November 12, 2008

Efficiency and Spelling

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of constructivist and child-centered teaching practices.

One of the main reasons why I don't like these practices is that they are even less efficient than traditional teaching practices. And traditional practices aren't very efficient either. In fact they are downright primitive compared to what we know about how children learn.

Let's take the teaching of spelling as one of the worst offenders.

Spelling continues to be taught, when it is taught at all, as it has been for decades. Students are given a list of words (10-15) on Monday and then tested on Friday to see if the words were learned. Then a new list of words is given and the process repeats. What happens to the old list of words? They disappear forever.

More formally, a week of massed practice is followed up with zero distributed practice. Not unpredictably, the students quickly forget what they've learned. All that effort is wasted. Retention is left to happenstance. Maybe the student will use the word in his writing before the spelling is forgotten. Maybe he won't. Maybe she'll read the word in her reading and think about the spelling, maybe she won't.

This is not an efficient way to learn spelling. It is a waste of time. Unless the student happens to be one of those smart kids that learns easily, reads voraciously, writes prolifically, and has exceptional retention. Inefficient teaching methods handicap those that aren't smart.

Further, it seems that the preferred way to teach spelling is through brute memorization. Often, the word lists do not capitalize on phonetic or morphographic efficiencies. Rote memorization appears to be the rule for learning spelling.

Then we have some of the inane exercises used to teach spelling. My favorite is "write a sentence for each spelling word." This often requires that the student is familiar with the meaning of word, familiar enough to use it coherently in a sentence. If the student doesn't know the word, it must be looked up in a dictionary. The hope is that the words used by the dictionary to define the word are understood by the student. Often they are not. This leads to more looking up until a definition the child understands has been found. At this point the child can formulate an understandable definition of the original word assuming all of this can be juggled in short term memory. Now the child is ready to make-up a sentence which requires creativity and knowing the rules of grammar, among other things. It's quite a lot for the student to attend to. We know that students remember what they think about, so you can bet that spelling only plays a minor role in this difficult exercise.

Who wants to defend the traditional way to teach spelling?

And who has a better way to teach spelling that addresses the problems I've discussed above?


Anonymous said...

So, what is the alternative?

You criticize spelling lists, but have no alternative proposal. How about a part II for this as part I?

KDeRosa said...

Glenn, I think that Spelling Mastery addresses many of these issues but I didn't want the the post to be a set-up for a particular program that I happen to like. I'm sure some of the teachers will bring it up as well as some others.

Then again this post is really supposed to be about efficiency in education in general.

I can certainly throw together a post on spelling mastery if there is interest.

Anonymous said...

I'll second the previous commenter that it would be much more interesting if you offered at least one solution that solved the problems you have with the current way. It doesn't have to be a "program". Just you, as a person, coming up with ideas that are better, and suggesting them.

If you want to make people upset, point at problems. If you want to make the world better, try to solve them.

Anonymous said...

Megawords by EPS.

KDeRosa said...

I thought I gave enough information in the post for a reader to discern my solution:

1. follow massed practice with distributed practice

2. teach in a way that the student thinks about the spellings as they are being learned

3. capitalize on phonetic and morphographic regularities in the English language to accelerate learning

Anon, I've heard lots of good things about Megawords but am not familiar with the program. Could you or someone else describe how the program addresses the points I've raised and/or why it works better?

Anonymous said...

Ken's valid points can be sharpened and extended a bit.

First, both spelling and reading rely on the English Alphabetic Code that links written and spoken language. So first the architecture for efficient Spelling instruction has to be cognizant of the structure of the 170ish letter-sound correspondences that comprise the Code. The Correspondences differ in their frequency of occurrence in words and words differ in their frequency of occurrence in text—particularly in the text that el-hi kids are likely to encounter. Taking these considerations into account provides a learnable, teachable sequence. The morphemic characteristics that Ken mentions are even more consequential in spelling than in reading, and this information also can help shape the lexicon sequencing.

