential Lists 3 and 4, and can use what he knows about sound-to-letter relationships to attempt to write unfamiliar words;

    After 3 Years at School
    • has a visual memory for most words in NZCER Essential Lists 1-4 and some from Lists 5 and 6;
    • draws on her developing spelling and language knowledge to encode unfamiliar words;

    By the end of Year 4
    • proof reads for accuracy of spelling, grammar and punctuation;
    • has a visual memory for most words in NZCER Essential Lists 1-4 and many from Lists 5 -7;

    By the end of Year 5
    • uses computer and print-based tools as appropriate to assist his checking of spelling, grammar and punctuation;
    • correctly spells nearly all high frequency words used in his writing.  

    By the end of Year 6
    • uses computer- and print-based tools as appropriate, to assist in checking spelling, grammar and punctuation;
    • correctly spells all high frequency words used in his writing.   

    By the end of Year 7 and 8 (because this sentence is the same for both)
    • crafts and recrafts her writing by revising and editing, so that her texts meet their intended purpose, engage the audience and are checked for grammar, punctuation and spelling;

    At the beginning of each term I test my children on the Essential Lists.  Click here for the NZCER Essential Lists for Spelling and Extension.

    It takes me about three to four days to do the testing, whole class.  I have a prepared list that the students write on which I print out prior to school starting and have about the number of copies I need to cover the class.  The first day I usually do Lists 1-4 (depending on the age of the students).  The second day I usually do Lists 5 and 6.  And on the third day I will do List 7 and Commonly Misspelt Words. 

    Not every child will do all the tests.  If a child gets below 50% right in any list I do not move them forward to the next List test.  If a child gets below 60%, but I can see that their mistakes are things like missing one letter out or having the right letters in the wrong order I let them go onto the next List.

    Each term I record the results in a spreadsheet and each child gets a summary published in their portfolio like below, which also includes testing on Rimes, Schonell, Basic Facts and Numeracy stages and a Reading level.  This is a summary for a whole year as you can see below:

    The "A" means "Achieved", which I write in when a student gets 100% two terms in a row.  Once they have that "A" they do not have to do the test - I call it an incentive to do their best.  If the child is in my class the following year and they had an "A" at the end of the previous year, if they get 100% in the first term then their "A" is automatically rewarded again.  If a child does not sit a List then I put "ns" for "not sat" in the place of a percentage.

    I've found the above grid to be an appropriate way to communicate effectively to individual children and their parents the progress their child has made.  It is not displayed publicly and it is up to the child if they want to share with their classmates or not.  I find it is a big source of motivation for the individual and myself when we get bogged down with the effort of the daily grind of spelling.

    Don't be afraid to celebrate every piece of progress, no matter how small.  Every word learned is one less to learn.  Emphasise how much easier writing is becoming for them because they know how to spell so many more words than before and they can now concentrate more on other aspects of their writing, like the message.  Celebrate improvements in their approximations of spelling too.  If their approximations are getting closer to the real spelling, their phonemic awareness and knowledge of spelling patterns is improving and making spelling less of a challenge.

    So after the test, when I have finished the marking, I and the children use the words that they got wrong as the words they need to learn in their weekly spelling lists.  Year 4 students up get 10 words, and Year 3 students get 8 words.  If I have a real struggling speller, I limit their words to 6 a week.  I only use the words they get wrong because I do not see the point in learning a word you can already spell.

    For younger students and students who need extra support I do the following to make it easier for them to know which words they need to learn:

    The examples above would normally have names written in the top left corner, but I've whited them out for privacy.  Some children have more to learn than others you can see.  Each child glues their own one into the back of their writing book.  Each term this is a good thing because when they glue the next one in they see their lists either get smaller or the words change as they move on to new lists. 

    As they write each word in their spelling book, they put a line through it from the lists above.

    The original tests are glued and taped into their Portfolio/Achievement Books.  The older/more capable students go through these lists each week and write their words directly into their spelling books.

