Category Archives: spellings

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.

If working in a group, children can take turns being the quiz master. When working with just one child, I ask the child’s parent to play too, and not-very-subtly encourage the parent to make a few mistakes, so that we end up with a grinning winner.

If keeping both letters and sounds exactly the same, this activity is limited to targeting two-letter vowel spellings in “oo” and “ee” words like “pool” and “keep”. A more difficult game would involve saying the word backwards, sound by sound, blending into a word, then writing the word, adjusting spelling choices as necessary e.g. club = /k/, /l/, /u/, /b/ becomes /b/, /u/,/l/,/k/ = bulk.

You can throw in a few palindromes for a laugh, like mum, dad, nan, pop, stats, noon, toot, peep and deed. Yup, same in both directions, pretty funny. There are even a few two-syllable ones like civic, level and madam.

Word choice is very important for this activity, because at least initially, you need words that are reversible in both their sounds and their spelling sequence. Here are some you might like to try:

3-sound

4-5 sound

oo vowel

ee vowel

bad-dab

bag-gab

ban-nab

bat-tab

bed-deb

bin-nib

bud-dub

bun-nub

bus-sub

but-tub

den-Ned

dim-mid

dog-god

don-nod

gal-lag

gas-sag

gum-mug

gut-tug

lap-pal

nap-pan

net-ten

nip-pin

nit-tin

pat-tap

bats-stab

buns-snub

buts-stub

gulp-plug

gums-smug

maps-spam

mets-stem

nuts-stun

pals-slap

pins-snip

pots-stop

spat-taps

spit-tips

stats-stats

doom-mood

loop-pool

noon-noon

meet-teem (with life)

peek-keep

peels-sleep

If working with beginners, I hope you can have some fun with this activity, and that it helps build your learners’ phonemic awareness and spelling skills.

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

Levelled books for guided reading

The books young children are typically given at school are called “Levelled Books”, which are used in class for “guided reading” or “shared reading”, where a teacher and a group of children read a book together, and discuss it. They’re also used as home readers.

Teachers typically encourage children to use a range of different strategies while reading these books, including guessing words from picture cues, first letters and context (e.g. “what word would make sense there?”), plus sounding words out, though often only as a last resort (perhaps thanks to the lasting influence of Dame Marie Clay, author of Reading Recovery and the Observation Survey still widely used in schools). Continue reading

Christmas writing

Little kids (and quite a few bigger ones) are often keen at this time of year to write Christmas lists, letters to Santa, cards or do other seasonally-adjusted writing.

They are often less enthusiastic about continuing to do structured spelling work.

It’s the silly season, so fair enough. It’s great to find a writing task they’re still keen to do, in between all their parties, concerts and swimming.

I often give up on the structured spelling work at this point of the year and just go with the silly season writing, aiming to give kids enough guidance for them to sound out all the words they want to write, while making sure I prevent spelling mistakes.

The first encounter with a written word matters, and spelling it correctly maximises your chances of getting it right again next time.

There’s no need to give up on sounding out words for this activity, and revert to visual copying or reciting letter names.

Instead, you can give kids the spellings they need for any words they can’t spell independently, and ask them to build these words before writing them. Continue reading

What’s the difference between short and long vowels?

Phonics teaching materials often talk about "short" and "long" vowels, as though the latter are just extended versions of the former.

The five vowels usually called "short" are:

  • "a" as in "cat",
  • "e" as in "red",
  • "i" as in "sit",
  • "o" as in "not",
  • "u" as in "bus".

The five vowels usually called "long", and which children are told "say their (letter) name", are:

  • "a" as in "paper",
  • "e" as in "be",
  • "i" as in "find",
  • "o" as in "go",
  • "u" as in "human".

But are we talking about sounds here, or particular spellings of these sounds?

Continue reading

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