A Guide to Engaging, Effective Instruction in Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary

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Help Students Understand How Words Work

English spelling is a far more logical system than most students—and adults, for that matter—realize. It is a system in which patterns within and between sound and meaning effectively integrate speech, writing, and thought. With developmentally grounded instruction in word study, these patterns will be learned over time and this knowledge will be the linchpin that underlies students’ reading and writing. The more students know about orthography—how words work, their structure, and how that structure corresponds to sound and meaning—the more rapidly they can identify words in print and generate words in writing. When learners function automatically at the word level, they have more cognitive resources available for processing and constructing meaning during reading and writing. Traditionally, educators have attempted to teach this knowledge through the phonics, spelling, and vocabulary curricula, but the relationships among these curricula often have not been effectively integrated. It is essential, therefore, that teachers themselves understand how the system works—that it makes sense—in order to provide effective instruction.

Make Word Study Developmentally Accessible

When teachers themselves understand the logic underlying the spelling system, their instruction in phonics, spelling, and vocabulary will also be more engaging. Their understanding will underlie their effective differentiation of instruction in decoding, encoding, and vocabulary. Some aspects of words might be addressed in a whole-class environment, while more focused exploration is best provided in smaller differentiated reading groups. In particular, vocabulary instruction—addressing both word-specific meaning and generative aspects—may occur in whole-class settings. Phonics and spelling will most often occur in differentiated groups, which usually correspond to the reading groups into which teachers have organized students.

We can expect most beginning readers and writers to learn to read and spell the same words at the same time. Later in development, however, there will be a span between the recognition and production of words. Our decoding instruction helps learners apply their orthographic knowledge to the successful identification of unfamiliar words, but our spelling instruction does not carry the expectation that they will be able to spell such words consistently and correctly. Our vocabulary instruction may also include more orthographically complex words, but with the same understanding that correct spelling of these words will follow later.

As learners explore words, discussion is important at all stages. The questions that teachers ask may scaffold these discussions and, over time, become internalized as part of students’ inquiry. Open-ended questions such as “What do you notice about these words?” and “How are these words alike? How are they different?” can initiate this process of internalization. This approach to thinking about words is also motivating; some of the most promising research in this area comes from work with second language learners.

Let Students Sort Out the Rules

With respect to teaching the encoding and decoding of words, it has long been established that teaching “rules” in phonics and spelling doesn’t work particularly well; rather, once learners have examined patterns in word sorting activities, their efforts to generate a “rule” and then check its applicability can be a very effective learning strategy. Through comparison, contrast, categorization, and discussion, word sorting develops understanding of sound, spelling, and meaning features.

With respect to teaching vocabulary, the underlying logic of meaning in the spelling system will help learners understand generative aspects of words. For example, although the base words are pronounced differently in the word pairs admire/admiration and politics/politician, they are spelled the same to preserve their relationship in meaning—their morphological relationships. These reflect processes of word formation—combining affixes, bases, and roots—that will help students independently learn the meaning of literally thousands of words they encounter in their reading. For example, learning the word admire can generate learning of other words that are related to admire through their spelling and meaning: admired, admiring, but also admirer, admiration, admirable, and admiringly. Learning about Greek and Latin word roots is a powerful generator of vocabulary: from the single root struct, meaning “build,” a knowledge of dozens of words can be generated, including construct/construction, destruct/destruction/destructible/indestructible, and obstruct/obstruction.

Effective and engaging phonics, spelling, and vocabulary instruction may also lead to a keener, more intense interest in and understanding of language in general—and in part because of that, more insightful levels of thought, of reading, and of writing. This degree of engagement with reading and writing is at the core of the expectations in state and national English Language Arts standards.

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