The Buzz About Phonics and Word Study From Spelling Bees to Classrooms – Sparking Students’ Interest in Words

by Jillian Fountain, Intermediate/Middle Literacy Trainer, Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Jillian FountainLast month, ESPN aired the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee.  You may have watched some of the contestants as they asked for the etymology of a word, the pronunciation again, or the familiar question, “Can you please use it in a sentence?”  The contestants certainly appeared nervous, but if you looked closely, you would also have recognized the moment when a child’s eyes glimmered, the corner of her mouth ticked up just a bit, and she allowed herself to exhale.  The expression on each contestant’s face in that moment of recognition made me realize something.  We, as educators, craft belief statements about literacy instruction, but often we leave word study out of these written proclamations.  Yet, learning about words and how they work impacts all aspects of literacy.

I am in awe of how much interest the spellers in the Scripps National Spelling Bee have in words and how they work, and I began to think about what I might begin to put in a belief statement about phonics, vocabulary, and spelling.

Students will develop curiosity and excitement about words and how they work.

When children feel excited about something, it drives them to discover more about it.  Students who are curious and excited about words will notice new words and share them with classmates, talk about favorite words, and use words or parts of words learned in various instructional contexts in their own reading, listening, speaking, and writing.  The energy they exhibit becomes infectious.

Students will use what they understand about words to expand their knowledge.

Phonics, spelling, and vocabulary are complex concepts that require many years to develop.  As adults, we continue to grow our understandings of words and how they work.  We also know that learning builds on learning, meaning that broad understandings get refined as students participate in reading, writing, speaking, and listening over time.  If during a word study minilesson, a class learned that adding the suffix –al to a noun makes it an adjective, meaning “related to,” the next time they encountered a word like chemical, the students would notice it and refer back to their previous learning.  In writing, if a student wanted to describe something that happens over and over again, he could think about how it is a cycle, and use his knowledge of the –al suffix to call it cyclical.

Phonics_Event_PhotoStudents will recognize relationships between words.

Words are closely connected with one another.  Synonyms, antonyms, homophones, homographs, words that have similar meanings that are not exactly the same, multiple meaning words, words that share the same base word, etc., turn language into a puzzle.  If students can spend time thinking about how words are related, it will deepen their understanding of words and how they work, as well as help them more quickly recognize words and their meanings, and more rapidly access words to use in talk and writing.

Students will use their knowledge of words to more clearly understand, and more precisely communicate. 

Ultimately, the point of teaching phonics, spelling, and word analysis strategies is to develop students’ proficiency as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.  If students internalize word-solving strategies, they can quickly and without much effort, accurately read books, articles, letters, and other pieces.  They can also produce a large amount of writing to create readable stories, poems, essays, and other pieces.  If they know a lot about parts of words and relationships between words, they can understand what the writer of a piece or a speaker is trying to communicate.  They can also consider the same information when deciding how to say or write something to get across the message they are hoping to convey.  Think of the power that lies in understanding and communicating precisely.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee occurs once per year, but what I learned from watching this year’s event will stay with me.  As I continue to help teachers think about word study instruction, and how to support students’ understandings of how words work across the school day, I hope teachers see the value in this work.  A curiosity and excitement for, and a depth of knowledge of words will help students throughout their lives.

For more information on our Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom K-3 course August 7-11, 2017 in Cambridge, MA, click here!


Running Records- Part 1

by Diane Powell, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Josh's rrI’m going to share some thinking from the questions that were posed by teachers on previous Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Twitter chats and could be a help to educators everywhere.  I’ll be using Marie Clay’s text An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement and Fountas & Pinnell’s The Continuum of Literacy Learning, PreK–8 as resources so you’ll know of appropriate resources to use in your continuing search for guidance around the use of Running Records.

1. Can you share strategies for helping teachers see value of Running Records as formative assessment rather than an event at the end of the term?

Teachers are very busy these days and unless they understand the power of Running Records and the rationales for using them, they will see them as optional or mandated a few times per year. One thing that often helps teachers see their value is to have them follow one reader over time by capturing the reading behaviors the reader demonstrates during oral reading. Looking across records of oral reading begins to show the teacher the ways in which the reader’s processing power is changing over time. It also allows us to think about how our teaching is impacting the learning of the reader –or not. The Running Record allows us to see how the reader is using strategic actions for thinking within the text – those he is using and those he is neglecting to use. How is the reader working in a balanced way to gain meaning from a text? What does he do when he comes to an unknown word? How is the reader showing us he’s monitoring his reading? How does his reading sound with respect to aspects of fluency? How does the reader search for and use information sources to read or self-correct? How does the reader adjust his reading depending on the text and the purpose for reading? All of these kinds of information can inform our teaching and the student’s learning. Yes, it takes some time, but the teaching becomes so much more powerful based on what we find in the Running Records.  Using them only occasionally is like taking only a portion of a prescription a doctor gives you – it doesn’t reach the problem to provide long lasting improvement for the reader!


