S1 E25 - How can I teach spelling well when I don't feel like I know what I need to?



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Hi there. Welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast, the place where we keep it real about the rewards and challenges of bringing structured literacy to life in our classrooms and schools. My name is Jocelyn Seamer. I'd like to begin by paying my respects to the Palawa people of Tasmania, on whose lands this podcast is recorded and to the people of Gunditjmara country in Victoria, where it is edited.

We are currently producing a series of podcast episodes all about spelling, sharing what research says about effective spelling, discussing tools and approaches that we can use in our classrooms, and why it can feel so tricky to get all of this right. In today's episode, I'd like to discuss a very real situation that so many of us find ourselves in that is feeling immense pressure to teach spelling well but also feeling as if we don't have the knowledge to do so.

What our survey told us...
In our 2022 survey of 900 teachers' experience of teaching literacy in schools, only 40% of teachers reported feeling very confident in teaching reading, with approximately 50% feeling somewhat confident. Half of our teachers feel wobbly in teaching reading.

I bet that if asked that same question when it comes to spelling and writing, the numbers would show a larger proportion of teachers feeling unsure about the path forward. These numbers are not surprising when we consider that very few of us have been prepared through our pre-service teaching or professional learning in school to really understand the foundations of strong literacy instruction when it comes to phonics and decoding.

Things are looking up. Here in Tasmania, our premier has announced that all children will be taught to read with explicit synthetic phonics, which is a huge step in the right direction. But we know that phonics is just one aspect of literacy. Spelling has been shown to be critical for many aspects of literacy, including reading and writing.

Not being able to spell means that a student is probably using large amounts of cognitive energy just getting the words on the page, taking their focus from thinking about word choice, text structure, and effectively communicating their message. In the adult world, we know that people who are poor spellers are often considered less intelligent than people who can spell well. A look at the response on social media to someone who is wobbly in their spelling shows you that. As teachers, we know all of these things and feel a strong sense of urgency to do something about it. We see students with poor spelling right in front of us each and every day, and do our best to help. But if we don't have the knowledge of how our language works to really dig deep and support student learning, it's a big ask.

What does the research say?
In a 2008 survey of spelling instructional practices in the US, Steve Graham and colleagues found that just about all of the randomly selected 168 teachers in the study reported teaching spelling. The amount of time they reported spending on spelling and what they did varied considerably. Alarmingly only 42% of those teachers said that they made any adjustments for struggling spellers. This survey also found that only 30% of early years teachers were teaching phonics daily and that dictionary skills were a weekly inclusion for spelling instruction in 29% of classrooms. This survey showed that there are some misconceptions out there about what leads to strong spelling growth. Yes, this is a US survey, but I'm not sure that things will be much different here in Australia. Please don't misunderstand why I'm sharing these numbers with you. It's not to criticize the teachers in the survey, even the 2% who said that they never taught spelling in their early years classroom, but to show that there is as much variety between teachers when it comes to knowledge of our language and structured literacy as there is in our students.

The first aspect of building spelling instruction - content.
There are two aspects of knowledge to consider when it comes to spelling. The first relates to content. How is English structured? What are phonemes, graphemes, morphemes, bases, affixes, roots, and connecting vowels? What are the orthographic conventions that govern a large part of how we spell words? What is schwa, and why does it matter? What does Latin and Greek have to do with spelling? What's a loan word? What does it mean for a word to be semantically transparent or opaque, and how does this impact a student's ability to learn about words?

The second aspect of building spelling instruction - pedagogy
The other aspect to consider is pedagogical. What does it really mean to teach explicitly? What type of instruction leads to the best outcomes for the most students when it comes to spelling? In what grades should we be teaching which concepts, and how many times a week should we teach spelling? Should we teach whole class or small group? What about weekly spelling tests? Are they okay?

Why it can be scary to change practice.
Teachers often come to the undertaking of teaching spelling with a whole bundle of insecurities and conflicting thoughts and feelings. On one hand, we have engaged our students in particular practices for years or even decades. We know them. We are comfortable with them. We've seen children learn from them, and they haven't pushed us past our comfort zone of our knowledge about language. Perhaps we've just followed the program that our school has provided for us, or we might even have attempted to put our own approach together after conducting an in-depth spelling test and found ourselves more than a little lost.

Today. I want you to really hear something, so If you're attempting to multitask right now, take a second and come back to me. If you have doubts about whether you have what it takes to teach spelling well, you aren't alone. If you have doubts about your level of knowledge when it comes to language, that doesn't make you a bad teacher.

