If you have been involved in education like me for a while you will know Spell-Write. It has been part of NZ classrooms since it was first published in 1983. Over the past year my company Pixelhouse, in partnership with NZCER, have worked with students and teachers to bring Spell-Write online. www.spell-write.nz
As I began this project I was intrigued to find out what it is that has made Spell-Write so successful. To get to the essence of literacy education so that Spell-Write online could continue the success of the Spell-Write books.
It turns out the success of Spell-Write is entwined with the success of NZ Literacy Education which owes much to teachers of the past. Teachers who took risks. Teachers like Sylvia Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson. Teachers who found themselves away from the gazing eyes of bureaucracy, who could work closely with their students and ‘become’ the teacher their students needed them to be.
Over my years of teaching I have had the privilege of working with teachers such as these. Teachers with passion and commitment that give new insight and wisdom. Sylvia and Elwyn recorded their experiences so we can be inspired by their experiences and understandings.
Sylvia in her book “Teacher” talks about Key Vocabulary. The process of using words to begin to teach a child to read and write, important words that have intense meaning for the child. She conversed and listened closely to her students as the arrived for the day. She captured on a large card with a black crayon the one word that for that child had a ‘big inner picture’. These words became the basis of their spelling and writing programme. Spell-Write had its early beginnings here. Sylvia describes it as the ‘moulding together of spelling and comprehension’.
Elwyn Richardson worked with older students, year 4 to 8 students. His students had words they knew and they could write sentences and stories. He saw his role as helping them add depth to their writing. He took his students out into their world, their environment. Elwyn saw talk as the beginning of things, talk and looking closely. From these conversations and observations came a connection, an emotional attachment to the thing being analysed and observed. Once an emotional response was captured‘ intense feelings had to be expressed’ through art, drama and writing.
On Friday afternoons the students would share and discuss their work. When there was energy for this it had been a good week. It was a starting place too. A place to find the bits that had given difficulty and the skills that would be helpful to master. This became the content for the following week’s lessons.
Spell-Write built on these treasured findings. NZCER research found the words students most commonly used in their writing and put them in a book, Spell-Write. Now children could find the words they needed to write, quickly. The Essential Lists narrowed these alphabetical lists down to the ‘most commonly used words’, the words that are the most useful to know since a child is likely to use them. The Essential Lists were intended as a teacher’s guide, not lists to learn.
Now Spell-Write Online www.spell-write.nz provides each word with an audio file with common NZ pronunciation. And there is more. A place to store words that have ‘a big inner picture’ and a place to write, to express their ‘intense feelings and new understandings’ and for the teacher a place to find out the skills that would be helpful for that child to know. There is more, but that’s for next time.