Sunday, February 20, 2011

What if we taught spelling with adaptive expertise in mind?

What if we taught spelling with adaptive expertise in mind?

Such an approach would incorporate Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development along with the best practices of differentiation and would include the habits of mind associated with adaptive expertise.

We would begin with the end in mind. Students would learn common orthological spelling patterns in sequential order; learning to apply the patterns they know when they encounter words in their writing that they want to include, but are uncertain how to spell.

According to Invernizzi, Johnston, Bear et. al, each student should be working to master a spelling pattern s/he is “using but confusing.” Such a spelling program will be differentiated and developmentally appropriate for each learner in the classroom.

What would this look like in practice?

Step One: Each class would take a developmental spelling inventory to determine groupings for spelling instruction.

Step Two: Word study units for each group of students based on their developmental stage of spelling. Typically, there are 4 or 5 groups in a classroom of 20 students. Word study includes reading and writing activities such as word sorts, games, and writing activities. The words included follow the spelling patterns being studied. At this point in the fully differentiated classroom, each student would move at his/her own pace. In a partially differentiated classroom, groups would progress together, but students would move between groups depending on ongoing formative assessment.

Step Three: A summative assessment of each student’s ability to use the pattern s/he studied. This assessment should include words that students have and have not seen before but that follow the same patterns as those studied. This will allow students to demonstrate mastery and adaptive expertise. For example, if the student was learning to spell words with r controlled vowels, word study might include words such as fir and fur. During the assessment, the word furry would appear. A sentence might be “my pet cat is very furry.” Students who have mastered fir and fur should be able to generalize that the new word is spelled with the letter u.

In sum, students demonstrate mastery of a pattern before moving on to study a new pattern. There is no abandonment of skills not mastered. No student spends time studying patterns s/he has already mastered.

Sounds simple. Why is it so hard?

1 comment:

Payton Hobbs said...


Excellent post and perspective on improving students' ability to "spell for life" rather than a weekly test. The phrase "spelling for life" is taken from Rebecca Sitton's spelling program. It is founded on many of the same principles you reference in your post. We have just started using this in our 2nd and 3rd grade classes. As with any commercial program, it has room for improvement, and teachers need to make adjustments to ensure they are meeting the needs of their own students, but we have pleased so far. The biggest difference is students show mastery of a spelling pattern by consistently spelling words correctly in their written work over an extended period of time. We then are truly assessing their mastery of spelling skills rather than their ability to memorize a list of words for a weekly test.
I am a huge proponent of differentiating instruction and the philosophy of "fair is not always equal."
In order for this to be successful, teachers have to know their students, and administrators need to support their teachers and educate the parent body as they make the shift. Change is hard, but this change is worth the effort!