Launching spelling through reading and writing

Robyn Wild is a literacy consultant, author and presenter of PETAA’s online course, Launching spelling through reading and writing. In this article, Robyn offers practical suggestions for using rich reading and writing experiences to support spelling development and confidence in Early Stage 1.

I grew up thinking that I was a bad speller, and I was. I was in primary school in the 1960s, where we had spelling and English grammar textbooks, and once-a-week compositions (and where the red slashes through every second word were the only writing feedback I ever received). I remember being read to only a few times during my entire time at school, and I still remember the sense of failure I felt on getting 21 spelling mistakes one Friday, in a Year 1 dictation.

While I had a wonderful childhood, it did not include books, and my memories of learning to read and write were often accompanied by tears. I didn’t make ANY connection between reading, writing and that stand-alone subject called spelling. Whatever my teachers were doing wasn’t helping me to connect the dots. My understanding that I was a ‘bad speller’ solidified.

As a not-so-young teacher, I attended a spelling course run by Faye Bolton (who’d written on teaching spelling with Di Snowball) and she said something that changed the way I looked at myself as a speller. Faye suggested that we should help students see themselves as developing spellers, rather than as good or bad. She explained that spelling was more than just memorising words – that there were spelling strategies which I could draw on as I wrote, and that I could learn how words worked every time I read and every time I wrote. This was all news to me!

I was teaching Kindergarten at the time, where there were no spelling lists or Friday dictations, so there was no need to keep spelling as a separate subject, isolated from daily reading and writing. Instead, I had a go at embedding spelling information into everyday literacy activities.

The spelling goals that I adopted for my Kindergarten students (informed by Di Snowball and Faye Bolton) clarified my planning. Snowball and Bolton (1999, p 5) suggested that ‘the overall goals should be for children to:

  • understand that the primary purpose for learning about spelling is so that others can read their writing;
  • know that their writing is valued regardless of the stage of development of their spelling;
  • develop an interest in words and spelling and want to do their best;
  • learn how to apply spelling strategies that will help them to write or learn any word;
  • learn specific words that they use frequently and so become able to correctly spell these words automatically; and
  • know how to use a variety of resources to help with spelling’.

Then I focussed on what I wanted to teach the students: how words are spelled in English (that is, the English orthographic system) and what effective spellers do to spell correctly (that is, use a range of spelling strategies). The English orthographic system enables readers to connect spelling to sound and to meaning and includes: phonological awareness, graphophonic knowledge, morphemic knowledge and etymological knowledge. Spelling strategies include: sounding out, chunking (onset and rime, letter combinations, syllables or parts of words that carry meaning), using visual memory (look, say, cover, visualise, write, check), using spelling generalisations, using analogy, consulting an authority, using meaning, and using memory aids.

So, where should I start? Well, that was easy… I always started with assessment. Once or twice a term, I gathered a writing sample from each student to search for common errors. As I read each work sample, I thought about three questions:

1. What spelling strategies can this student use well/consistently?
2. What teaching points could I focus on?
3. Which ones will I start with?

I often referred to syllabus outcomes before asking myself one more question:

4. Do other students in my class have similar spelling needs?

Before I knew it, I had a list of common spelling miscues and a clear idea of the orthographic areas and spelling strategies on which to focus. I planned to embed this spelling information into my daily literacy practices.

My students and I engaged in daily modelled, shared, guided and independent reading and writing. I wanted to ensure that they saw successful readers and writers at work; were given targeted support when needed; and had plenty of time to practice their new spelling skills and understandings.

Then it was just a matter of pulling it all together by drawing students’ attention to the chosen spelling information throughout each literacy session and, indeed, throughout the day.

More practical ideas for establishing and refining literacy sessions can be found in the following resources:

  • Wild, R. (2009). Where do I start? Stimulating ideas for literacy-rich primary classrooms. Newtown, Australia: PETAA.
  • Lowe, K. (2016). For the love of reading: Supporting struggling readers. Newtown, Australia: PETAA.
  • Department of Education WA. (2004). Reading resource book: Addressing current literacy challenges (2nd ed.). Port Melbourne, Australia: Rigby Heinemann. (First Steps third edition materials are also available online.)
  • Department of Education WA. (2004). Reading map of development: Addressing current literacy challenges (2nd ed.). Port Melbourne, Australia: Rigby Heinemann. (First Steps third edition materials are also available online.)
  • Fountas, I. C. & Pinnell, G. S. (2016). Guided reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann USA.

