Monday 27 June 2016


The Spell-Write Way

At the heart of the Spell-Write Way is writing. We learn to spell to write, to communicate with clarity. It is in a student’s writing that you see their spelling in action, what really is going on.

It is this writing that should inform what you teach. The writing that tells you the words that will go into each student’s ‘Words to Learn’ List and the skills that you will teach.

This process gives your Spelling Programme meaning. Learning predetermined list of words or skills and drills, in isolation, lacks purpose and will be forgotten. To aid recall we must give the student context. If the words and skills that are posing difficulty when students write are the words and skills a student learns each week then they are learning on a ‘need to know basis’. Meaning and purpose increases recall.

Teacher Knowledge:
This process requires teacher knowledge. Knowledge of:
  • The Essential Lists: If any of these words give difficulty to the student as they write they are the first ones to go into their ‘Words to Learn’ list.
  • Spelling Skills: If any of these skills give difficulty to the student as they write they are the first ones to go into their ‘Group List’ modelling the skill to learn and for you to teach.
  • The Writing Stages: Having a clear understanding of the stages of writing enables the teacher to support the student in a way that is appropriate to them. This knowledge gives the teacher the big picture view and allows for flexibility of instruction, not delivering a predetermined programme that has no meaning for the learner.

Friday 10 June 2016

The Spell-Write Way: A Brief History

In 1983 Spell-Write was published by NZCER. It was a simple book of Alphabet and Essential Lists, Groups of Words, a 'How to Learn a Word' Chart and a few spelling rules.

It was simple, but powerful. Its power came from the teachers whose hands the book was placed. Teachers who had extraordinary insight into the process of teaching literacy. They absorbed Spell-Write into their current practice. They knew what to do. They knew 'The Spell-Write Way'. Nobody called it 'The Spell-Write Way' it was just 'what teachers did'.

This sophisticated knowledge had evolved over decades in an education system, led by Beeby, that respected the learner. That knew teaching was best when it was holistic and balanced in its approach and the needs of the learners constantly informed teaching.

The arts played a big part. The arts; drama, dance, music and visual art connected the child to their learning. To teach literacy we must first know how to use the arts as a teaching tool. Beeby recognise this in the practice of teachers like Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Elwyn Richardson, and the arts advisory service was born.

With the new millennia came change. I was the last Primary School Art Adviser in the Wellington Region. Like many advisers at the time I had to choose to become a numeracy adviser or leave the service. I left. We now only have numeracy and literacy advisers.

Teachers confidence in their 'way', their knowledge was weakened and threatened. Wave after wave of new claims from influential people, people with easy access to the media, they swamped the humble hard working and skilled practitioner. Who were these people? They were the academics pushing their narrow agendas to make their mark, the 'overseas experts' giving keynote speeches at conferences and the education publishers at these same events selling their wares with their 'international expertise', all paid for by schools under the column of PLD. Tomorrow schools roll out ensured these influences would thrive.

How did this impact Spell-Write? Well it continues to be published and used in NZ classrooms with over 750 teachers and 5,000 student using it online as I write this blog  Thanks to the resourceful, capable and resilient teachers who held their ground, Spell-Write continues to be a valuable resource. Teachers who tap into the deep well of knowledge that is our education heritage know how to use Spell-Write. They know 'The Spell-Write Way'.

More Writing Prompts, Please

I am frequently asked for ‘Writing Prompts’ that will help to get student's writing. I was initially confused by this often repeated request. Now I realise it's because it's the wrong request. It's the wrong question.

The question that really needs to be asked is the deeper one. How do I connect to my students and their learning? How do I connect to find that magic moment when I see in my student’s eyes that I have captured them, when I know they are away and when I know they will work hard to find out more?

And the answer is; if a student is given time to explore a topic through the arts; music, drama, dance and visual art, the need for artificial prompts disappear. The arts provides the motivation to write by giving deep experiences, unique experiences that must be expressed. 

Draw it, paint it, sculpt it, make soundscapes, use dramatic play or dance to act out the feelings, the challenges and the observations. The capacity to unpack an idea through the arts is endless. All the enthusiastic conversation about the experiences a student is engaged with will provide all the vocabulary they need. The discussions provide the sentences and structure they need to ‘write about it’ and new discoveries give them something unique to say.

In this process you the teacher will be gifted all the information you need for their writing programme. What vocabulary to explore, what spelling skills and words they need to learn, what sentence structures and language features they need to improve their ability to communicate their experiences, observations, thoughts and ideas. 

Help them to have something worthwhile to write about, something that has captured their attention and delve into that with the arts. Don't worry if it is not yet a complete story. Primary age students often write really well about part of an idea, the part that is important to them, they are fascinated by the detail, the completed whole, the bigger picture, comes later.

An audience to hear their stories will help complete the process, but if a student is enthusiastic about their subject they will find their audience. Your role as the teacher is always to know when guidance is needed, what organisation they need to present their work and what needs to be taught to help them to the next step.