    In most schools I've had a 3B1 (or the hard cover version which handles the back and forth of being in a school bag better) notebook for students to do their spelling in.  I teach them at the beginning of the year how to rule up the columns and set it all out.  It makes it easier to learn words if you have a clear layout in which it is written. 

    At other schools there has just been one book for homework, so I've used this blackline each week with the date already included:

    The 3B1s are ruled up in a similar way to the Blackline shown above, with red pen used to rule columns.

    Spelling books go home each Monday, and the students are expected to learn and test their words at home each night Monday through Thursday, bringing their books back to school on Friday for partner testing.  After a partner has tested them, the students line up and I randomly choose two or three words from their list to test them on.  This teacher test is an important component of the process.  I figured out in my third year of teaching that this was essential after I figured out some kids were pulling the wool over my eyes and weren't learning their words at all.  This way I can see who is doing the learning or not.

    If a child gets a word wrong in their partner test or their teacher test, that I is the first word in their spelling list for the following week.  Then the remainder of the list is made up of words from the Essential Lists they still have to learn.

    Now this bit is very important:  Check and sign every book before you send it home!!!!!!!

    Why?  Some parents can be very anal about spelling books coming home with a misspelt word to learn.  And you will make mistakes.  But the best way to react to that is to be a bit humorous and humble and admit you made a mistake.

    I usually correct the mistakes myself.  But if the whole thing looks like a dog's breakfast.... well back goes the child to redo the list on a new page to the expected standard!

    Also this is important because I did have one little cookie who tried to pull the wool over my eyes by changing the date and not doing a new list each week!!  When you sign it, you know you have seen it.  I also hand out all the spelling books at once so I know if any student has not handed in their book for checking and all those other things we know children do!

    So what happens when a student runs out of words from the Essential Lists to learn?

    Firstly we turn to their writing in their draft writing books.  Any word I have had to correct and some words that the children have corrected by using a dictionary become the next lot of words they need to work through for their spelling lists.  As they use a word they leave a tick beside it to show they have used the word.

    After this, I use a book called Successful Spelling for Frustrated Teachers.  I've had a copy of this book since the early 2000s thanks to a colleague at the time.  It is now out of print and therefore not available for purchase.  Through a bit of research I found out this book was created by Christine McLiesh and it was published by Kanuka Grove Teachers Centre in 1994.  The closest updated copy I have found is called Super Spelling, and this is very much like the book I've been using all these years successfully.

    The book gives suggestions on how to use the words, how to run a spelling programme and how to keep track of the progress.  I've used the book in these three ways because I have found it suits my programme:
    1. I test the group of students on the words on a level I think appropriate and they learn the words they got wrong;
    2. I roughly gage what level I think they can cope with, write 20 of the words on the board and the kids choose the ones they want;
    3. or I write the words I think they should have directly in their book, sometimes adding suffixes and the like to up the ante.
    Also when the class and I start a topic for maths or science or social studies or health or technology, I will put words up on the board that they will be using a lot so they may choose to include these in their learning.

    I also test my class on Rimes.  Rimes (or word families) are really important for being able to spell similar words.  Click here for the test master and Rimes and how to call the test.

    This assessment actively informs me on who needs to learn which Rimes and I plot who needs what like on the table pictured below.  I colour code the Rimes with the same number of children needing to learn the Rime.  It helps me.  I tend to spend the first term covering the ones that most people need help with on a whole class basis, and the remaining terms targeting the students who need to work on specific Rimes.

    I use a variety of methods to teach and practice the Rimes we need to learn.  Through Scholastic Teacher Book Club I've accumulated some books that cover Rimes/word families through poems, games and worksheets - these were usually able to be purchased quite cheaply, so keep an eye out for them in upcoming Teacher Book Clubs.  I've also acquired worksheets created by colleagues and invented my own.  I've use techniques from Chunk Check Cheer! spelling programme (ask your RTLB or RTLit for more information on this programme).  There are also lots of great word family resources at Sparklebox, Teachers Pay Teachers, and just by googling. Here are some photos of my favourite resources I've collected over the years:
    This book has a variety of games and activities as you can see on the cover for independent activity and practice during Reading Tumble time.

