This article presents a series of focus areas that comprise a comprehensive approach to helping children become better spellers. Traditionally, the weekly spelling test has been the primary vehicle for driving spelling instruction. The main problem with weekly spelling tests involves the issue of transfer. This simply means that students can study hard and earn high scores on the tests, yet continue to spell these words incorrectly in their daily writing, when it matters most. Instead of emphasizing scores on weekly spelling tests, teachers and parents are better served by addressing the following aspects of spelling instruction with children.
1) Encourage kids to immerse themselves in the language. By far, the number one way to help children become better spellers is to have them participate in a wide variety of authentic reading and writing projects. Research has shown that children who read at least 30 minutes per night encounter more than one million words over the course of a school year. Seeing these words spelled correctly in books provides strong modeling that increases kids’ spelling proficiency.
2) Build a foundation with high frequency words. Many schools have students learn the “High Frequency 100” or “High Frequency 500.” These lists feature the words that are used most commonly in books. I have heard that as many as sixty or seventy percent of the words we use in our daily writing can be found on these lists, and because of this fact, students need to invest time learning them. Ask around at your child’s school if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the high frequency words.
3) Invest time helping children learn common spelling rules and patterns. If you notice that children struggle in their attempts to spell words that include the “i before e except after c” rule or the “ight” or “ough” patterns, spend some time going over examples of these rules and patterns in action. Because learning a single rule can help kids spell as many as 10-15 new words correctly, mastering these features of the language delivers plenty of bang for our buck.
4) Hold kids accountable for spelling “accessible” words correctly. In my classroom when a word is written on the board or on a worksheet students are using, they are responsible for spelling that word correctly. This type of accountability encourages kids to pay extra attention to their spelling. I don’t, however, hold kids accountable for every word all the time because it can disrupt the flow of their writing, create a block, and cause them to play it safe with easy words rather than attempt to use new, more colorful words. There is a time and a place for thorough editing, and that leads to our fifth area.
5) Ask kids to edit selected projects for spelling at the end of the writing process. The beginning of a writing project (the drafting stage) is all about creativity, fluency, and free expression. Concerns about spelling can get in the way of these priorities. Once the drafting and revising stages are over, editing for spelling using a dictionary is important. I don’t want to burn my students out on using the dictionary, so I have them use one only at the conclusion of our major Writing Workshop projects. At home, parents can edit for spelling with their kids at the conclusion of nightly journal writing time or other writing projects that are part of the regular homework.
At the beginning of each school year, I have my students create a series of individual reading goals. We also set the overall class goal of becoming â€œQuality Readers.â€ This general goal focuses more on specific habits and dispositions than it does on achieving a certain skill level. As a result, everyone can reach this goal with sustained effort. When children consistently satisfy the following six criteria, we can say that they are truly quality readers.
In my class we have a chart containing these criteria. After reviewing this list over a period of days, we have a special signing ceremony in which the kids add their names, one at a time, to the bottom of the chart as a symbol of their commitment to reach this goal. I highly recommend reviewing this list in class with your students or at home with your children and then asking them to sign. Taking these steps will positively impact their approach to reading.
1) Quality readers read every day. Research has shown that children who read at least 30 minutes a night will encounter more than one million words over the course of a school year. Reading every day, including weekends, will improve kidsâ€™ fluency and comprehension, lengthen their attention span, improve their spelling and writing skills, and increase their enthusiasm for reading. There is no short-cut to reading success. We all need to put in our time each and every day.
2) Quality readers think and talk about their books with other people. As frequently as possible, encourage children to discuss their books with family members and friends. Many kids even like to start Book Clubs to combine their love of reading with the joy of spending time with others. Discussing plot, character, and other aspects of their books deepens childrenâ€™s comprehension and fosters their development as writers.
3) Quality readers take care of their books. Quality readers show respect for their books. They donâ€™t throw, scratch, or mark up their books. Of particular importance is how they close their books. Many children fold back the front of the book to remember their current page, but this can damage the spine. Kids should use bookmarks or record their pages in a reading notebook to mark their page at the end of a reading session.
4) Quality readers read as much as they can. A great way to achieve this objective is to be sure that we always keep a book with us, such as in our backpack or car, because we never know when we will have a few extra minutes to read. This is especially true for children who need to wait for siblings after a sports practice or wait after school to be picked up by a family member.
5) Quality readers protect their reading time. If we plan to sit down to read for 30 minutes, we read for 30 minutes. We turn off our phones and computers, remove ourselves from any potential distractions, and ensure that nothing gets in our way during this time. If we need to move to a quiet corner of the room, wear noise canceling headphones, or take other similar steps, then thatâ€™s what we do.
6) Quality readers get lost in their books. My students absolutely love hearing this expression, especially at the start of our daily silent reading period when I look them all in the eye with a serious expression on my face and tell them to get lost - in their books. When children get lost in their books, their bodies may still be in the room, but their minds are someplace else. They are in such a heightened state of focus that it is almost like they are in another world. In this state they do not notice anything or anybody around them.
