Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Teaching spelling as a tool for writing with Stephen Graham

In a nutshell
"Our kids need to see spelling as a problem solving process." 
That's the gist of Stephen Graham's message to us as educators. How do we teach our children to retain the correct spelling of words to be able to write them correctly in continuous text not just for spelling tests ? Stephen unfolded the answer to this question during the course of an action packed, informative and fun day of learning for our St Joseph's teachers and other educators from across North Otago. 

How did the day evolve ?
Sharon Johnson, the North Otago Resource Teacher for Literacy (RTLit) has a love and passion for spelling. I worked with Sharon in Culverden almost ten years ago and was thrilled when she was appointed to her role in North Otago. I distinctly remember Sharon enthusiastically leading a teacher only day with primary and high school staff at Amuri Area school many years ago. Sharon spoke fervidly about the importance of teaching spelling strategies and has continued to promote this important message in her practice.
Sharon has often referred to the spelling and writing guru Stephen Graham and it is because of Sharon's determination to make a difference for all spellers across North Otago that we had the opportunity to learn from Stephen firsthand during his visit from Australia to Oamaru. Stephen has a diverse background in education and literacy. You can read more about Stephen here.

Our St Joseph's teachers with the inspirational Stephen Graham
Here are my notes and reflections from the day

How can we explicitly teach children how to spell ? The gap between reading and writing is too high for many children. We need to close the gap. How can we do this ?

An important skill of a good writer is about being able to spell in context.
Children need to do something in continuous text, not just be able to spell it for a spelling test. They need :
1. Underpinning knowledge
2. Scope and sequence of teaching of spelling  (develop skills and strategies to solve words).

A good reader uses three information systems: meaning, structure and visual (MSV)
A good speller uses four information systems: (PVME) Research proves that many children only have two out of four of these strategies. (You will learn what these are below).

Spellers must be able to use words in a purposeful continuous text, not just in sentences. For example, a good recount.

Every text is made up of content words and function words- it's the function words that cause problems.
What kinds of words do you need for a recount ? You need a good bundle of time connectives, past tense action words and personal pronouns.

Stephen has bundled up function words for all genre of writing.

We carried out a writing scaffold activity for an explanation text based around the life cycle of a frog. What do we need for an explanantion text?
Start with a bundle of time connectives - one for every piece /step of the explanation. For example, first, next, eventually...
After and following are tricky words. They can't be followed by THAT
After (that) and following (that)... is not correct. It is better to go back to what you are talking about. Take the language from the previous step and use it instead of that.
You cannot put after and following next to each other. You must slide another time connective in between or it becomes too complex.

Turn time connective words into content using function words with content words.

By giving the learners the function words they can focus their writing energy on rich content. If you want to improve the quality of children's writing teach them the words they need to know. Function words are words that you can use all of your life.

Next we need groups of words called modifiers  (they tell us how big or small a group is....
many, most, majority, few).

It's the function words that make texts work.

What words glue the text together ? For the rest of your life whenever you write an explanation you can use those same function words.

To turn it into a good explanation, we need to add in description words.

The describing bubble: take a thing or phenomenon and describe it in a number of different perspectives... numbers, size, colour, shape, texture, position and doing....
Describing bubble to add detail to writing
Year 2,3 - Describe a noun. Firstly the frog lays eggs. Circle a noun in the sentence - eggs. Give me a colour sentence. The eggs are black.  Secondly... tadpoles. The tadpoles are three centimetres long. When the children are good at describing nouns from a number of different perspectives then describe nouns and verbs.
Year 4,5, 6. - Circle the noun. Female frog, verb lays and eggs. For the paragraph to have cohesion, then describe it in the order of the first sentence in which you introduced the idea.
For example, describe the laying of the eggs from a position perspective. The eggs can only be laid in still water. The eggs are small and jelly like with a black centre. Now we have used size, texture and colour descriptors.

If a child can't describe then writing will be difficult for the rest of the lives.
Explanations and expositions are the same but the verbs are in the past tense. For older children you need to add qualifiers.
An activity to model physically with children
To write well, children must be able to say it well. Use the correct  language: noun, noun, pronoun, pronoun, noun. For example, Toby the toy dog story. Have the children physically make the story by standing to say each sentence in the story.
Child 1: Title sentence Toby.
Child 2:  A Toby number sentence - Toby has two ears. He is multicoloured.
Get the children to repeat the story with you, as it is demonstrated. Get them to tell you another number sentence etc 
Child 3: A texture sentence. He is soft. 
Include conjunctions that make the sentences longer. Add more descriptions. There are three groups of conjunctionscoordinating, subordinating and modal conjunctions. In that order of difficulty.
For example :Toby has two ears and four legs.
Don't mix up the perspectives. If you are thinking of number keep with number.
Subordinating conjunction - include of or with.
He is multicoloured with a blue scarf.
Modal - this is when we change our mind and use... but, although, however, on the other hand.. But... is the opposite .Toby is soft however his eyes are hard.
Macro or defining sentence. A sentence that defines Toby.Toby is a stuffed toy. 
Add a feeling sentence at the end. Children physically watch the text being built in front of them.
If they can do it orally and then put it into a piece of writing and then spell it correctly then they have made huge progress with their literacy.

