S1 E24 - How can I kickstart my upper primary spelling improvement journey?


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Hi there. It's Jocelyn here from Jocelyn Seamer Education, and I'd like to welcome you to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. I'd like to pay my respects to the Palawa people of Tasmania, where this podcast is recorded and also to the people of Gunditjimara Country in Victoria, where it is edited.

In our last episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast, we talked about early years spelling and, if we aren't doing rainbow writing and look, say, cover, write, check anymore, what we might be doing instead. I shared an alternative to looks, say cover, write check, and you can find a downloadable lesson outline in the show notes of that episode, episode 23.

Today's topic - Kickstart your upper primary spelling
This week I'd like to turn my attention to upper primary. I'll start by running a scenario by you, and we'll see how familiar it sounds. You're a teacher in a year three to six classroom and know that you have a range of students in your class. Your students appear to mostly have solid reading skills, with a few students in need of intervention and a few who are considered high flyers.

But when it comes to writing, your students struggle. The first thing that you see is that the volume of writing they're producing is not what you would expect from students whose reading skills are what yours are. The second thing you see is that their spelling is overall quite bad. Simple words that you would expect students of their age and obvious intelligence to be able to spell are consistently incorrect, and when it comes to longer words, it's almost as if some of the students are sounding out the first few phonemes and then guessing the rest of the word. Letters are in the wrong order or skipped altogether, or there are random Es on the end of words where they're just not needed. If this sounds like your class, you are not alone.

What is the issue?
Writing is a cognitively complex task. To do it successfully, students need to be able to form letters automatically. They need to be able to spell most words without thinking, and they need to be able to produce oral sentences that contain relevant vocabulary and concepts without too much effort. All of these aspects and a few more need to go right for quality writing to happen. Addressing what to do with all of these elements is way beyond the scope of this podcast episode, but we can have a chat about what to do when their spelling is a little...on the nose.

I'm going to start in a place you might not expect, and that's with phonics. We traditionally think of phonics as being the domain of the early years, but that's just not so. An understanding of the alphabetic principle, that is the connection between phonemes or sounds and graphemes that letters that represent them, is critical for spelling to even get off the ground.

In last week's episode, we heard about the findings of research that show us that this basic understanding is vital for so many skills in literacy, including spelling. Not having knowledge of how to work with the code of English is like trying to program a  computer knowing only half the programming language.

The tricky thing when it comes to reflecting on our upper primary students' knowledge is that it's confusing. They can read. Okay, so that means that all is well, doesn't it? Well, not necessarily. Even students who can pick up just about every book in the library and decode it with some competence might not be thinking about how the code works when they do so. They can lift words off the page because they just can, but they don't know how they're doing it. And it could be the same with spelling. Children who can spell accurately often just know what a word is supposed to look like, but they don't have conscious knowledge of why a word is spelled the way it is or how to tackle an unfamiliar word.

So you'll end up with some children spelling just fine and a bunch who can't. How does this happen? Well, primarily, it happens because the 'spelling is caught' idea has been prevalent for far too long. This theory states that we don't need to explicitly teach spelling, and that children will catch the concepts they need through exposure and by interacting with words. For those of us who have embraced explicit teaching, this sounds nonsensical, but let's see what the research has to say.

What does the research have to say?
In our last episode, we heard about a 2014 meta-analysis from Graham and Santangelo, where they examined 53 studies with over 6,000 students. This meta-analysis showed that there is research to support both 'spelling as caught' and 'spelling as taught' approaches but that formal spelling instruction leads to much better outcomes.

But let's examine something a little closer to home. A 2017 paper by Susan Dymock and Tom Nicholson from Waikato University, New Zealand, looked at the impact of different types of spelling instruction on 55 year-three students. They compared the impact of two different types of instruction. The first type of instruction involved a combination of a focus on phonics and teaching the doubling suffix convention. The second type of instruction involved children practising a list of words with the 'look, say, cover, write, check,' approach and putting those words into sentences. This was called the list group. Dymock and Nicholson found that after 10 weeks of these varied spelling approaches, both groups made gains, but the group of students taught via explicit phonics and the 'doubling rule' outperformed the list group. Further, they were better able to transfer their new learning to unknown words. That's so important.

Significant gains in outcomes after explicit or formal spelling instruction is not new. However, memorization strategies continue to play a central role in our classrooms. This isn't because teachers don't care about their students or that they're not smart, but because it just takes so long for research to transfer to practice in education. I think this lag happens because it's one thing to state that explicit instruction works better than memorisation strategies and accept that to be true and it's a whole other thing to know what instruction looks like in your classroom and make it happen.

My experiences with schools
But there are upper primary teachers taking the bull by the spelling horns and making a difference here. In one school I've been working with this year, the year three teachers have recognized that their students are good readers but not good spellers. They've also recognized the importance of students possessing fluency at working with the full alphabetic code and that they have needed to spend some time this year helping them build strong foundations in this area.

