Creating Strong, Eager Writers (with some “You’ve got a story to tell…with technology” and “Chromebooks and the Common Core”)
A note about “spelling”:
Today spelling should be taught very differently in our classrooms. Research and personal experience have proved to me that having a child memorize a list of words to spell correctly one day and then a couple of weeks later forget is ineffective. For that reason I’m a firm believer in having children learn to spell in context.
The first thing I tell concerned parents when I’m working with a student as a writer is that I want the thinking to flow. When writing, a child is thinking about what letter or letters they need to correspond with a particular sound, how to correctly form those letters, how to write those letters neatly and legibly, how to put spaces between their words, how to spell a word that they have seen before, to remember the thought in their head that they’re trying to convey, then we add correct conventions, and the list goes on. In order to make each process automatic, we need to help children focus on these one at a time. So when my writers are expressing a thought, I have them do it with flow of thinking interrupted as little as possible. Revising and editing should come later; the planning and the drafting is all about taking that idea that’s in the head and getting it onto paper.
Still I believe that students need to gain more fluency with high-frequency words. And that’s why I use dictation. When you provide the “what” to write to students, that is you give them the sentences; they can focus on the spelling, handwriting, and conventions such as capitalization and punctuation. You take the pressure of “what should I write about” off them.
Different districts have different adopted programs to use and no matter what program you use, you can still follow a few simple steps. For a time my district focused on teaching students word patterns and then we would have a high-frequency word wall. Later we got the Literacy by Design program and had themed spelling lists to integrate and so what I used shows how I kind of married all of those things.
The key to successful dictation is having a word wall anchor for students. I actually created desk name tags with the words that we were using and attached them right to student’s desk. I told my students that I put it there for them to use and I expected them to use it. I’m a big fan of giving students consistent structured lines and so I created my own dictation paper. This was the paper they would use to write dictated sentences on and then I would have a grading box at the top to communicate with parents or provide feedback. When I gave the dictation, I would read each sentence slowly, one at a time, repeating words carefully as they went. It took time to train my students to have the stamina that they needed for this process but it paid off. By the end of the year, my 2nd graders were EASILY doing 10 sentences at a time. I carefully created sentences each week to build on the skills we were currently working on. As I dictated each sentence, I’m expected my students to take the time to look on their word wall, find the word, and check it. In this way word wall words become “no excuse words” because there is no excuse for them not to look and check. If necessary I would return their sentences with these words circled have them correct misspelled words. Parents could have copies of the sentences to review at home if they wished (which was perfect for those who felt they needed to practice and memorize lists.) As we moved on, each week I would be sure to continuously go back and integrate words that were on a student’s word wall so that by week 15 they might still have to check a word that they had to spell in week one. I integrated the words that my grade level came up with for high-frequency words students should be learning how to spell, as well as word with the transfer pattern that they could use and then those words that I had to use because of the district adopted program. Dictation sentences week 1 In this example, the words in black are on the word wall and red indicates the words that were part of the focus for we were working on; the words in blue incorporated that strategy and then the green words were challenge words given by the program. For my transfer type words (or word family words), I would use words using the same pattern and word families on my word wall the family or pattern were in red print. Dictation sentences week 2 Dictation sentences week 3 Dictation test paper word wall week 32
Regardless of what words you’re required to use, integrating a weekly dictation routine is a great way to help students built automaticity with high-frequency words. When we require students to check and use that word wall resource through dictation, it is a resource that they will start to use in all of their writing tasks. It was great for me because I could hold my students accountable when I would conference with them. If the word was on their desk word wall I would circle it and tell them that they had to check it. By the end of the school year my students had become strong spellers and all they had to do was use a resource that was right in front of them.