If you have been following your school's chosen spelling program and not done much outside it, it doesn't mean that you are lazy. Every one of us is a learner in this space, including me. In fact, if you serve children, I hope that you never reach a place where you say, oh, well, I know everything there is to know now. If that day comes, it's time to go and do something else with your days.

How much do we need to know?
But how much do we need to know? How deeply do we have to understand the mysteries of English before we are ready to take a deep breath, blow it back out again and get stuck into spelling instruction? My answer might surprise you.

Early years teachers, if you have a robust approach to phonics in your classroom with daily lessons that include decoding and encoding, reading and writing words containing known graphemes, you are well on your way to doing what you need to be doing. We've heard in previous episodes about how important this is for spelling.

Year three to six teachers, if you help your students understand about prefixes, suffixes, bases, spelling conventions or rules and where words come from, you are already on the way. I guarantee you nobody is starting from zero in this work. We might have a way to go before a 10 out of 10 in the spelling stakes, but you don't have to get there tomorrow. If you are starting at a three out of 10, your job right now is to get to four. If you're starting at a six out of 10, your job is to get to seven. Feel better? I hope so. The goal isn't to learn everything right now but to aim for continual growth and improvement in instructional practices to get the best outcomes possible for all students in your class.

Remember, something evidence-informed done imperfectly, is always going to be better for students than something that's not grounded in evidence, done really, really well.

If you are starting out fairly close to being a beginner, when it comes to knowledge of language, the tricky thing is that you still need to teach. Your students can't wait for you to feel super confident about word histories before you get started. That's where tools and resources come in.

We are here to support YOUR structured literacy journey.
Resource room members already have access to almost a whole year's worth of units about prefixes, suffixes, and Latin bases. And if students are at the start of this morphology journey and are learning about the most common suffixes and how suffixing conventions work, there are almost 20 lessons there for that too and more will come. For these early units, you'll only be covering one per week. So there is loads to get you started and help your students build strong knowledge while you find your feet in this work. You may also have seen that we've released a new printed resource called Spelling Success in Action, Getting Started with Morphology and Spelling Conventions. This book gives you an overview of the key knowledge you need to get you started on your road to teaching spelling with confidence.

But I know how busy you are. So I've turned the introduction into an audiobook that you can access via a QR code on page three of the book, it's inside a podcast called Structured Literacy in Action. Each teaching unit comes with teacher background knowledge, scripted explanations of concepts, and step-by-step simple lesson plans to help you teach well. We also break down word lists into subcategories to help you differentiate based on your student's needs. We have QR codes that will take you to videos of me explaining and demonstrating how this works in the classroom, as well as planning templates and guidance on how this work can be connected to your phonics instruction in the early years.

It's terrific to have resources and tools available to support our teaching. They reduce our cognitive load and help us just focus on our students and the instruction we are providing. But it's important to remember that tools are just that and that it is teachers who make the biggest difference in how well students learn. As teachers, we need to build our knowledge and understanding of how our language works and the instructional practices that will help students become strong spellers.

If you're an Evergreen teacher member, you already have access to our four-module teach-along course, Getting Started with Morphology Instruction Across the Primary School, right inside the membership. If you aren't an Evergreen teacher member, don't worry. We've got you covered too. In the show notes of this episode, we have links to blog posts, podcast episodes, and YouTube clips to help you on your way.

In conclusion - You aren't going to break the children.
Every one of us faces the imposter monster at some point. That voice that tells us we aren't clever enough, experienced enough, knowledgeable enough to do something. Please don't listen to that voice. If you give something a go and it doesn't work out as expected, you can just adjust it and do it differently next time. If you mess something up, you aren't going to break the children. I want you to repeat after me wherever you happen to be right now. I am not going to break the children. Your turn. Did you say it? I hope so. 

Whichever stage of the language and spelling journey you are on, please know that you aren't on your own. There are many other teachers working through the same struggles and triumphs as you are. But I have confidence that if we aim for continual improvement in our knowledge and skills in small steps, we can do great things for kids.

See you in the next episode.

Links to resources about morphology

Our YouTube Playlist about Morphology and Spelling

Podcast episode and blog:  When should we start morphology instruction and what might it look like?

Blog Post - Beyond Basic Phonics


Graham, S., Morphy, P., Harris, K. R., Fink-Chorzempa, B., Saddler, B., Moran, S., & Mason, L. (2008). Teaching Spelling in the Primary Grades: A National Survey of Instructional Practices and Adaptations. American Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 796–825. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27667151


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