This school has chosen to adopt Reading Success in Action for early years phonics instruction. So, the year three teachers are using it as well. They started with book number two, which introduces the complex code and, after a term and a half, reported that the accuracy of their students' spelling and the quantity and quality of writing they are now producing is far superior to what they were able to produce at the start of the year. You see, these students have great oral skills and great reading skills, but they were doing things just because they could do them, not because they understood them. This really showed up in their spelling and writing. The phonics instruction in these classes is not done at the same pace as the initial instruction provided in the year one class because it really is more of a reminder and a way to show the connection between phonemes and graphemes and that they can use them for both reading and spelling.

The lesson structure is exactly the same as what the year one teachers are doing in their classrooms, except the children aren't reading decodable texts or using other elements that younger children need. Remember, most of these students already look okay on their reading assessment. These teachers are keeping data to monitor student progress, which is wonderful. Most pleasingly, a student who had previously screened as having a high probability of dyslexia is now no longer showing a likelihood of dyslexia at all on the screening tool that the school is using. I've seen this student's spelling test results, and she's now using complex spelling representations and accurately representing all phonemes in words, and if you have students with difficulty, you'll understand what an enormous leap in learning this represents.

Now, these year three teachers have helped their students make conscious connections between phonemes and graphemes. They will move on to helping students understand how to bring the alternate spellings of the code together through Reading Success in Action Three. Because this school has school-level membership to the Resource Room, they also have access to a full range of digital and printable resources to help them teach these lessons with confidence. Future teaching will include a spelling and morphology detour in each of the 27 units of the third Reading Success in Action Teaching Guide. The inclusion of morphology foundations is important because phonics only gets us so far, and it's morphology that these year three students should be learning. But what the teachers at this school have understood and acted on is the need for super-strong phoneme-grapheme correspondences for both reading and spelling. The phonics focus isn't a long-term deal. It's a short-term measure to ensure that all children have what is needed to really get stuck into grade-appropriate spelling instruction.

Because the teachers are monitoring progress carefully, they'll be able to make sure that the students who require additional support get it. In future years, year threes won't have to spend time working on phonics whole class because students will have come through the early years with strong skills and knowledge, and teachers will be able to just get right into morphology instruction. But for now, the teachers are doing what they really need to be doing.

Does your school already have the tools you need?
If you are a Year 3-6 teacher in a school that already has a phonics approach in place for the early years, there's a really good chance that you already have the tools at hand to provide your students with a term or two of 'phonics boot camp' to kickstart their spelling improvement journey, if that's what you find is needed. How do you know that they need this? I suggest you deliver your school's phonics assessment, including the pseudo words, as a spelling test and see what happens. Episode 10 of the Structured Literacy Podcast is all about your upper primary phonics catch-up plan. Have a listen if this is something you're interested in learning more about.

When your students are ready, it will be time to move on to teaching about the most common prefixes and suffixes and the suffixing conventions or rules that will really lift your students' spelling game. You might already have a way to tackle this, but if you don't, we have a new book out called 'Spelling Success in Action - Getting Started with Morphology and Spelling Conventions' that you might like to take a look at. Inside this book, you'll find information and lesson outlines to help you confidently teach strong spelling foundations to your students. If you have reading success in action decoding. Three, we have fully fleshed out lesson plans for the spelling and morphology detours included in that book. If you are using something else for phonics, well, that's just fine.

Spelling Success in Action - Getting Started with Morphology (2)

Spelling Success in Action will supplement your current phonics program.
Spelling Success in Action is designed to complement whatever phonics approach you're currently using. We also have a handy flow chart to help you decide where to start and a suggestion of content to help you build and consolidate students' understanding about prefixes, suffixes, and suffixing conventions such as the doubling rule, the Y to I convention, and to know what to do when adding a vowel, suffix to a word, ending in E.

It is well worth taking the time to build phonics and these basics of morphology so that your upper primary students can consciously and intentionally learn to spell. After all, this must be automatic if strong writing is to happen.

In conclusion - If your students need it, then they need it.
Getting a spelling improvement plan going in the upper primary years isn't difficult, but it does take a leap of faith. It's easy to feel that somehow we are doing our students a disservice if we cast our eye back to earlier skills and knowledge. But if our students need it, they just need it. Taking the time to build strong foundations in phonics, then early morphology, knowledge and skill will pay dividends in the long term.

I wish you all the luck in the universe as you embark on this important work. Spelling Success in Action One- Getting Started with Morphology and Spelling Conventions can be ordered from here. You can also find it at Seelect Educational Supplies in Adelaide.

I wish you a happy week ahead. See you next time. Bye for now.


Susan Dymock & Tom Nicholson (2017) To what extent does children’s spelling improve as a result of learning words with the look, say, cover, write, check, fix strategy compared with phonological spelling strategies?, Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 22:2, 171-187, DOI: 10.1080/19404158.2017.1398766

Graham, Steve & Santangelo, Tanya. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing. October, 2014. DOI: 27. 10.1007/s11145-014-9517-0.


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