Category Archives: spellings

It’s not a spelling test, it’s a quiz

Spelling tests are boring, right? The teacher reads out a word, everyone writes it down, then it gets marked. Ho hum. Nobody really likes them except annoying pedants and teacher’s pets.

Quizzes, on the other hand, are fun. They have quizzes on TV and in pubs, board games and apps. Quizzes are about thinking laterally, friendly competition, and having a bit of a laugh. They can even be done in teams, if collaborative learning is the main aim. You can ham it up with a top hat and some pictures of typical quiz prizes (you win the steak knives!).

Here’s an example beginner’s quiz for a six-year-old. She is working on three-sound words with “short” vowels, and starting to learn about consonant digraphs like sh, ch and th. She was keen to write on a whiteboard rather than use pencil and paper, but whiteboards aren’t necessary. My questions were something like:

  1. I’m like a really big car that lots of people can fit in, and I drive on the road, and stop to pick people up, and I start with the sound “b” and I rhyme with “fuss”.
  2. The opposite of the bottom is the “t…”
  3. I am an animal that says “woof, woof” and I like to go for walks, and when I was a baby I was called a puppy.
  4. When I need to buy something, I go to a “sh…”
  5. I am a thing you can wear on your head to keep the sun off or keep your head warm, and I start with “h” and I rhyme with “cat”.

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Free spelling lists for teachers

One of my fun summer activities has been refreshing and editing the free spelling lists on my website (yeah, weird, I know).

I hope teachers find them useful when teaching spelling, I know some already do. Other free spelling lists on the internet tend to focus on what words look like, but not what they sound like, or how they’re constructed, or they tend to reflect UK or US accents, not Australian English.

My lists menu allows words to be looked up in three different ways:

  1. Starting from sounds (phonemes) and looking up their spellings (graphemes). This is the direction we need to work in for spelling, i.e. turning speech into print.
  2. Starting from spellings and looking up the sounds they represent, which is the reading direction i.e. turning print into speech (whether reading aloud or silently).
  3. Starting with short, simple words and working towards longer, more complex ones, the direction needed for teaching. This sequence is the one used in my workbooks, but it’s not better than any other sequence. The important thing is to have a sequence. If wanting to use this one, but not sure where to start, my free low-frequency word spelling test might help.

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Low frequency word spelling test

I’ve just made up a free, low-frequency word spelling test which you can download here and use to explore learners’ spelling skills and knowledge.

It’s not a standardised test, so won’t tell you whether a learner’s spelling skills are behind, on a par with or ahead of peers. Its purpose is to focus your attention on the things that matter most for spelling:

  • speech sounds (phonemes),
  • letter patterns that represent these sounds (graphemes),
  • word structure (positions and combinations of sounds in words/syllables),
  • parts of speech e.g. “pact” is a noun, “packed” is a verb,
  • meaning (especially for homophones like see/sea),
  • meaningful word parts (morphemes such as prefixes, suffixes and word stems/roots).

This should help you work out which key skills and knowledge learners already have, and which they need to learn, and thus help teach them to spell explicitly, systematically and effectively.

Don’t do the whole test with anyone, it’s far too long (390 items). Start at your learner’s estimated current skill level, and work forwards if they get words mostly correct, and backwards if they don’t. Stop when you hit a floor (most words too easy) or ceiling (most words too hard). Continue reading

Write this word backwards

Looking for a fresh early-level spelling activity? Inspired by the old board game “Backwords”, lately we’ve been having competitions to write words backwards.

For example, I say “write nip backwards” and learners have to write “pin”. This requires and builds awareness of the sounds in words (phonemic awareness) which is crucial for spelling.

Sometimes we use paper and pencil, and sometimes mini whiteboards, which are often somehow more exciting (novelty, I guess). For the hardline “I’m not picking up a pencil” brigade I also have an embarrassment of colourful and novelty pens and pencils, and coloured paper.

If working on four sound words, words like “spin” (nips) and “nuts” (stun) can be reversed. Continue reading

Pip and Tim decodable books from Little Learners Love Literacy

Before I buy a book, I like to pick it up and look through it properly myself.

I also like to hear about it from independent reviewers, not rely on information from those  selling it. They’re hardly going to tell me if there’s something wrong with it.

Unfortunately, a lot of excellent books and other resources to help kids learn to read and spell aren’t readily available in mainstream shops.

They’re only available online, or from specialist shops that aren’t always easy to visit. So they’re hard to leaf through, and it’s also difficult to find independent reviews of them.

I’m thus using this blog to help get the message out about good resources I use and recommend from publishers and specialist stores without huge marketing budgets.

I hope this helps more learners get access to them, plus helps those selling them compete with huge companies peddling nasty look-at-the-picture-and-guess books and other dross.

Here’s a video I’ve made about the Pip and Tim decodable books from Little Learners Love Literacy, which I think are perfect for Aussie 4-6 year olds. I use them with some 7-year-old strugglers too. They’re cute, funny and designed to help kids learn to sound out words quickly and well. They’re also available very affordably as iPad apps.

No, I don’t sell these books or get paid any commission on them. I just like them a lot, and hope that (if you have 4-7 year-old literacy learners in your life) you do too.

What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling?

A lot has been written by philosophers and in Dilbert cartoons about different types of knowledge.

Often these are described using terms like “explicit” versus “tacit” or “declarative” versus “procedural” knowledge. What matters most for spelling?

Declarative versus procedural knowledge

Explicit, declarative knowledge is theoretical information about a subject e.g. that we use a base 10 number system, and that our Solar System has 8 planets (sorry, Pluto). Libraries, databases and the internet are full of it.

Procedural knowledge is often harder to describe (more tacit) and more practical. It’s knowing how to do something, like tie up a shoelace, play the guitar or ride a bike.

I have quite a bit of explicit, declarative knowledge about how to play brilliant tennis (yes, the Australian Open men’s final is on, but we love both Roger and Raffa, so who to barrack for?!) but despite years of trying (our tiny country town didn’t have enough kids to field a team without unco asthmatic me), I never managed to convert this into much procedural knowledge.

I’ve been nerdily immersed in spelling books lately, and have realised that most books about spelling are full of explicit, declarative knowledge, but aren’t necessarily much help with the “how”, or what we should be doing to build tacit, procedural knowledge of spelling. Continue reading

Upcoming training in synthetic phonics

I’m on the Professional Development committee for Learning Difficulties Australia, so have been madly researching quality training in synthetic phonics currently on offer in Australia.

My theory is that the more we can publicise other people’s good training, the less we’ll need to run ourselves as volunteers, in our copious (not) spare time.

I’ve discovered there’s quite a bit of training about sounds and their spellings available, if you know where to look. Some is very focussed on phonemic awareness and phonics, the biggest gaps in teacher training. Some also covers vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, the three other Five Big ideas in beginning reading instruction. Continue reading

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