Second, spelling instruction should lag reading instruction. If a child can handle the letter-sound correspondences in reading a word, that’s a big jump on “thinking the sounds” in spelling the word. And handling central morphemic considerations such as plurals, other suffixes, prefixes, and so on also eases the task.

Third, you only needs to spell the words you want to write. K-1 kids can be taught to spell a sufficiently large lexicon to permit them to begin composing communications. That’s the time to begin teaching them something about the “how to” of conveying a communication.

Fourth, recognize that interactive-voice recognition will make it possible to effortlessly “get the device” to spell any word you aren’t sure of. Spell-check today does a pretty good job. Teach kids to take advantage of this aide.

Fifth, txt msg, and voice will likely be more prominent in kid’s life than formal written composition. Get used to it.

Five points is enuf. I’m agreeing with Ken that spelling instruction needn’t be the mindless memorization with all the inefficiencies that Ken sketches. The instructional time, productivity, and kid-effort savings that can be gained are considerable.

dweir said...

Because the spelling list (or a vocabulary list) has no context, the teaching method you describe is not just inefficient, it's ineffective and boring too.

It's not that memorization is such a bad technique for learning spelling or vocabulary. But think how much better the time would be used if rather than giving a seemingly random set of words, the teacher generated the list from written material used in class.

The words could come from any subject, not just literature, but they should have the characteristics that make them worthy of being learned:

- They students will encounter them in their subject studies around the same time they are introduced in a spelling/vocab list

- They exemplify a rule/exception that is particularly useful or troublesome in spelling ("i before e", etc.)

- They are of particular importance to subject matter understanding

This is the sort of thing I would do when teaching band. If we were going to be working on a piece in the key of F-major, I'd start introducing the scale (or other rudiments) a few days before the piece.

The context (the song in this case) helps provide repeated practice with the new key. But when we start rehearsal with scales, we don't just practice the new ones, we practice some of those we'd learned previously. The "old" scales are used to help teach the new ones (Bb-major is F-major plus another flat).

The same sort of drill could be applied to spelling and vocabulary lists. If you've learned the "i before e" rule for "believe" then you can expand on that to teach "reprieve" or add on the "except after c" for "receive."

RMD said...

I'm using the Spelling Mastery computer program with my 1st grader and its AWESOME!

It starts with phonetically-spelled words, and will eventually transition (in the 4th and 5th year program) to "morphographs" where they cover words based on components (e.g., "de" + "part" + "ed").

When I look at my son using it, I find it much more "humane" than the standard spelling lists that I used when I was a kid, and which are still used today because it move from the more simple to complex, and it uses enough repetition for my son to get the word and retain it.

Anonymous said...

I second Megawords, and also recommend Apples and Pears. Samples here.

Dan Willingham said...

An excellent article on spelling and how to teach it will appear in the next issue of American Educator

jb said...

Ages ago when I learned spelling, we did the traditional, we got a list, we wrote it five times each, we used each word in a sentence, BUT usually we had a story each day that used all the words by the end of the week, Spelling is not a problem for me. To enhance the learning the student could also be asked to create a story using the words. Usage and repetition can lead to understanding.

Anonymous said...

We used Spelling Mastery for 10 years, and it is indeed a very good program. However, many of our pupils were on the more severe end of the special needs spectrum, and we ended up with reams and reams of supplementary materials to reinforce the items which they found difficult. In the end, we decided to writie our own spelling program--"Apples and Pears"--and it has caught on very quickly in the UK. So far, we haven't attempted to sell it to US schools, but we do have a loyal following on North American homeschooling blogs.

On a theoretical level, it has much in common with Spelling Mastery, as well as many differences. First, we have placement/mastery tests which ensure that the pupil is always working at the appropriate level. The sequence of our program is dictated by the ease with which material is learnt, rather than its utility in children's writing. We take great care to avoid ambiguity, and we never introduce easily-confused material at the same time (Spelling Mastery users will by familiar with the key sentence, "Where were the girls going"). We introduce the morphemic principle much earlier, as this puts rather minimal loads on memory, yet it enables the pupil to spell long words, thereby giving a huge boost to confidence.