My Kindergarten literacy session

The following timeline provides an overview of a typical literacy session in my Kindergarten classroom. In most activities, I was working with the whole class. At two points, I worked with small groups or individuals, while other students worked without my support. Additional ideas for organising literacy sessions can be found in ‘Where do I start?’ and the other titles suggested above.

  • 9:00am – secret sentence, morning routine (calendar, count children)
  • 9:10am – news groups and news book
  • 9:20am – read enlarged text (big book, interactive whiteboard)
  • 9:30am – guided reading/conference (small groups/individuals working with teacher) and literacy centres (students working without teacher support)
  • 10:15am – modelled, shared or interactive writing
  • 10:20am – guided writing/conference (small groups/individuals working with teacher) and individual writing (students working without teacher support)
  • 10:35am – feedback
  • 10:45am – read aloud.

Secret sentence

During the daily secret sentence, I wrote an enlarged text in silence, as the class tried to integrate the three cueing systems (semantic, graphophonic and syntactic) to gain meaning from the text. We referred to letters in their names and the alphabet chart for help.

Handwritten text which reads We will watch a video this afternoon
Image: Each day, students deciphered a new secret sentence.

News book

We re-read the entire news book each day before adding a new dictated story. This book became the most important writing reference, as it contained commonly used words, popular sentence starters and a myriad of letter patterns… and, importantly, there was at least one expert for each page who could decipher every word! For example, while we all became familiar with the plurals, cvc words, the silent ‘e’, rhyming words {my, by}, letter blends {sh} and family words {can, fan, man} as we read and re-read Callen’s news each day, Callen knew just where to find each word and letter on his page:

Drawing of children and a dog, plus the words My dog can shake hands by Callen
Image: A page from the news book.

Big books/interactive whiteboard/charts

Big books, charts and resources displayed on the interactive whiteboard enabled me to introduce students to a vast range of texts. I could focus students’ attention on aspects of the reading process, contexts for reading, reading conventions, and comprehension and word identification strategies. In this way, spelling instruction happened daily as I focused attention on phonemic awareness and graphophonic understandings, and introduced new and exciting vocabulary.

Book pages showing a boy holding a mysterious box, together with a series of clues about the type of animal which hides inside
Image: Extract from ‘Creature features’ [Informazing!] by David Drew (1988. New York: Rigby)

Reading enlarged texts together allowed me to focus students’ attention on the chosen teaching point and to demonstrate exactly what goes on inside the head of a successful reader, as I gained meaning from the text.

Guided reading

Guided reading provides an opportunity to draw together a small group of students with similar needs to support, guide and question them as they read texts silently. In addition to focusing on, for example, comprehension or text types, I would also regularly ask students to notice letter patterns, base words, rhymes… or any aspect of spelling. I simply needed one example of a spelling generalisation in the text to start the conversation!

A girl smiles with surprise as a fly escapes from the box she is holding and settles on a leaf in the garden
Image: Extract from ‘The Big, Brown Box’ by David Drew (1994. South Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia).

Independent reading and literacy centres

No one should ever need to design a literacy centre activity, as it’s so easy to find numerous great ideas! Texts on guided reading will usually have suggestions for organising literacy centres too. It’s worthwhile spending time setting up effective routines and equipment, as it will free you to differentiate your teaching for small groups or individuals.

Suggested texts include:

  • Diller, D. (2003). Literacy work stations: Making centers work. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Blakemore, C. J. & Ramirez, B. W. (1999). Literacy centres for the early years classroom. South Melbourne, Australia: Longman.
  • Moore, J. E. & Norris, J. (2005). Literacy Centres: Book 1. Glebe, Australia: Blake Education.

But the hub of any literacy classroom is its class library. Ensure your students are offered an interesting range of texts and an inviting spot that entices them to read… then give them the time and encouragement to do so.

Students relax on the floor and on beanbags, reading books chosen from a bookcase full of appealing picture books
Image: Students enjoying independent reading (left), courtesy of the class library (right).

Modelled, shared and interactive writing

The class would help me create an enlarged text every day. I was able to model the writing process, pointing out different text types and writing strategies and demonstrating writing conventions and skills. From the first day of Kindergarten, I showed students how to invent spelling, listening for the sounds in each word and linking those sounds to letters and letter patterns. We referred to the news book and print around the room for help but, most importantly, my students became ‘risk-takers’ and ‘brave’ writers in Term 1. They realised that their writing was their responsibility. Only after a whole term encouraging independence and creativity, did we compare their writing attempts to standard spelling. Rather than being constrained by correct spelling, they were excited by the prospect of ‘writing like a grown-up’. They became word-detectives and spelling problem-solvers.

