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January 14, 2010 Individualizing Spelling Instruction and Strategies By Angela Bunyi
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    Whether your district mandates a certain spelling program or allows some flexibility to meet your students' specific needs with individualized spelling lists, I have some easy-to-incorporate strategies to help your students become more efficient, self-reliant spellers. This includes five printables, student work samples, and three easy-to-use spelling strategies for your students.

    Photo: These students are practicing their self-selected spelling words with the Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check form.


    First, Our Spelling Program

    Our school uses Words Their Way to start the year off with spelling assessments. This gives us a picture of where our students are developmentally. Based on these results, students are then given individual, developmentally sequential spelling words throughout the year. These words are based on word patterns and are not meant to be drilled and killed for a test on Friday.

    If you follow Words Their Way fully, it can be quite overwhelming, having students meet in spelling groups, sorting words, and assessing everyone by the end of the week. I was excited to start this program at the beginning of the year, but I just felt like something was missing. After thinking about it, I realized that my concern was about high frequency words and words misspelled in students' writings. How could I correct this? Even if your students already use one traditional spelling list each week, I have something you can incorporate into your schedule to help.

    Study Buddy Spelling

    Luckily, our literacy coach was able to come up with a great solution. She helped organize and launch "Study Buddy" spelling for several teachers. In our room, this means:

    1. Students self-select five to six spelling words each week to work on.

    2. As a teacher, I can determine words through writing conferences and grading. If I circle a word and correct it (e.g., "thay" for "they"), it goes on that student's next spelling list. If you have ever felt frustrated at seeing a misspelled word on a social studies assignment, here's your chance to correct it and make a difference!

    3. Students are paired up with another student who is at the same developmental stage in spelling. They are then called "Study Buddies."

    4. Throughout the week, Study Buddies work together to help spell self-selected words correctly, as well as those from the Words Their Way spelling list for the week (if needed). This lasts no more than five to ten minutes on any given day.

    5. Study Buddies complete assessments on each other, not the teacher.

    6. Study Buddy assessments are not recorded in the grade book, but they are collected and analyzed for accuracy and completeness.

    Here is an example of students assessing each other:





    The Details of Making It Work

    Words to Learn

    First, I need to say that this is a work in progress. I began this approach recently, and have already made some changes. For now, I rely on my conference time with each student to take a second to address spelling concerns. I ask my students to circle any words in their Writer's Notebook that they would like me to spell for them, and I correct them before they are placed on their "Words to Learn" sheet. This all goes in a spelling folder that each student has and maintains.

    I also ask students to be responsible on their own part and continually be on the lookout for words they may need to learn how to spell. I often utilize Fridays to remind students to update their lists, but it can work at anytime. Each student also has a personal dictionary that includes a list of commonly misspelled words. Several students choose these words, but they sometimes opt for a word of their picking from the dictionary itself.


    Photo: Download "Words to Learn" PDF

    Monday: Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check

    On Mondays, each student takes time to complete the "Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check" form. If you look at the main photo, you can see it used in action. The student places the form in a laminated file folder with three flaps cut. The flaps allow students to lift up the first column, the second column, and the third column.

    Under the first column, students write the words correctly from their "Words to Learn" sheet. They look at the word, say the word, cover the word by putting the file folder flap down, write the word in column two, and check it under column three (by lifting the first two columns). You can see a picture of this in use in the main photo (they're the green file folders).

    Research supports that learning how to spell words through this method is much more effective than writing words "X" number of times.


    Photo: Download "Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check" PDF

    Tuesday/Wednesday: Buddy Check and Magnetic Letter Practice

    On Tuesday or Wednesday students meet with their Study Buddy and check each other's progress through the "Buddy Check" form. This is also kept in each spelling notebook with many blank forms.

    The steps include the buddy reading the words to their partner and checking them. This is followed by trying it again if it is not correct the first time. Students then spend some time highlighting parts of words that give them trouble.

    On Wednesday this can be followed up with magnetic letter practice, or in my case, laminated spelling letters for each student that are placed in Ziploc bags.


    Photo: Download "Buddy Check" PDF

    Thursday: Make Connections

    Here is another form that can be utilized for one of your spelling Study Buddy sessions. It allows students to attack word parts from either their "Words Their Way" spelling lists or "Words to Learn" list.


    Photo: Download "Make Connections" PDF

    Friday: Study Buddy Assessment

    On Fridays, it takes less than ten minutes for my students to assess each other with the "Study Buddy Assessment" form. Words that are spelled correctly and mastered receive a check mark on the "Words to Learn" form (step 1). Words that are not mastered receive an "X" on the form or, as many have opted to do, are left blank and tried again the following week.


    Photo: Download "Study Buddy" PDF


    Photo: Here is an extra resource found in each spelling notebook. Not pictured is a sheet of spelling strategies, which I have posted below.

    Putting It All Together and Meeting Your Students' Needs

    Primarily, my focus is on the individualized spelling words created through Study Buddies. Often students use their meeting time to address the leveled Words Their Way spelling lists, so each student spends time on what they need rather than on a one-size-fits-all lesson or set of words. I have really enjoyed the ability to take control of words I would like my students to each spell individually, while allowing my students to select and practice words that are developmentally appropriate for them.

    And yes, I still give spelling tests on Friday. I only have three spelling groups, so I quickly call the first word from each list out loud. No one ever gets confused with their words, and I just move down the lists until I finish (#1s, #2s, #3s . . . ). Since some lists are longer or shorter than others, students sometimes have a moment to go back and check their work. In total, it takes me ten minutes to give three spelling tests.

    Some Spelling Strategies for Your Students

    Here are some student approved spelling strategies for you!

    IMG_09821. Give It a Try Post-It Notes

    Most master spellers are visual. And you can probably relate. Have you ever been asked to spell a difficult word and find yourself writing down a few versions until one looks correct? It works for students as well. When I ask students to circle all the words they believe they have misspelled in a piece, about 95% of the misspelled words are identified. When asked to try this method out for a few select words, students usually identify the correct spelling on their own. Easy to use. Takes no time at all to introduce!

    2. Try Your Best, Circle It, and Move On

    Spelling is important, but while they are writing, I don't want my students to raise their hands and ask, "How do you spell . . . " We can always go back and correct those words at a later time, and an easy way to identify them is by simply circling them. It has worked for me and my students and has made them more correct but also more daring spellers.

    3. Break Up Your Syllables

    This doesn't work every time, but some students prefer s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g out their words like a rubber band and checking to see if there is at least one vowel in each syllable. It can be paired up with the first tip pretty easily.


    I could write much more about this topic, so please feel free to ask anything under the spelling umbrella . . . or anything educational, for that matter. For example, my literacy coach provided the forms from Fountas and Pinnell's Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom. She also showed some videos where teachers have used this as their sole spelling program, including spelling mini-lessons. I have not incorporated this into my schedule, but my son's teacher has. If you have any questions on how this might work for you, just let me know.

    Much respect,



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