2.  How often should readers be assessed with Running Records? How often should teachers be doing Running Records, besides benchmarking?

That depends on the reader. If a reader is making steady progress in his reading, it makes sense to check in with him every 2-3 weeks to be sure his trajectory continues in the right direction and he’s taking on new learning as well as strengthening his reading powers. High progress readers should probably have a check in about every 4-6 weeks to be sure they, too, are continuing to progress.

 On the other hand, if the reader is reading below grade level, he needs more frequent checks. A teacher should plan on capturing his reading every two weeks to see if any of the teaching that you’re doing is impacting his learning. If not, you need to adjust the teaching to work from the reader’s current strengths and move him forward. That’s often easier said than done and it may require help from a colleague who works with struggling readers or a coach who can see things you might be missing. Make sure you reach out for help in working with readers who are not making progress. They may be taking on the learning differently than you imagine and your teaching might be missing them where they are.

Part 2 of this post (next week) will answer some of the remaining questions on Running Records from our previous Twitter chats!

Making Space for Internet Inquiry in the Primary Grades Part 1/2

by Julie Coiro

2012 Literacy for All Conference Speaker

Have you ever wondered how to engage primary grade children in web-based literacy activities that are safe and appropriate, but also authentic and interesting? Children’s questions can be a powerful vehicle to literacy learning and understanding, so why not begin simply with the questions that children are bringing to your classroom on a daily basis? One promising practice that builds on children’s questions and fits nicely into a once-a-week sharing circle discussion is known as Internet Inquiry Baskets. It begins with one child’s question, continues with a think-aloud model of how to use the Internet to learn more about that question, and ends with a collaborative summary that can be compiled into a classroom book about Things We Learned On The Internet This Year.

The process begins by encouraging children to pose questions during the week as they read together in school and share experiences from their lives outside of school.  Children are asked to record their burning questions on individual slips of paper and place their questions in a special Internet Inquiry basket hanging near the bookshelves in your room.  At the end of each week, pull one question from the basket (either randomly or strategically), and announce it as next week’s focus of inquiry.

Over the weekend, devote a little time to conducting an Internet search for 2-3 websites that contain helpful images, thought provoking animations, or appropriate snippets of information related to the question that can be read aloud or viewed as a group.  In addition to locating (and bookmarking) the websites using a class wiki or a social bookmarking tool like Symbaloo, make note of which search terms worked best and the steps you took to scan the search results, ignore advertisements, or navigate within certain websites to find the most relevant information.  You should also note searches that resulted, perhaps, in inappropriate results so that you can avoid modeling these processes during your group think-aloud.  Irrelevant searches, however, might be useful to model to help children understand how to refine their searches for their purpose.

When the children return to school on Monday, these ideas can then be shared in a guided discussion as you walk children through the steps you took to search and navigate online text. As you guide children to safe, appropriate websites, your real-time Internet search process can be projected onto a Smartboard while you explicitly model and think-aloud about how to search and navigate online text. Just as you would take children through a picture walk of a book to highlight the cover, the author, important characters and key vocabulary, your modeling of Internet inquiry can introduce children to concepts such as search engines, websites, navigation menus, hyperlinks, and search results as part of an authentic conversation about how you located websites and determined which parts were most useful for your needs.

To help keep track of new things learned during your discussion, the children can help you complete an activity sheet that gets added to your classroom notebook. (See a completed example at the end of this blog post.) A word processing program can be projected on the screen for the class and, if desired, children can help type the information. The first part of the activity invites children to note the original inquiry question, the keywords that worked best, the search engine that was used, and a key idea about each of the websites they visited.  Then, as a group, they decide on 1-2 sentences that answer the original question pulled from the inquiry basket and a ranking for how much the Internet helped them learn about this question. This last item introduces children to the basic elements of evaluating the relevancy of online information.

Next week this blog will continue and discuss the second part of this activity.

Julie Coiro is speaking at our upcoming Literacy for All Conference in Providence, RI on Monday, November 5, 2012.  Her sessions are, “Making Space for Online Inquiry in the Primary Grades” (10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.), and a 3-hour session for middle school educators, “Instructional Strategies for Critically Evaluating Online Information in Middle School” (Grades 5-8), 1:30 p.m. – 4:45 p.m.