We follow the same concept of massed practice followed by distributed practice. This is, of course, essential--and it's the reason why spelling is notoriously difficult to teach. How does a teacher ensure that each and every pupil is getting an opitimum amount? It's rather like juggling thousands of balls at once. Another key advantage of Apples and Pears is that we use sentence dictations much more extensively than Spelling Mastery; we find that they increase the amount of practice that you can pack into one lesson. And this is the secret to achieving automaticity and long-term retention.

Anonymous said...

A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment

LJMB said...

Our school has just switched over to the "Sequential Spelling" program, and so far teachers are seeing carry over into the students' regular work. We will see after we have used it for a year or two if it is the answer.

Shez said...

I used Sequential Spelling with my children last year and found that it did not work at all well. I realized that to effectively teach spelling you need to teach the rules. The rules empower the children to work out how to spell almost any word. To this end we've just started using All About Spelling. By using the Orton-Gillingham phonograms, a child only has to use brute memorization for the approx 3% of the words in the English Language that don't follow the rules.

Anonymous said...

The problem with spelling 'rules' is that vowel sounds can be spelt in so many ways. If memory serves, there are no less than 11 ways of spelling long 'e'. Trying to teach a child a reliable set of rules that would enable him to choose the correct one would be almost impossible. Even if you could, getting them to memorise and apply the rules is no easy matter--especially for pupils who have poor working memory and/or visual memory. Telling children to try the alternatives and see which one 'looks right' is pointless: this isn't the sort of tactic that transfers to other written work, and in any case a child with poor visual memory will be none the wiser.

As an example of the difficulty in teaching children rules, Spelling Mastery teaches that if a word ends in the sounds ow, owl or own, the /ow/ sound is spelled o-w. If it ends in any other sound, it is spelled o-u. Leaving aside the problems with words like 'power' and 'foul', large numbers of pupils find this totally confusing. We stuck to the script like glue (something we didn't always do with SM), and it still didn't work. We devised endless worksheets to practise the sound, and many pupils still didn't get it. I sometimes wonder how many of our old pupils are still spelling 'clowd' for 'cloud'.

In 'Apples and Pears', our solution is simply to teach the most common spelling of a sound first, and practise it to the point of automaticity before introducing an alternate spelling. It would be an exaggeration to say that this is a perfect answer, but it does seem to work pretty well, even with our most challenged pupils.

I don't doubt that there are a lot of very good spelling programs coming on the market, and I hope that these get evaluated properly. Pat Vadasy of the Washington Research Institute applied for NCLB funding to trial Apples and Pears, but unfortunately this was turned down. I'm afraid that spelling is a very low priority for most professional educators; unfortunately for our children, poor spelling is an enormous handicap for anyone with academic aspirations, or even just for getting a well-paying job.

palisadesk said...

I used Sequential Spelling with my children last year and found that it did not work at all well

Sequential Spelling was developed for, and is most effective with, high school students, taught in a school situation (mini-lessons several times daily). Most such students would already have a large number of common words mastered, but would lack conscious awareness of basic spelling patterns (many of which coincide with the OG phonograms) and be unable to combine morphemes accurately.

Sequential Spelling addresses both of these, but the learning is inductive for the most part. A drawback is that SS is really not that appropriate for young children, both because they need explicit instruction in basic phoneme-grapheme relationships and because many of the words are not ones students in early to middle grades need to use. It surprises me that so many homeschooling boards recommend it, but obviously it works for some familes (probably in combination with other things they are doing).

Some enterprising person could easily computerize Sequential Spelling, as its mode of presentation lends itself well to a computer format, and requires student self-correction by immediate comparison with the correct model.

Spelling Mastery is the best program for general school use that I've personally ever seen or used, but I have observed some of the same difficulties that Tom Burkard mentions, especially the need for extra practice (for whatever reason, my students over the years have not had a lot of difficulty with "Where were the girls going?").