    Great games for independent practice as part of the Reading Tumble.

    I have tended to use these poems as part of my homework programme for two reasons:  firstly to identify and highlight the words with the Rime we are focusing on; secondly for reading practice.

    This is a big flip book with a CD of songs to help learn the Rime - great sneaky reading practice too.  I usually do this as a whole class, and work well with up to Year 4 students.
    I also test my class with Schonell's spelling test three times a year to get a "Spelling Age".  Many people are sceptical about there being a "Spelling Age", but I have found it to be a good gauge of how students are progressing.  I alternate between the A and B version of the test.  You can click here to download the Schonell test I recommend and click here for a text grid for the students to write on.  Click here to download the instructions of how to take the test and work out spelling ages for each student.

    At certain points of the term, mainly the beginning, this is a lot of work to set up, mainly because of the testing.  Once you have the students trained up early in the year in how to set out their spelling books and how to get their words, then bringing their books on the right day and able to partner text, it pretty much runs itself. Overall, I have found my programme to be very effective in giving children the confidence to write because they have increased their known written vocabulary each term and they are increasing their ability to identify errors and use resources to self correct.

    This is where I finish and leave you with a paper called Reading and Spelling - Spelling: A Cinderella Subject? published by Massey University.  Here is the beginning of the paper to give you an idea about its content, and it is well worth a read for the background of how and why spelling is taught in New Zealand, and how children learn to spell:
    In New Zealand, the teaching of spelling might be seen as a Cinderella subject. In many classrooms, spelling is not explicitly taught. Instead, the child is encouraged to approximate correct spellings through the process of writing. Teachers, when reading children’s writing, are expected to build on children’s spelling skills when opportunities arise, taking advantage of the "teachable moment" (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 69) to model for the child the process of transforming good approximations into correct spellings.

    Children are encouraged to monitor their own spelling, by keeping a "spelling notebook" (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 116) which contains words they use in their writing, including words they want to write but find hard to spell. Children are expected to show some accuracy in spelling. They are encouraged to approximate the spellings of words they don’t know how to spell, and to correct misspelled words. They are expected to develop a "spelling conscience" (p. 62), that is, the habit of looking for possible misspelled words in their writing and then correcting them by looking them up in a dictionary. The Report of the Literacy Task Force (Ministry of Education, 1999) suggests that a successful 9-year-old writer "consistently makes informed attempts at spelling." (p. 34)

    Why is formal spelling instruction regarded as less effective than the informal approach of learning to spell through writing, and through personal spelling lists? A classic study in the United States by Rice (1897a, 1897 b), published over 100 years ago, has often been cited as evidence to support keeping formal spelling instruction to a minimum. In a national survey of many thousands of classrooms, Rice found no clear differences in spelling achievement, even though there were many different ways of teaching spelling, and even though the amount of time spent teaching spelling varied widely from one school to the next. Rice felt that the main factor in becoming a good speller was time, or maturation. As pupils got older, they got better at spelling. At that time, given that the amount of time devoted to spelling instruction did not seem to make a difference in spelling achievement, Rice recommended that teachers keep spelling lists and drills to about 15 minutes each day.

    This is an example of a spelling plan I have used in the past.

    Please feel free to ask questions, challenge and share your spelling programme in the comments section.


    1. Loved reading this. It makes complete sense to me. Very well written. I have found that spelling tends to take a lot of prep and organisation for a subject that usually only takes 10mins a day to do but it is an essential skill that our tamariki need in order to be great writers. Great read. Many thanks.

      1. It does take a surprising amount of time, but I've seen the benefits in children having more confidence to write. Thanks for reading.

