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!


Mapping Writing Units of Study…GPS Style

by Jessica Sherman, Primary Literacy Collaborative Trainer

9780325041926At our Early Literacy Institute this summer (grades PreK–1), Matt Glover will be spending time discussing his new book Projecting Possibilities for Writers: The How, What, and Why of Designing Units of Study that he wrote with teacher Mary Alice Berry. Those of us who have experience using a writers’ workshop- complete with minilessons, mentor texts, individual writing conferences, and sharing – have seen the multitude of benefits.  We also understand the underlying tension of what Matt and Mary Alice describe in their book as the “flexibility vs. planning dilemma.”

Writers’ Workshop has allowed teachers to meet the needs of the writers in their class by supporting them in whole group, small group, and individual teaching scenarios. Teachers have helped students read like writers. They have helped students notice the craft and conventions of writing used by mentor authors, so that students might begin to see themselves as authors and try to use these techniques in their own writing. They have learned about teaching the writers in their class rather than teaching how to improve the writing.

Navigating a successful writers’ workshop is a student-driven experience, and teachers have come to appreciate the benefits of being able to “follow” their students.  The day-to-day or week-to-week decisions that are part of this responsive path for teaching can feel incredibly freeing.  On any long journey, however, one questions always emerges –  “Are we there yet?” With no destination in mind, this trip can become meandering and endless.

Whether it is considering the proficiencies in The Continuum of Literacy Learning, meeting the demands of The Common Core State Standards or other state standards, fulfilling grade level genre expectations dictated by the district, or trying to coordinate cross-curricular units of study, teachers want to strategically coordinate their plans to take students where they need to go. Yet, they still want to be able to change course at any given moment to meet the needs of the students.

That’s why it’s always nice to have a map – not just a map with one straight line connecting the starting point and ending point through a series of sequenced steps, but one where teachers can “recalculate” at any point and still move towards their ultimate destination. Just like a good GPS provides us with a tentative route, but can reroute us if we need to stray, an effective writing curriculum map provides the same flexible guidance.

With Matt’s guidance, the primary grades faculty at our Center will spend four days taking teachers through a process for creating rigorous, responsive, flexible writing units of study across the year.  During their time at Lesley, teachers will design a (tentative) map for writing across the year and fully project a writing unit of their choosing.  There is still time to register for this exciting learning opportunity. Join us!

Crimes and Misdemeanors of the Five-Paragraph Essay

by Elizabeth DeHaven, Intermediate/Middle School Faculty

Students in a classroom.The other day I was talking to a friend who teaches a writing course required for all students at Harvard, and it occurred to us that the five paragraph essay plagues writers at both the elementary and university level, and if I were to guess, middle and high school teachers feel the same way.  In elementary school, we strive to teach children to view themselves as writers, be risk takers in trying out literary techniques, and share openly with their writing community.  We introduce and help them construct a deep understanding of a variety of genres and make choices in pairing genre, purpose, and meaning. We teach them to read like writers in order to build the self-sustaining process of learning more about writing from real writers and real writing.  We provide time for experimentation and choice.  We look at the “rule breakers” and hypothesize their purpose and meaning.  We think about the effects those broken rules have on the reader. And then, we break the rules and join the ranks of the skilled rule breakers we’ve grown to love, admire, and understand.

Somewhere along the way in the academic careers of students, the rules become paramount and the key to their futures rests in a neatly packaged, five-paragraph essay, complete with an introductory paragraph, thesis, and body paragraphs that include topic sentences and supporting details, which are all tied together in the conclusion.  And, when they succeed at writing this essay, they gain admission to some of the most competitive colleges and universities in the country where they are enrolled in mandatory composition courses designed to break the rules of the five-paragraph essay.

So what happens when we let test writing interrupt and dominate the writing lives of our students?  Purpose and genre become unnecessary, revision obsolete, craft dispensable.  Enjoyment suffers and students lose their identity as authentic writers.  And, what’s worse, they allow a test to determine whether or not they are “good” writers.  As educators, if we allow test writing to be just what it is—a confined and discrete part of our writing curriculum–and continue to see beyond the limitations of the five paragraph essay, we will have time to teach our students to write well.

Interactive Writing: The Most Neglected and Misunderstood Instructional Tool

by Cindy Downend

Primary Literacy Collaborative Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

IW Mural The Mitten

A summary of The Mitten by Jan Brett.  Photo courtesy of Nicole Schmitt, Middletown NY Schools.

Over the past few months, I have been puzzling over the fact that interactive writing is such a powerful instructional tool, yet it frequently gets omitted from the schedules of kindergarten and first grade classrooms.  Somehow, the thought of interactive writing can stir up an emotion close to terror in the hearts of many teachers.  Why is this powerful way of working with children so hard for many teachers to implement and maintain?  After reflecting on this question with several literacy coaches and classroom teachers with whom I work, I have compiled the following practical pieces of advice for those who struggle to use interactive writing on a consistent basis in the primary grades:

1.)   Think of interactive writing as an instructional tool, not as a time of day or “add on” to your literacy curriculum.  Those teachers who are most successful with interactive writing view it as an instructional approach that provides powerful opportunities to demonstrate different aspects of the writing process.  Through the use of interactive writing you can also show children how to use writing for a variety of purposes.  From recording observations during a science experiment to creating a summary of a favorite read aloud for a wall mural, interactive writing can be used in every content area of your curriculum.