I have not had the opportunity to use the CD's that now accompany Spelling Mastery but have heard great things from those who do use them -- chiefly that it does exactly what is needed -- provide engaging, high-interest practice -- both massed and distributed -- to mastery, indivualized to the particular student (something the underlying algorithms in a computer program can arrange).

Parents would likely find the Apples and Pears program ideally suited for home use, and teachers will find it ideal for very high-needs kids, or ones who are spelling-disabled. The latter can easily be students who present with no other problems. The most severe I ever taught was a fourth grader, IQ 158, gifted in math, art and music, read at a senior high school level at age 9, and whose spelling was un-gradable -- mostly apparently random letters. He could copy well, print and write cursive well, but self-generated text did not resemble English. I've never known what that was all about.

But, with explicit instruction, he did learn to spell eventually.

Spelling is a very teachable skill, but the instructional sequence needs to match the child's language and skill development. Some children learn to read via spelling, and their spelling skills are always somewhat ahead of their reading ability. Lots of individual variation here.

Anonymous said...

Spelling Mastery is a very old program, and considering how that the average life-expectancy of teaching materials is measured more in months than years, this is a real tribute to the genius of Dixon and Englemann. However, it's well to remember that in the 1970s, school funding was a fraction of what it is now, and Spelling Mastery was not designed as a special needs program. Hence, I can well believe that most pupils have no trouble with "where were the girls going".

In the UK, SM is only used for special needs, so the problem of confusing similar items takes on more importance. Apples and Pears is aimed at the bottom third who find spelling difficult, so it is oriented to a somewhat different audience than Bob Dixon originally wrote for. Apples and Pears works very well with groups, too. But in the UK, primary schools are much smaller than in the US, so most schools prefer to use it on a one-on-one basis. It's just too hard to get well-matched groups in a small school.

Anonymous said...

When I was in first grade, I got bored with writing a sentence for each spelling word. I tried: "Book is a spelling word this week," etc. but the teacher said no. Then I worked to use every spelling word in the same sentence. The teacher said no to that too.

I'm still bitter.

palisadesk said...

Joanne --
Ha ha, creative little freethinkers like you are a threat to the social order;-)

I haven’t run into this phenomenon teaching spelling, but I encountered a kindred spirit of yours recently while playing a kind of “pairs” card game with elementary students. The game (a variant on Crazy 8’s) requires them to match cards in their hand with one in the draw pile, matching (in this case) vowel phonemes. To discard the pair, the student needs to make up a sentence using both words. The game is fast-paced and fun and provides reading practice, reinforces orthographic patterns, and assists in developing oral language and vocabulary. Most of the words are very straightforward, but there are some that are unfamiliar to many of our students.

One student correctly matched the “oo” phoneme in “goo” and “monsoon,” and came up with the sentence, “ I shredded the “monsoon” vocabulary card to make some papier-mache goo.”

I thought that was pretty darned clever and told her so (she had no clue what a monsoon was). I gave her full credit but told her she could not use that same sentence (or a close approximation) the next time. The next time a student wanted to discard an unknown word, he came up with a variation: “After ___ (used known word), I had to look up ____ (unknown word) in the dictionary.” I gave that kid credit too.

But after that session, I made a computer logged into available to anyone who wanted to use it to check out any words in their hand before we started playing. Some do this! At other times they find new and inventive ways to use the unknown word in a sentence.

We have fun and learn new words, too.

V01-C39 said...

Consider a technique I call "cloud spelling" using actual vocabulary-to-be-read.

Learners parse sound-units and memorize explicit sound-spellings. Teacher can then dictate words within meaningful context using actual author phrases.

View a sample lesson:

palisadesk said...

Consider a technique I call "cloud spelling" using actual vocabulary-to-be-read.

I followed the links to your

Is there some esoteric reason for the words all being written in mirror-writing?

Being a lefty, I find this comes naturally -- but I don't teach kids to do it.

Dawn said...