One of my highest priorities at the beginning of each school year involves establishing an expectation level in my classroom so that my new students understand the level of neatness, quality, and effort they will need to produce in order to be successful learners. Once these expectations are established, it is important for me to hold the kids accountable, provide support and encouragement, and keep the bar consistently high.
I believe that parents have the same opportunity at home with their children. The beginning of a new school year is, by far, the best time to establish an expectation level with regard to the neatness and quality of homework and school work, effort, and attitude. Establishing a culture of high expectations is especially important for children who have yet to have positive, academically successful experiences in school.
The first step that I recommend is to convey the message that this year can be different. If children are able to identify a handful of meaningful goals and willing to work with enthusiasm, determination, and purpose on a daily basis, the sky is the limit. Once you and your child have set these goals, consistently revisiting these ideas and holding kids accountable for their actions will gradually lead to significant improvement.
When you notice your kids working hard, demonstrating dedication, and producing higher quality work, recognize this effort. Everyone appreciates being recognized for a job well done, and kids are no different. Your kind words will boost self-esteem, increase motivation, and lead to feelings of joy, pride, and satisfaction. Being recognized for their success will make kids want to taste more success, and they will become more invested in this endeavor. A virtuous cycle begins.
On the other hand, if your children are falling back into old habits, settling for less than their best effort, and producing work that is below par, relish these moments as the valuable learning opportunities that they are. Instead of becoming angry in these situations, it is critical to communicate the following message: â€œThis piece of work does not represent your best effort. I know you can do better, and I believe in you. If you are willing to put in some more time and effort to make this piece of work the best it can be, you will learn a lot more and you will feel proud of yourself.â€
An example of this situation occurred in my classroom a few weeks ago after we took a quiz on twelve geography terms I had asked the kids to study at home. While most students knew all 12 words, one child scored four out of twelve. When the other children were working quietly on a different activity, I called him up to the front of the room and asked if he studied at home the last two nights. He told me that had practiced the words a little bit. My response to him was that he was very bright and could have gotten a higher score if he had worked harder. I emphasized to him that he shouldnâ€™t have stopped practicing at home until he was sure he knew all twelve terms. I wanted him to expect more from himself and develop a higher personal standard of quality.
It is wonderful when parents and teachers have high expectations for children, but I have learned that lasting, genuine progress will occur only when children expect more from themselves and have high personal expectations. Communicating that idea was the goal of my conversation with my student. The two of us could do nothing to change the results of that first quiz. But by holding him accountable, expressing my unconditional belief in him, and encouraging him to put forth greater, I can help him do better in the future.
In my eighteen years as an elementary school teacher, I have learned that the number one key to student success involves setting high standards. Typically, parents and teachers are the ones who establish high expectations for children, and, of course, this act is critically important. By themselves, though, high expectations set by adults will only take us so far. The real progress begins when students make these expectations their own - when they become high personal expectations.
Every year I see students make significant learning gains, and without exception this progress is due to the fact that the kids decided that they wanted to do better in school and made the choice to dedicate themselves to becoming quality students. Once children make â€œThe Choice,â€ a virtuous cycle begins. I describe the steps of this chain reaction below. The diagram that follows conveys these steps visually. Sharing the diagram with kids is a wonderful way to introduce the concept of developing higher personal standards, and the visual can serve as a consistent, long-term reference point that can be used both at home and in the classroom. (Please e-mail me if you'd like to receive a pdf copy of this visual.)
1) After making â€œThe Choice,â€ kids immediately start working harder in school, being more diligent with their homework, and caring more about doing well academically.
2) As a result of this greater care and effort, the kids produce better, higher quality work. This may not happen right away, but it will happen eventually. Samples of this improved work offer the first tangible proof that something special is starting to occur.
3) When students begin producing better work, others will begin to notice. Teachers, parents, and classmates will provide positive feedback. More important, the kids themselves will notice, and they will give themselves positive feedback.
4) Positive feedback will increase childrenâ€™s confidence. Noted educator Theodore Sizer once said that children will maximize their potential when they are motivated and confident. Positive feedback powerfully affects both of motivation and confidence.
5) The virtuous cycle continues as kids, who are now feeling more confident and believing in themselves to a greater degree than ever before, feel a deeper sense of pride and become more enthusiastic about school. Children who reach this stage are doing well, and they know they are doing well. They walk taller, participate more frequently in class discussions, and handle adversity more effectively. They strive to make the most of every learning opportunity, and they believe they can be successful at whatever their teachers put in front of them.
6) This part of the chain reaction marks a crucial step in a childâ€™s transformation. The high expectations established initially by parents and teachers now belong to the students themselves. The kids made the choice to develop higher standards with regard to their work, effort, and behavior, and they are the now the principal owners of this choice.
7) At this point the cycle rises to a new level as children try even harder and care even more about doing well in school.
