Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Dear Diary, Today I Learned to Spell: Journaling and Spelling in the Classroom
An ongoing struggle in the English Language Arts classroom is improving students' spelling habits. We educators know that good spelling is a crucial skill; is there anything more likely to derail a résumé or essay than a spelling error? Yet it's also a skill that requires assiduous practice on the part of our students. Rote spelling drills — writing the word 10, 20, 30 times — are dull for students and take away one of the most important clues for correct spelling: the sentence context.
While pondering this dilemma, I considered what kinds of writing tasks were almost always greeted with good will, even enthusiasm. Journaling fit the bill, a classroom technique I've used with great success with all ages, from young children to the college students I teach now. I know I need not make much of a case for journaling here, so suffice it to say that journal questions encourage students to write freely, to make connections between their own lives and thoughts and the literature of the day, and to build a sense of self-awareness as a writer.
"Aha!" I thought. What if we combine spelling and journaling? This combination is not the peanut butter and chocolate of the ELA world — perhaps more the peanut butter and grape-flavored jelly that contains medicinal powder — but I think it will help improve your students' spelling.
Choose the Words Carefully
Success begins in choosing the words carefully. I would focus on 10-20 words you'd like your class to be able to spell properly within a month to six weeks (a grading period, let's say). The length of time needed for this means that vocab words tied to specific readings are probably out, so focus on some basic words that your students, wherever you may be, are consistently misspelling.
For the purposes of explanation, I'm going to focus on five of the most commonly misspelled words, a list of which you can easily find on the Internet if you choose. Each of these words, by the way, is a personal crucible in good spelling:
Then, Talk to the Class
It's up to you in this, as in nearly all matters in the classroom, as to how to approach this idea with your class. Some of you may wish to quietly start things off without much, if any, explanation. Others of you may see wisdom in informing your class that this method will replace standard spelling drills (though perhaps not tests) for the time being.
What your class will need to know is that they should be prepared to copy down the journal prompt into their journals, and then use the word in question (which you could highlight, underline or bold for a silent indication that it is the spelling word) in their responses. (A prompt may help with this, so please see below.) Further, they should understand that you'll be looking for — and possibly grading them on — the correct spelling of the word across multiple journals.
If you like, and you have much more time than I ever did in the classroom, you could accompany this conversation with a brief overview about the importance of good spelling (a slide show of misspelled signs does wonders for this) and reassurance that bad spellers aren't stupid people.
Lastly, Compose the Questions
There's no better way to explain what I mean than to give you a multitude of examples for each word I chose, with a few prompts for students to being writing:
Do you believe in a higher power?
Yes, I believe in God…
What do you believe is the best excuse you've ever heard?
Did you ever believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?
What is something you believe in?
Did you ever believe in a superstition?
Do you like to visit a cemetery?
No! Cemeteries creep me out!...
What's the best tombstone you've seen in a cemetery?
Do you hold your breath when you drive by a cemetery?
What's your favorite television show that has scenes in a cemetery?
Do you believe in the existence of aliens?
I do not believe in the existence of aliens…
What are the keys to a meaningful existence?
Why do you think we exist?
If you could only have one food for the rest of your existence, what would you choose?
As Thanksgiving approaches, what are you grateful for?
I'm grateful that I have a job…
Who are you most grateful to, in your life?
When were you most grateful?
What do you think people should be grateful to you for doing?
What is your favorite synonym for grateful?
When was the first time in your life when you felt independent?
When I was six years old, I felt independent for the first time…
What does being independent mean to you?
How will you know when you are an independent adult?
What images does the word independent evoke for you?
My last suggestion is to consider your class's needs when placing these journaling questions. If you already have a journaling practice in your class, you may want to stagger these out so that you don't lose the format you've already set up. (I can imagine students being less than thrilled if their beloved free-write journals went away suddenly!) Or you could choose a word of the week and make every journal entry about that.
This practice does require vigilance on your part: it takes longer than you might think to come up with five dissimilar questions that use the word of choice. Plus, you need to check the journals to make sure the words are being spelled correctly (a week of practice in spelling the word cemetary helps no one) and you probably want to test students on these words, too, to measure whether this program is working.
If you give this a try, I'd love to hear about it, so comment below — and share other good spelling practices from your classroom if you have them!