Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Teaching Spelling in Middle School

Guest Post by Malerie Huguley

8th Grade English teacher, Helena Middle School

There are two things I distinctly remember from my 8th grade year: a boy named Mat and spelling tests in English class.  In fact, that very well may be the last time I saw a spelling book.  This is my eleventh year teaching, and I haven’t seen a spelling book as part of my curriculum in my whole career.  Is it a lost art?  Even with all our technological advances, shouldn’t we at least know how to spell correctly?  I think yes.

Teaching spelling—especially to middle schoolers, I believe—is challenging.  We have so much fighting against us with smart phones, texting, social media, and everyday slang.  It seems we can’t expect our students to spell correctly when they are getting along “just fine” without it each day.  The truth is, they aren’t getting along just fine.  I see the spelling challenge in my classroom every single week.  One reason I see it so much is because my students are required to hand-write most of their essays.  I know we live in a tech world where everything is typed, and I want my kids to be tech-savvy, but I also want them to master basic communication skills without a computer doing it for them.  So with that in mind, I decided to do something about it. 

I tried several techniques before landing on one that was successful.  For example, I spent an entire semester having my students look up words from a vocab book that I bought to make Word Webs each Tuesday and Thursday for Bellwork.  That proved simply to be busy work.  The kids were still misspelling the very words I had them define!  Moving on from that, I had to get creative.  Seeing that each student showed unique spelling challenges, I knew one curriculum or lesson for the whole class wasn’t going to work.  So I began using the Personal Dictionary.  It’s so simple, but so effective!

Whenever a student turns in a writing assignment that is of substantial length (essays, for example) I circle any misspelled words.  I don’t correct the spelling for them, and I don’t take points off from the essay.  I just circle.  When the student gets the essay back, we spend 10 minutes in class filling in our Personal Dictionary.  (My students use notebook paper, but you could type up a cute template to use too.  It must be hand-written though, not done on a computer.  That defeats the purpose.)  For each misspelled word, the student must write the word five times with the definition.  That means if he misspelled a word three different times in one essay, he will have to write the word fifteen times with the definition.  The Personal Dictionary is kept in the student’s binder, and I use it as a quiz grade every two or three weeks.  If a student doesn’t have any misspelled words, he gets a 100% on that quiz.  It seems like cruel and unusual punishment, I know, but I have seen immediate results.  I mean, wouldn’t you learn how to spell “beautiful” correctly so you didn’t have to write it 30 times again?   

A quick Google search will show you evidence that teaching spelling within a composition context is most effective.  That’s exactly what I’ve experience in my classroom.  The more students can see and focus on their own spelling deficiencies, the more apt they are to correct them. More importantly, it’s key to have them see those weaknesses in their writing, not in an isolated lesson.