    2. Thanks Mel for giving such a thorough post on your spelling programme. It is a rich source of links and reads really well. How do you work out the equivalent spelling age to words correct in schonell (formula isn't on the link - or I may have overlooked it)? It is a lot of testing for one particular area of literacy but I can see how you are using it to inform your teaching and monitor progress. Great progress tracking for the kids too on those little sheets/table too. Well done.

    3. Thankyou! I have been teaching for 20 years but this is one of the best spelling programs I've seen.

      1. That is very kind. I've been amazed by the response to this post.

    4. Good point Justine, it is not on that resource. I will make an edit and add a page explaining that. Thanks for pointing it out. :-)

      1. Edits have been completed and the new document explaining how to administer the Schonell test and score a spelling age has been added, along with some further thoughts on feeding back to students and parents and motivation.

    5. Thanks. We used to used the spelling programme by Mrs McLiesh years ago.

    6. This has been fantastic! I used your rime assessment today to identify gaps with word families and realised that it's incomplete (only goes to No 21). Your spelling blog update has really helped me 'rethink' what I do. What a star you are!

      1. Hi there, did you print out all three pages in the document? Did one print double sided by any chance? My test page for the children is double sided. Thanks for your feed back. Contract me through the Facebook page if you need any quick assistance. Mel

      2. I've just had a look at the document I put into my Dropbox and saw the issue. I will endeavour to fix it in the morning. Cheers.

    7. Hi Mel, thanks for such a broad explanation of your spellin programme. I do a lot of what you have mentioned and I use the essential list with added words that they use every day. Great reading.

    8. Thanks Mel, great reading and a lot of what I am doing too.

    9. Thank you and really enjoyed reading this. If you want a copy of Super Spelling it is not available in print as the publisher went out of business! however, you are welcome to contact me: chrismcliesh@ihug.co.nz. I am updating it at present.

    10. Fantastic blog Mel thank you. Scholastic also has some free and reproducible spelling material. See the Word Family Lists at http://www.scholastic.co.nz/schools/teacher-toolkit/teacher-toolkit-lower-primary-english/

    11. hello mel
      Thanks for the blog. I am kiwi teacher leading a school in Abu dhabi. I have had good success using Schonell as a quick and easy way to show Arabic communities what level their children are working at. I wonder if you have ever seen a document that explains the progression of spelling knowledge and skills that make up the Schonell list/continuum. e.g. cvc words, long vowels...silent e, prefixes etc. I would appreciate if you could share anything you have. Want to up-skill some teachers. Also I have had great success with a simple and effective program called Read Write Inc by Ruth Miskin, it's worth a look. cheers

      1. I there, I pretty much based my programme on the NZCER Essential Lists as they researched it thoroughly. I just did a quick google search and there is not a lot specifically researched on spelling in New Zealand. However when I googled "Schonell Spelling Test Research" I came up with this abstract that may be helpful: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S1532799XSSR0703_6

      2. Thank you for your generous, helpful sharing.

    12. Thank you so much for sharing! This is really helpful :)

    13. I have enjoyed reading your blog and feel that you have put together a very useable programme for the classroom. Thanks.

    14. I enjoy reading your Blog, as a BT you have given me a lot of direction. Thank you.

    15. This is awesome!! Thank you for sharing. What a great way to release responsibility to your students! I'm struggling with that this year because so many of my students still need a lot of teacher support. I'm inspired by this idea!
      Spelling test for grade 5

    16. Thank you so much! I am a newly registered teacher and still struggle with so many things in the classroom. I really admire and appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience! Good luck with your dissertation this year.

    17. Hi Mel, do you have a test recording sheet that you use with the students to test the essential lists?

      1. I made one up using the tables feature in Publisher. One could probably do the same in Word or Google Sheets I guess.

      2. There is a link within the blog to it; look for the hyperlinked phrase "prepared list that the students write on".

    18. Thank you Mel!

    19. Whoops - I think I just deleted my question. I would like to print out some of the links/sheets you have put in your post but cannot get them to fit the page and be useable. Any suggestions? it's a great post on teaching Spelling. Thank you.