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Spelling with Substance

Mike Neufeld

As a teacher in an inquiry based school, I thoroughly enjoy approaching the curriculum with students in a manner that accommodates flexibility and open-ended exploration. This manifests itself easily in larger, inquiry-based projects, yet I always find that I ask myself, “What does Inquiry look like for smaller, day to day lessons?” With this in mind, I was curious as to how I might take spelling beyond rote memorization of lists and paragraphs and into something that was more individualized for the diverse students in my classroom.

After a good deal of experimentation and tweaking I have developed an “individualized” spelling program that, really, is more of a vocabulary development program. The essence of this program is that for each week that we work on this (generally biweekly) students are responsible for acquiring five words for the week’s list. For this to be both meaningful to the student and relevant and of appropriate rigor for the grade level, I have established two main parameters for choosing words.
1. Within the context of the individual student, the word must be challenging
2. The student must be able to justify why the word is “Worth Knowing” (A phrase taken from colleague Rick Fawcett)

To assist students in choosing words I have provided them with several useful word lists to choose from. Many years ago at an Intlets workshop our staff was introduced to the following lists and they have proved very useful:

  • “ed” verbs 
  • “ing” verbs 
  • “ly” adverbs
  • “negative” feelings inventory 
  • “positive” feelings inventory
  • “Said is Dead” words 

One of the most important sources of words is the independent reading that students are engaged in. While reading I encourage students to take any words that are unfamiliar to them and look “interesting” and add them to a list that they can then draw from.

What about reference books you might ask? Well, the Thesaurus has proven to be an excellent source; students simply take a word that they are already quite familiar and comfortable using, and then look for a more sophisticated way of saying it. What about the Dictionary? That is a different story. When I initially allowed students to get words from the dictionary I found that they were frequently choosing the longest, most complicated words to challenge themselves. Great! My students are challenging themselves. Wrong. Basically the students were choosing long words that they would likely never use. For example they might choose long biological based words that might never enter their daily lives.

To help overcome such irrelevant word choices, I have required students to explain “Why the word is worth knowing”. This has proven to be very insightful as I can see the student’s thinking as he or she justifies how and when they might use the words that they have chosen. In the list below I require students to choose a minimum of two reasons to justify the word chosen. One must be from A, B or C which are the more thoughtful choices and one may be from options D, E, or F the lower, basic, section.

A. I can imagine using in a conversation about___________________________to make my language sound more sophisticated.

B. It would be descriptive when talking about ________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________________

C. It would show the emotions of a character in a situation where ____________________________________________________________________________

D. This is a better and/or different way to say________________________________________

E. I often spell it like this:_______________________________________________________

F. I read it in_____________________________and wasn't sure what it meant.

I often find that students will do four of the six reasons.

For each word chosen students are also required to do the following:
1. Categorize the word as a noun, verb, adverb or adjective – this helps them understand how to use the word in context.
2. Define the word – I find the best definition is a synonym when available
3. Provide an antonym – if the word has one (nouns generally won’t have one and many verbs do not). 4. Create an original sentence using the word.

The original sentence is the major assessment piece in this program. I am looking for students to move beyond simple sentences and into more complex ones that allude to the meaning of the word. In the early incarnations of this program I found myself faced with many simple sentences and had to think of a way to get students to expand on their sentences. I eventually came up with “Put Your Word to the Test” and have found it to be quite successful. The document explaining this is attached. This document shows how the antonym used in a powerfully constructed sentence will make absolutely no sense, and thus pass the test. If the antonym makes sense in the sentence, then the sentence is simple and does not allude to the meaning of the word.

Although I generally don’t see huge value in spelling tests, I do find that parents often request them. To satisfy this request and give students some practice with memorizing, I have them add their words to a list on the website “” and once 20 words have been entered students are ready for a test. The students can do the test independently and the results can be printed off.

After students get used to this program, doing a five-word list can be completed by many students in about 45 minutes. Assessing the five words is done with the rubric provided. It can be slightly time consuming to mark, however, I feel that it gives me a very effective snapshot of my students’ writing abilities. I often encourage them to make funny sentences to help keep me entertained.
Assignment Explanation
Student Assignment

Please let me know if you have any other insights or suggestions. Comment below or email me:


Srk said...
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Unknown said...

Great Lesson! I am going to pass this along to the many first year teachers who are struggling in finding new and authentic ways to teach spelling. Thanks for sharing!

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