Add one more person for Megawords. Breaking the words down into syllables, learning different rules, writing and rewriting the words in worksheet after worksheet and learning definitions at the same time...Works like a charm for my daughter.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%. In the first grade classroom I helped out in, the children were given 20 words on monday, and then tested on friday. I really don't know what the solution to this problem is.
But don't you think that this subject also applies to math? Especially high school math, where you learn something one week, and then never go back or use it the rest of the year. Then the next year comes, and you know you learned it but you can't remember how to do it.
The only solution I can think of for the problem is repetition, repetition, repetition. Especially for the younger ages that forget how to spell the word within a few days.

Bonzer said...

It's constructivist as all get-out, but "Words Their Way" by Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, and Johnston is a program of "word study" which can be used for all levels, from pre-readers through high school. The idea is that students are given an initial spelling test to determine which common sounds they automatically use, and this suggests a place in the program to begin. Specific word lists can be chosen based on the sound or sound you'd like to draw the student's attention to, and contextual words could easily be incorporated. Word study allows a student to find patterns in words and use those "rules" to generalize to other words. Does it work for everyone? No. Some kids really do need the explicit instruction of sounds and rules (in which case, Orton-Gillingham or Lindamood Bell both offer fabulous programs).

I could actually argue that the process of word study is a *more* efficient way of teaching, as students are not memorizing specific words, but learning how to construct sounds, which not only teaches spelling, but can also be translated to reading and vocabulary. Plus, intensive, explicit instruction is much less efficient, so this way, you are only using that resource on the students who truly need it.

Anonymous said...

I'm in college now, and things are still the exact same way. I learn something one week, then I don't have to remember it again until the final. Sure, it's still there, but I don't keep it on hand right away.

Practice makes it. That's all there is to it. The kids have to practice on those Spelling games on the computer, it just catches their attention because it's not something they do in school. Maybe they should bring Spelling Mastery and such into schools. Then all the kids will learn and remember it, instead of just half of them.

DC Teacher Chic said...

I found that parents and students loved the weekly spelling list, complete with "use each word in a sentence," but research shows this method is not effective for teaching spelling or vocabulary.

Instead, I believe spelling should be taught ONLY as a phonics course. In fact, if you open a 2nd grade spelling book, you will see just that. Students don't learn the spelling words boat and note and tow because those words are so important, but because each word shows a different way to represent the long o sound (oa, o-consonant-e, and ow). That way, if kids see those letter patterns in other words, they know to decode the letters as "o."

DC Teacher Chic said...

I agree, Words Their Way is great as well.

Anonymous said...

Back in 2004 I designed and wrote up a better spelling program--based on research, efficiency, and mastery learning--Mastering Alphabetic Spelling. Otter Creek Institute put me on the road sending out thousands of invites to workshops where people would get the program as well as training in how to use it. Nobody came! Philadelphia was the low point--out of at least 10,000 brochures we had 5 attendees. So we had to change the workshop to be about "Writing." Then I had to spend the first half of the workshop teaching everyone that lack of automaticity in spelling disrupts one's ability to compose and therefore spelling and handwriting were important. We titled it "Improving the Writing (and Spelling) of Kids who Won't Write and Can't Spell." That did much better. But it left me about two hours to teach spelling which wasn't enough.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot that can be said about spelling in English. There's at least three systematic ways of addressing spelling--that apply in different stages: alphabetic (sound it out in sequence), orthographic patterns (groups of words with similar vowel digraphs or consonant digraphs), and morphographs--or morphemic spelling. Kids go through those in stages which can be seen by the kinds of errors they make. But the most important bit of information about spelling is the kind of correction that is most effective according to the research. A speller needs to look at his/her effort to spell a word correctly and correct only the letters that need correction--to both affirm what he/she got right as well as see what to change. Immediately after that "editing" correction the speller needs to try again to spell from memory. The speller needs to stay with the word until it is learned. Then the speller needs to follow the memory paradigm of gradually increasing the time from seconds to hours to days between practice spellings of the word to commit it to memory.
That's not to say the speller can't use rules, sounding out strategies, morphemes, and patterns to learn the words also. But after getting those hints the speller needs to try to apply them in spelling a given word, and then follow the correction procedure.

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