If children have not yet made â€œThe Choice,â€ the best way for parents to encourage this decision is through unconditional love and support and by communicating the following idea: â€œI know you are capable of so much more and that you have greatness inside of you if you are willing to work a little harder and put more time and effort into your school work.â€ When adults consistently communicate high opinions of childrenâ€™s worth, talent, and potential, kids become more likely to believe in and expect more from themselves. Children may not alter their expectations tomorrow or next week, but if they hear this message enough times, ultimately it will sink in.
1. Commit yourselves to playing an active role in your childâ€™s education. Frequently, many parents leave the responsibility for their childâ€™s education solely with the teacher. No matter how satisfied you may be with your childâ€™s teacher (and I hope you are very satisfied), this practice is unwise. Remain involved on a consistent basis, and feel free to ask questions and raise any concerns that you may have about your childâ€™s progress.
2. Repeatedly express to your child how important it is to work hard, take school seriously, and achieve as much as possible academically. Explain all the benefits that come from learning, such as increased pride and confidence, greater educational and career options, and a greater ability to participate in community affairs and activities. You can never repeat this message too many times.
3. Develop a homework policy with your child. No television until all homework is complete? No play time? Discuss these issues with your child so that both of you are clear about your familyâ€™s expectations for home study. Then be sure to hold your child accountable with regard to these expectations. Completing homework should not require a nightly battle.
4. Provide your child with a quiet study area. If possible, supply a desk and a spot to keep all necessary books and materials organized. With or without a desk, however, itâ€™s critical that your child have a consistent, well-lit place to study that is free from distractions. Providing such an atmosphere will not only enable your child to have an easier time studying, but also it will send a clear message that you think doing homework is an important priority.
5. Encourage your child to complete homework activities as independently as possible; offer help only when necessary. Giving too much assistance may cause your child to become too dependent on you while not giving enough may cause frustration. Strive to achieve the right balance so that your child exercises responsibility while you still remain actively involved in overseeing their efforts, both on daily homework activities and during long-term projects and test preparation.
6. Respond promptly to all notices that your childâ€™s teacher and the school office send home. Do your best to stay on top of these matters.
7. Discuss school events and happenings with your child as frequently as possible.
8. Be sure that your child gets enough sleep each night and eats a nutritious breakfast each morning. Students perform significantly better academically and are able to put forth consistent effort when they are well-fed and well-rested.
9. Be sure that your child takes to school each day all needed supplies. Of particular importance is a sturdy folder or binder in which students can securely transport homework papers and other important documents to and from school.
10. Encourage your child to exercise as much as possible. More is being written every year about the importance of exercise and its powerful impact on the brain. Exercising before school has been shown to improve childrenâ€™s focus and attention.
Following these suggestions dramatically increases the likelihood that students will be successful in school. Specifically, when parents consistently emphasize these priorities, kids will be more responsible, organized, and motivated. In addition, they will work with greater focus and greater purpose and be far more likely to maximize their considerable potential.
1. Start with the childâ€™s passions. Children will be more excited about reading when they can choose books or magazines related to their interests. This suggestion is far and away the most powerful one when it comes to encouraging those who are reluctant to read. When kids own the choice of what they will read, motivation increases significantly.
2. Make reading a social experience. Children who donâ€™t enjoy reading alone often enjoy reading with somebody else. Children can read with their parents, siblings, other relatives, and friends. Some children even start mini-book clubs and discuss books related to their common interests. Asking children to read to their younger siblings and cousins can powerfully impact their own motivation to read.
3. Read aloud to children. Many parents regularly read aloud to their children when they are very young, yet stop this activity as the kids get older. Parents should read aloud to children throughout the elementary grades. Doing so makes reading more enjoyable, improves listening skills, builds comprehension, lengthens attention spans, and grows the imagination.
4. Take advantage of new technology. Children who may not find books interesting may enjoy reading the same texts on smart phones, computers, and electronic readers, such as the iPad or Kindle. Technology makes everything seem cooler and more engaging to children, and we should capitalize on this fact when it comes to reading.
5. Be a role model to children. When children see their parents reading frequently, discussing what they have read, and carrying books around, they will value reading to a greater extent. The power of modeling cannot be underestimated.
6. Camouflage reading. Parents can increase the amount of time their children spend reading by subtly building the activity into other, seemingly unrelated activities. Examples include reading menus at restaurants, reading the directions to board games, and looking at various websites together. Children who may not yet enjoy reading for its own sake may enjoy it tremendously when itâ€™s incorporated into other engaging pastimes.
7. Be sure children read books that are appropriately challenging. Many times kids donâ€™t want to read simply because the books they encounter are too difficult. This seemingly obvious point is frequently forgotten. None of us want to encounter frustration, and we will go to great lengths to avoid experiences that make us feel this way. Appropriately challenging books are those in which students can fluently read approximately 95% of the words. Encountering a small number of difficult words can help children grow in their reading skills, but encountering too many of these words can interfere with fluency and lead to discouragement.
Commit to trying one or more these ideas to help your child become a more enthusiastic reader. Teaching the whole child means that we focus on developing childrenâ€™s academic skills, but just as important, we focus on childrenâ€™s attitudes about these skills. We want to raise children who read well and read because they want to do it, not because they have to do it.