Why We Should Differentiate Spelling
I feel that as teachers we are often told we must differentiate. I sometimes hear the word “differentiate” so often that it makes me want to roll my eyes. But there are good reasons why this word is popular.
We all know that students just don’t learn the same way. When I was in school, I always excelled with anything English related but struggled in math. Several of my peers picked up the math lessons right away while I needed extra help and studying. There is never a single approach for teaching a lesson that will have all students understanding the concept right away. In fact, we will usually find ourselves reteaching at some point.
When we differentiate spelling and other content we are giving our students the best chance at success. This year and the years coming up it will be more important than ever to differentiate to help bridge the gap of knowledge within our classrooms. Think about the bang for your buck that teaching in workshop models like writer’s workshop or guided math brings. Why not use this same idea for your spelling and sight word content?
Traditional Spelling No Longer Works
Traditional spelling methods are outdated and it’s time to let the traditional Friday spelling tests die. Providing my class a 2nd grade spelling list of random words pulled from a basal curriculum or off a website is really doing my students a disservice. Most of the class will remember the words for the week to do well on the test but ask them in a few weeks about the same word and I’ll receive some blank stares.
Isn’t it time consuming to differentiate spelling?
It can be if you don’t have the right systems in place. Once you find a system that works for you it won’t seem time consuming. In fact, you’ll be marveling at all the growth your class is showing which will motivate you to continue.
Assessing First to Differentiate Spelling
The very first thing I do when planning out my 2nd grade spelling lists is to take a baseline. I like to give my students the primary spelling inventory from Words Their Way. If I have a few students that do really well on the primary spelling inventory I’ll take a few minutes another day to give them the elementary spelling inventory.
Next, I analyze the results. This part I feel is the most time consuming of the entire process but you only need to do it each time you administer the inventory. I recommend no more than once a quarter. My school is taught in terms so I do the beginning of school (within the first week) and again after the winter holidays.
The nice thing about using the Words Their Way assessment is that the recording sheet quickly helps you group your students. I notice that I always have a few outliers and most times I may not end up with an equal number of groups or of students in a group. That’s okay. If your instruction is differentiated, students will fluidly move between the groups quickly enough.
Sight Word Assessments
With my sight words I am not teaching in small groups but I do place students on individual lists. This means another assessment done within the first week or two of school. The nice thing about testing spelling or sight words is it is easy to do it in smaller chunks so students don’t feel overwhelmed.
My sight word assessment is simply using the 220 Dolch words in high frequency order and testing them in groups of 20 words. Because I’ve done this for many, many years now I have prerecorded the spelling assessment in videos that I can just play for the class or assign to individuals. If you want the videos already done for you, just click here to learn more or purchase my sight word spelling program. These videos were a lifesaver during online learning! If a student has less than 5 words misspelled on the first assessment I will give them the next group of words on a different day.
Combining Sight Words and Spelling for Killer Results
This next part is where the magic starts to happen. I combine my individualized sight word lists with a Words Their Way type system for my spelling instruction. Together my students practice 10 words each week. This means that their list is made up of two different lists of 5 words each - the high frequency words and 5 words focused on a phonics pattern.
Students absolutely need phonics instruction!
For phonics instruction I will be using Words Their Way and focusing on the WTW sequence of patterns. I am also using Lanesha Tabb’s Word Study Workshop rather than the millions of sorts WTW provides. I love how simple Lanesha makes word study in her classroom. I may have to tweak her version slightly to fit my school’s requirement and schedule but I’m excited to see how my program and hers will work together.
Fitting Spelling Differentiation in Your Schedule
Believe it or not, incorporating differentiated spelling (whether with sight words or a word study program) does not add a lot of time to your schedule. Many years now I have had a word work rotation in my centers. This rotation is where students work on their specific lists of words. They read the words, practice writing them, and play games to help learn the words. I also add a five minute sight word buddy practice at the end of every day. You can read more about it in this post: How to Learn Sight Words in a Fun Way.
I still like to review sight words and phonics for the whole class but I do it as a warm up before starting my main reading lesson. I try to stick to no more than 5-10 minutes. If I’m introducing a new pattern it may take 10 minutes. The rest of the week I quickly review our pattern for 5 minutes. My class will be writing or discussing the phonics pattern using their whiteboards and sometimes they may have a worksheet.
Individualized word work instruction will happen during one of the center rotations. Lanesha recommends putting the class into three spelling groups. Having only 3 groups means I can easily find time to quickly meet with all 3 groups on their day to receive their new word sorts.
I test students on their sight words when they feel ready. I will be discussing this in next week’s blog post about spelling assessment. Their word work pattern from the word study workshop is tested every two weeks. This means my students are not receiving a spelling test every single week but sometimes they may have all 10 words in one week. I simply add their additional 5 word study words onto their sight word assessment.
My recommendation is that no matter what cycle you have for testing that first and second graders are receiving no more than 10 words in a spelling test. If I was teaching third grade I would have no more than 15 words on a test.
I hope I’ve convinced you to try using a differentiated spelling system in your own classroom. I’ve put together a starter pack if you would like to try pre-assessing and assigning your students their own individualized sight word list.