2 examples of shared writing, showing invented spelling - I c f l n.  And I like it w ch pt r itHe bin
Image: ‘I cooked fish last night’ and ‘I like it when children put rubbish in the bin’.
An example of shared writing, shown with both attempted and correct spelling
Image: ‘Penny’s mum came to work in KW’.

Guided and independent writing

Students then wrote their own texts every day, bringing the writing process to life! They thought, planned, organised, drafted, asked for help, edited, proofread, published, conferenced and shared. They ‘owned’ their work and were responsible for it. They thought about their audience and tried to create their ‘best’ stories.

When small groups of students worked together in a guided writing group, we focused on common writing concerns, with each student creating and improving their own attempts. It was during these writing times that I gathered additional information about them as spellers. I observed how they transferred spelling information into their own writing, saw how they solved their own spelling concerns, and discerned other common spelling issues. That way, I targeted my teaching to their spelling needs, rather than relying on an external spelling program or list to dictate our next spelling focus.

Handwritten work by a Kindergarten student - Yesterday we went to the farm and we went with the farmer .. and we also went to look at the pigs with Eva
Image: Independent writing: The farm excursion.

Read aloud

Then, and most importantly, I read aloud to the class every day. I might choose a picture book, a poem, a factual text, a multimodal text, great literature, or a silly rhyme. The text might be on a topic connected to a class discussion or author study, or it could be a traditional fable or story from far-away lands. These wonderful texts are full of fantastic vocabulary that whisks everyone away from the known.

Vocabulary describing an evil character
Image: Vocabulary from read aloud texts is displayed for use in subsequent writing.

This vocabulary can then be displayed, played with, and used in subsequent writing. Use these words to demonstrate spelling generalisations and to refer to as you and the children write. If your class senses your enthusiasm for exciting vocabulary, they’ll want to use it too… and to know how to spell it.

An alphabetical list of commonly used words
Image: Vocabulary, organised alphabetically
Basket containing a milk carton covered with vocabulary and 2 bottles of glue
Image: Vocabulary, also organised alphabetically, available on student desks

Characteristics of effective spellers

As Snowball and Bolton (1999) indicate, effective spellers:

  • use a variety of spelling strategies to spell and learn new words
  • automatically recall high-frequency words, personally significant words, and topic and signal words
  • continually build their vocabulary
  • understand the English orthographic system
  • understand and apply spelling generalisations
  • self-monitor and generate alternative spellings for unknown words.

I never tried to create perfect spellers. Rather, I sought to nurture effective, efficient spellers who want to write.

References and further reading

Blakemore, C. J. & Ramirez, B. W. (1999). Literacy centres for the early years classroom. South Melbourne, Australia: Longman.

Department of Education WA. (2004). Reading map of development: Addressing current literacy challenges (2nd ed.). Port Melbourne, Australia: Rigby Heinemann. (First Steps third edition materials are also available online – free via the Department of Education WA website.)

Department of Education WA. (2004). Reading resource book: Addressing current literacy challenges (2nd ed.). Port Melbourne, Australia: Rigby Heinemann. (First Steps third edition materials are also available online – free via the Department of Education WA website.)

Diller, D. (2003). Literacy work stations: Making centers work. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Drew, D. (1988). Creature features. Informazing! New York, NY: Rigby.

Drew, D. (1994). The Big, Brown Box. South Melbourne, Australia: Thomas Nelson Australia.

Fountas, I. C. & Pinnell, G. S. (2016). Guided reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann USA.

Lowe, K. (2016). For the love of reading: Supporting struggling readers. Newtown, Australia: PETAA.

Moore, J. E. & Norris, J. (2005). Literacy Centres: Book 1. Glebe, Australia: Blake Education.

NSW Department of Education. (2020). Spelling.

Snowball, D. & Bolton, F. (1999). Spelling K-8: Planning and teaching. York, ME: Stenhouse.

Wild, R. (2009). Where do I start? Stimulating ideas for literacy-rich primary classrooms. Newtown, Australia: PETAA.

How to cite this article – Wild, R. (2020). Launching spelling through reading and writing, Scan, 39(8).

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