There is a definite scope and sequence in teaching children to describe. 
1. Describe themselves first.
To describe well they must attack a phenomenon from a range of perspectives.
2. Next they learn to describe familiar objects.

3. Describe less familiar objects 
4. Describe literary objects. If you can't do this you will never write a good narrative.
If teaching narrative, do a describing bubble for every narrative.
If children are not good writers then they need to go back to writing descriptions.
When you come across words you can't spell it stops the flow of the text. 
In writing this way, we did the opposite of whole language teaching. We started at the word level to the sentence to the text level.
Conclusion for your story -  Go to three macro sentences and choose your favourite one and put a circle around it. Take the sentence and resay it and link it to the process that you have explained. This glues the text together.

Editing the text
When boys in particular put the full stop on their work that's it. They don't want to know about it. What can we do ? Teach them to self edit by giving them a table like this. They tick or complete it as they progress through each column.
Have you used five different

No personal pronouns ?
You have a linking sentence. How is this writing going to continue ?
Check time connectors,if you used after or following then check you haven’t used that after it.
Tick if after each of your time connector sentences, you have at least one describing sentence

Find your first relating verb. If you have are, it is the present tense. If it is was it is the past tense. Now circle every other relating verb in your writing . Check they are same tense.
If they match all the way through then give yourself 2 ticks

Four spelling knowledgesNo phonics programme can teach children how to spell. It is one of the knowledges but not all. Our kids need to see spelling as a problem solving process.
A good speller has access to four spelling knowledges.
1. Phonological knowledge (P) Ability as a speller to hear sounds and know what marks on the page make that word. Important that children learn sounds first before names for letters.
2. Visual knowledge (V)- How words look. Don't ever sound it out. For example was - look at it and know it.
3. Morphemic knowledge (M)- you have an ability to have a bundle of spelling generalisations like 'i before e except after c'. Other part is when you have a word like penultimately, you find a base word and then add prefixes and suffixes ti it,other is ability to hear compound word ie big words in small words
4. Etymological knowledge (E) - derivations of words. Where groups of words come from. eg. Television versus tellyvision. Tele( means from far, far away).When you watch television from far away. Try telephone, telescope...
A good speller can jump between the four spelling knowledges. 
A school needs to agree on the above four knowledges and explicitly develop these areas throughout the school.

Activities to help teach the four spelling knowledges
Use four different coloured pieces of card to stand for each of the above areas.
Sort words into the four different groups.
Talk with the children as you do it. You are telling them what to think as they write it. 
What are you going to do ? This is the same pedagogical approach as teaching reading. The difference is your write.
When we read, we deconstruct. When we write we construct the word, build the word.
If there are more than one possible strategy in a word, go for the tricky part of the word.

St Joseph's staff having a go at the knowledge activities
The words should always be recorded in their four knowledges. 
We do different activities for each of the four knowledges.
If it's visual - do look, cover, write and check. But that doesn't work for every knowledge.
Visual - draw the shape boxes. They - start tall, then short and then tall.

Many spelling activities most teachers do, don't teach the children anything. They are just activities.

Stephen gave us a link to resources and activities to use to support the knowledge strategies. For example, Greek and Latin roots words go to a website link. Google search for etymological knowledge and it is the second one that comes up.

Differentiation in spelling - Make sure you give a variety of words from the four different knowledges so that the children don't become reliant on only one knowledge. If you just give children words that you sound out, then that's all they will be able to do later on.

Scope and Sequence for skills and strategies not just for words.
Stephen also provided us with a resource that we can use across the school.
For example:Year 1 - Lots of phonological, visual knowledge but hardly any morphemic and etymological. The teachers will be talking about words we can sound out and won't sound out at all. You can organise word walls into knowledges.
Year 4 & 5 - Morphemic knowledge has to start building just like times tables 
Year 6 & 7 - Etymological knowledge stronger

What spelling generalisations should children be learning ?  Stephen researched this with speech pathologists. They identified the main spelling generalisations to teach that will support children 93% of the time. We have been given a resource that supports the teaching of these.

If we want better spellers, they don't need more words but more knowledge to access words they can't spell.

Assessments for spelling - what do we use ?
1. Dictation - link it to genre that you are learning with
2. Edit a passage
3. Word test
4. Standardised tests 
5. Analyse a work sample (most powerful)
6. Phonic recognition
Everyone of these is a valid way to assess student's spelling. As a teacher and a school we need to use a variety of ways, not just one way. This will give us an overall picture.

It's better to spend time teaching kids spelling knowledge through function words rather than content words.

What about spelling homework ? We can give the children words sorted into the four knowledge groups linked to their work from school.The link between home and school is then meaningful and purposeful.

Having the strategies to give words a go is more important than learning to spell lists of content words.
Next steps :
At St Joseph's we are keen to action our learning from today and give our learners the strategies to strive forward with their spelling and their writing. We aim to ensure that "Our kids see spelling as a problem solving process." 
We aim to take our learning from today and action it across the school. Watch this space.


  1. Excellent reflection! Good to have such a detailed record of the day.

  2. Thanks Paul. Hopefully it will help us develop an action plan along with everyone else's notes and reflections and Stephen's excellent resources.

  3. Thank you, Jenny.You have been very busy.

  4. Thanks Ann. I thought I would try live blogging today and typed my notes as we went. It was certainly a valuable day.