2.)   To engage students in the process, develop authentic reasons for writing.  Interactive writing lessons prove ineffective when teachers fail to find real reasons for writing.  Let’s face it students won’t be excited to contribute to the writing if they don’t understand why you are writing something in the first place.  They need to have some buy-in to the process and understand the reason for creating the writing.  They have to understand both the purpose of the writing and the intended audience.

3.)    When composing the message, accept the students’ ideas and language.  Students can quickly disengage from interactive writing when a teacher tries to manipulate a message to what she wants to write.  We have a fabulous video of an interactive writing lesson in which a teacher and her students are creating a label for a brooder.  Wisely, the teacher honors that the children want to call the brooder a “hotel for chicks.”  The students remain highly engaged in the writing.  Had the teacher forced the issue of calling the device a brooder, she may have quickly lost the group’s enthusiasm for constructing the text.

4.)   Keep the lesson pace snappy and organize your materials so they are readily available.  Interactive writing lessons will quickly fall apart if the pacing drags or a teacher is searching for the necessary equipment.  Some interactive writing projects may stretch over a few days.  It is far more productive to keep interactive writing sessions short (10 – 15 minutes) than to lose the students’ interest because the lesson has run too long.

5.)   Establish routines and “standard operating procedures” for interactive writing.  No routine is ever too small to teach.  Students will need to learn many routines for interactive writing including: they will need to take turns during the conversation to compose the text; not everyone will get a turn at the easel every day; say words slowly with the teacher; reread to check and monitor the message; and refer to classroom resources such as name charts and word walls.  For a more comprehensive list of routines related to interactive writing, refer to the text, Interactive Writing by McCarrier, Pinnell and Fountas, p. 56.

Do you have additional ideas for making interactive writing effective?  If so, please share them with us in the comments section.  Let’s help others to make interactive writing the least neglected and most understood instructional context in the primary grades!

Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units in the Writing Workshop by Katie Wood Ray

By Jill Eurich

Assistant Director, Intermediate/Middle School Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

In the past few months I have posted a series of blogs about inquiry.  In light of that work I wanted to recommend Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven to you.  At the heart of this book is this essential understanding: “Framing instruction as study represents an essential stance to teaching, an inquiry stance, characterized by repositioning curriculum as the outcome of instruction rather than the starting point.” P. 19

This book is divided into three parts.  In the first section Katie deepens our understanding of how study, as both a noun and a verb, help us, as teachers, and our students analyze the kind of writing we are going to produce ourselves.  By studying a stack of writing similar to the writing we will create, we become familiar with genre, audience, purpose, content, craft, voice, length and conventions.  Katie also helps us think about the concept of, “Before Revision, Vision.” P. 35  In other words, to effectively develop and revise a certain kind of writing, we as writers, can’t envision the kind of writing we first need to envision what that writing is like.  Some of the ways Katie Wood Ray expands on this topic of study in the writing workshop is to address Selecting Texts to Anchor Close Study, Reading Immersion in Close Study, Writing Under the Influence in All Phases of Study and The Tension of Time, the Promise of Depth. These and other chapters help us with rationale and best practice around this method of teaching.

The second element in this book is a Craft Pause that happens at the end of each chapter in the first section.  This is an exploration of craft moves you might discover with a close study of text. It provides rich examples of a variety of writing instruction we can teach our students, as we, and they examine text closely. It helps us think about these craft moves but also implies that this is just a small taste of the endless ways we can learn from writers.

The last part of the book provides information on a wide variety of units of study we can engage in with our students.  The Study Possibility is briefly described.  There may be an example of the kind of writing provided followed by suggestions of resources where that kind of writing can be found.  This might include picture books, magazines, collections, excerpts and newspapers.  The idea of learning about writers from other writers is an exciting prospect but finding a pile of appropriate examples is daunting so this becomes an invaluable resource.

If you are not already familiar with it, I strongly recommend you put Study Driven at the top of your professional booklist of “must read” for the summer.   It eloquently articulates how and why to take an inquiry stance in our teaching.  “Inquiry does not narrow our perspective it gives us more understandings questions and possibilities than when we started.” p. 26-27


Ray, K.W. (2006).  Study driven: A framework for planning units of study in the writing workshop.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Our First Blog Entry!

We want to welcome everyone to the new Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative blog! We are starting this blog with the hope that it will contain content that teachers and administrators find helpful in their journey as literacy educators and leaders.

Our Center began in 1991 and has provided both short and long-term research-based professional development to thousands of educators around the world. We are a Center located within Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Our Center Director, Dr. Irene Fountas, is a leader in the field of literacy education and has published a wide variety of books and articles for administrators and teachers that focus on good teaching practices in both reading and writing.  In addition, we have many talented faculty members here at the Center who will contribute to this blog regularly. Our faculty have extensive experience in the classroom as teachers, in schools as administrators, and as professional development providers to schools and districts.

We will be adding to our blog several times throughout each week. We encourage you to comment on our blog entries and join us in what will hopefully be an engaging and lively community discussion around high quality, research-based literacy practices PreK-8!

Visit the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative website for information on upcoming offerings and events!