They should be able to do this by now
By the time kids get to secondary school, they are supposed to be able to read and spell, so that you can just get on with teaching your subject.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen, and in some secondary schools as many as a fifth to a quarter of students have very substandard reading and spelling, and quite a few students are functionally illiterate, and can’t even attempt the written work.
You simply do not have time to teach them basic literacy skills and still get through your curriculum, and nor are most secondary teachers equipped to teach basic spelling and reading, though there is lots of help available at the Thinking Reading and Excellence Gateway websites
Face down the elephant
However, this elephant is in your room, and there’s not much point pretending it’s not there, stomping all over your ability to do your job. The kids who can’t read or spell well are often highly disruptive, as they try to distract everyone from noticing their real problem, or because of boredom from not being able to participate.
Please talk to your school’s welfare/special needs coordinator, school Psychologist and/or Speech Pathologist, and ask for assessment of these students’ literacy skills, especially their phonemic awareness (both basic and advanced), their real word and pseudoword reading, their spelling, their working memory and their Rapid Automatised Naming. Assessment of oral language and/or other cognitive skills might be advisable too.
If you have people with the right qualifications/expertise but they don’t have suitable tests on hand, there are some free ones listed here that might be useful, particularly on the MOTIF website. You might like to sign up to use the MOTIF tests yourself.
If none of that works, see if your local SPELD can help, or students’ families might be willing to ask their GPs for Medicare referrals (under Enhanced Primary Care/Chronic Disease Management) to help defray the costs of private assessment with a Clinical Psychologist, Neuropsychologist or Speech Pathologist with expertise in assessing older kids’ literacy skills. A specialist teacher might also be able to help.
Providing a catch-up program
Once the assessment is done, the report will provide recommendations about how to tackle the problem, and these need to be implemented. The problem is that often in secondary schools, there’s nobody readily available or qualified to implement them, and locating the resources to provide these learners with the input they need can be a major task in itself.
However, if (as is often the case) decoding and spelling are the main problem, there is absolutely nothing more important for these learners’ education and future than learning to sound words out and spell them correctly. All the “goods” in life are affected by literacy skills – health and mental health, study and employment options, finances, you name it.
Please raise the roof and pull out all the stops to make sure such problems are taken seriously and addressed, even if that means cobbling together some teacher time, therapy time, aide time, volunteers, and some funding from local service clubs or Variety for the necessary training and resources. There are excellent literacy catch-up programs available for teenagers, click here for ideas.
When they start reading and writing, some of that cheering is for you
I’ve worked with quite a few kids who reminded me of Jonah “I said puck Miss” Takalua from Summer Heights High. There is no better feeling than the day, after weeks of hard work, that you re-test their literacy skills and find they’ve made significant progress, and/or one of their teachers comments that their literacy skills have noticeably improved, and they’ve started to be able to participate in class and hand work in.
If you’re the subject teacher who first called out their problem, and made sure it was addressed, you get to share that great feeling too.
Spelling lists should make a point about spelling
Kids in secondary school are often given spelling lists and spelling tests, but a lot of the time, the words on the spelling lists don’t actually teach them much that’s useful about spelling, because the words are related by meaning, but not spelling pattern.
Spelling lists should make a point about spelling. If they’re collections of words on a topic being studied, they aren’t spelling lists at all, they’re vocabulary lists (see this blog post for more). I’m not saying vocabulary lists aren’t important, but they are unlikely to improve students’ spelling much.
This website has hundreds of free spelling lists, which I hope makes it easy for you to work on and build your students’ understanding of spelling patterns. It’s their right to understand the structure of their language as well as its meaning, and learning about word structure helps them build their vocabularies and read more efficiently and fluently.
If you’re not sure where to start, with your students, you can download and use my free low frequency spelling test, take a look at which patterns students get right and where their skills break down, then starting teaching from there.