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A Teacher Enquiry Into Spelling

We have just recently completed our annual whole-school screening assessment, one aspect of which is progress in spelling. This particular area of language we have been considering throughout the school, and across our local cluster of schools. This is also an area that two of our teachers looked at as part of their practitioner enquiries in 2013-14, continuing into this session. Both these teachers are based in our upper school, teaching a composite primary 6/7 and a straight primary 7 class. The results being displayed by the pupils they taught are quite remarkable and I think worthy of sharing and consideration by others. The particular year group I am focused on is our current primary 7 class who have been taught by one or other of the two teachers during the last school year and this. The year group consists of 33 pupils, most of whom are 11years old. In the last twelve months two pupils have made over three years improvement in spelling age, with the highest making three years ten months improvement. A further twenty three pupils have made between twelve and twenty eight months progress, with the average being eighteen months. Four pupils made between six and twelve months improvement. Of the other four one showed no improvement, but this was due to her having a spelling age of twelve plus again, and the test used didn't reflect the gains she had made. The other three showed gains of three and four months. The pupils that had made the least progress were not the ones that we had identified as being in our lowest 20% of attainers. The pupils in this category had made gains of between nine months and nineteen months in the twelve month period.

So the big question is, what has changed?

The two teachers had shared the findings of their enquiry into spelling with their colleagues at the start of this session, and it is this that I would like to share. They illustrate perfectly the process of enquiry into practice that we have been developing in our two schools for over four years now.

Firstly they had identified an issue around the learning taking place in their classrooms that was concerning them. They were concerned about their pupils spelling ability and their ability to identify and use appropriate spelling strategies across the curriculum. They felt pupils lacked motivation with spelling and they wanted to address this. As a result, they came up with a research question that they would seek to answer. This was: 'what strategies can I employ to effectively engage and motivate pupils to learn their spellings and to apply them throughout all writing activities?'

Next they looked at the rationale of their current spelling practice. They considered, what were they doing  already? Why they were doing this? How did school policy and their own beliefs impact on their teaching of spelling? From these considerations they identified that they were:

  • Following The National Strategies: Primary Support Programme
  • They establish knowledge the children have already of any concept to be taught
  • They had the children work in pairs to 'thought shower" words on whiteboard
  • They used mnemonics, word searches, writing 'blind', make up silly sentences with words, in groups spell out words using their bodies, make posters, word find using new newspapers, magazines and books, used differentiated word lists for homework, etc as strategies already.
They then considered what exactly were their current concerns. The biggest concern they had was were they teaching spelling properly because pupils were not motivated to learn and transfer spellings to their extended pieces of writing? They also looked at the screening data and this had shown that 16  pupils in one class of 24 had a spelling age that was below their chronological age. In the other class it was 15 out of 25. They also began to question how the spelling programmes we followed in school, and our standardised tests married up. Were they 'fit for purpose'? Another consideration would be, how did they break habits that had been built up over time? e.g. Pupils consistently spelling 'they' as 'thay'.

Following consideration of these concerns they then looked at what success would look like for them and the pupils, following changes to their practice. They identified success criteria for their investigation for the pupils. These were as follows: The pupils will...
  • Be motivated and enthusiastic about learning spelling words
  • Have a range of strategies and they can select an appropriate one to tackle an unknown word
  • Be able to explain their strategies (meta-cognitive awareness)
  • Proof read partner's work to identify spelling errors in words which had been taught
  • Identify words they believe they can't spell or which they need to learn to spell
  • Demonstrate that they are beginning to transfer words and spelling patterns they have been taught into all their writing
They also identified success criteria for themselves as teachers. These were: we will...
  • Have identified strategies to successfully motivate children in learning how to spell words
  • Have a profile of the strategies the pupils have, the ones they need to learn, and their metacognitive understanding
  • Improve the pupils metacognition in regards to their learning 
  • See more evidence of children retaining and transferring the strategies taught
As with all enquiries, the teachers then needed to get some data from the pupils about their understanding of their learning in spelling. They decided to do this by interviewing the children. They asked them the following questions:
  • What helps you learn? Responses included, saying it out loud, breaking words down, visualising words, using Look, Cover, Write, Say and Check, reading more and games at home
  • What else could help you learn when it comes to,spelling? Responses included, literacy hour so we are focusing on it more in small linked activities, flash cards, hangman and spelling tests
  • What do you enjoy about spelling? Responses included, games, partner and whiteboard work, writing out new words
  • Is there anything you don't particularly enjoy? Responses included, big words, tests, being put under pressure, patterns and letter strings can be difficult
The two teachers were carrying out professional reading and research as they gathered this very useful information about themselves and their pupils. The met regularly to discuss their reading and the data they were uncovering. This was crucial to help them develop their understanding and identify the changes they were going to make to their practice. From these discussions they identified their plans for the way forward. The strategies they decided to focus on were as follows:
  • Ensure they were clear about the strategies that the children currently employed and their motivation for learning these
  • Discuss with them all the strategies that can be used to help with spelling- sounding out, chunking/syllabification, mnemonics, ticking the individual letters that are correct in a spelling attempt to help focus on the bits that needed to be learned, and so on
  • Letting children choose their own words from the strategy or focus being taught, using differentiated word lists
  • Homework for all, aimed at finding words that follow the rule/strategy being taught
  • Checking a partners extended pieces of writing for proof-reading of words taught
  • Being TOUGH and being insistent on correct spellings if they have been taught
  • Reading and using 'First Steps to Spelling' to inform practice and for focus for discussions 
  • Children creating posters to illustrate the strategies that have been taught
They implemented all of these and quickly began to see improvements across their classes. They re interviewed the pupils and they expressed how they were more enthusiastic and motivated about  spelling and new strategies they were using. Spelling was improving across the curriculum as the pupils started to transfer their new found confidence. They did not stop their though, and have continued to develop their practice to benefit all their pupils. Further changes made include:

  • Providing all pupils with a booklet of spelling strategies. Each strategy has been discussed and pupils have ticked the ones they use or put a dot next to unused ones. They are on desks during writing activities to encourage their use
  • Spending time during literacy hour using and putting strategies into practice
  •  Introducing a wider variety of spelling activities/games including Boggle, Spelling Menu, Word Families, Spelling-Roll-A-Word during literacy hour, with children more motivated and enthusiastic
  • Proof-reading station during literacy hour. The children are given a proof-reading key to help them
  • Both teachers are being very insistent in having words spelled correctly when strategies or patterns have been taught and the pupils are getting more independent in doing this before they present their work as complete
Though both teachers focused on a small group of pupils at first to gather data and information, what they both can see is the improvements that have occurred for all the learners in their classes. This is a common occurrence with focused practitioner enquiry. I am not sure I have really done justice to the work of the two teachers in this post. But the impact they have had for their pupils is indisputable. Hopefully, there is enough for others to see how they too might try some of the same practices to improve what they do for their own pupils and in their own schools. A word of caution I would add is that I believe these two teachers have got the results they have because of three factors.
  • They really know where their pupils are in their learning and understanding
  • They know exactly what they are doing
  • More importantly perhaps, they know why they are doing what they are doing
Wouldn't it be great if we could all say the same?

By the way, the jury is still out on the appropriateness of the standardised tests we use for our screening. 

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