“How do you spell ________?”
It’s a common question every elementary teacher has heard at one time or another from a student. Similarly, a frequent question from parents working with them at home is, “Should I help correct their spelling?”
There is much to be said for invented spelling (especially in the early primary grades), where students make their own spelling based on the phonetic sounds they hear in the word. Developmentally, it builds their confidence and independence as young writers, making them less inclined to rely on grown-ups to always tell them if their spelling is right.
In my second grade class, I still encourage phonetic spelling. Students stretch out words to hear the sounds and write the letters to match. But I also start to build that bridge between invented spelling and correct spelling, as they begin learning about how to edit their writing. The second grade Common Core standard for editing writing is as follows:
With guidance and support from adults and peers, focus on a topic and strengthen writing as needed by revising and editing.
The goal is for students to move a step further beyond invented phonetic spelling and start working to improve their writing through editing and revision.
The way I interpret the phrase “guidance and support from adults” is that we shouldn’t just be throwing a huge Webster’s dictionary their way and letting them sink or swim, but at the same time, we also shouldn’t be editing all of their writing FOR them.
Personal spelling dictionaries are an extremely useful tool for students who are first learning how to edit their own writing. They are a kid-friendly introduction to using a dictionary to check for spelling.
These contain the most commonly used words in writing, but much less words than a regular dictionary, making it more attainable for young readers to search for the word that they’re looking for. Not only do they allow students to search words for A-Z, but for quick reference, there are also categories for common words in the back of the dictionary. For example, some of the categories are colors, holidays, etc. as well as what you see pictured below.
I’ll go ahead and walk you through how I use these dictionaries with my class. Each child has their own, and they keep it in their writing folder. This easy access makes it super convenient, rather than 30 students having to share the two copies of hardcover Webster dictionaries in our classroom library.
When I first introduce these though, I teach the kids that they do NOT need to take out their dictionary every time they don’t know how to spell a word. Kids might be taking them out all day long otherwise, and barely getting any words down on the paper. I tell them that these are a tool to use when we are specifically in the editing and revising phase of the writing process. This is also known in my class as “second base,” since I teach the writing process using a baseball theme (you can read more on that here).
When they are in the pre-writing stages (making an outline or rough draft), I tell them to keep those dictionaries put away! This is the time for the invented phonetic spelling I mentioned above…at this stage of the game, correct spelling does not matter! Pre-writing is when I just want the kids to get their ideas out and down on paper. If they’re too worried about making sure that every single word is spelled right, it keeps stopping the flow when it comes to their thoughts about how to formulate sentences.
So when they are writing their outline or rough draft and come to a word they don’t know how to spell, they use their own phonetic spelling (stretch out the sounds and spell the word on their own as best they can). If they are unsure as to whether their spelling is correct, I teach them to circle that word and move on. This way, spelling doesn’t hold them up when they’re in the zone of getting those great ideas out.
Once they’re done with their rough draft and it does come time to focus on editing, they take out the editing checklist for the particular genre of writing we’re doing.
When they get to the question on their checklist that says, “Did you correct your spelling?” now is the time for them to take out…ta da, their personal dictionary! They go back to find any of the words that they circled and look up the correct spelling in their dictionary. Then they get to use a “correcting pen” (ballpoint pen) to write the newly spelled word onto their draft. I have them write it in pen right by the word that they circled. I don’t have them erase the word and rewrite it in pencil, because when it comes time to do a writing conference with the teacher (more on that in a bit), I want to be able to see the editing that they did. ⠀⠀
Sometimes the word they want to know how to spell isn’t in their dictionary. Like I said, it includes the most common words, but we all know that there are often times when students are trying to spell less common words in their writing, as well as specialty words, like Minecraft or COVID-19. If the word isn’t in their dictionary, I have them go through a few steps independently first before asking the teacher for help:
- Look around the walls of the classroom. It’s a very print rich environment, and chances are, it might be displayed somewhere!
- If they are doing a writing piece about a story or article we have read, look back in the text. For example, if they don’t know how to spell the main character’s name, it’s right there in the story.
- Ask a peer helper at their table who might know the correct spelling. Peer editing is also the last item on the editing checklist (this goes back to the Common Core standard, which states that they should get guidance and support from not only adults, but also their peers).
If they have tried those 3 things on their own and have still not been able to arrive at the correct spelling, THEN they can get help from the teacher. I provide help during a writing conference with that student (which is third base on our writing process baseball diamond). When we come to any words they weren’t able to find correct spelling for, I help them sound out the word and discuss any phonics rules or ways in which it doesn’t follow the rules. Lastly, I have them write the word on one of the blank lines right into their dictionary. Not only have they now practiced writing it with the correct spelling, but it’s there in their dictionary if they ever need it again. ⠀
I’ve been having students use personal spelling dictionaries for many years, but now with the current pandemic, I find that they are even more useful in ways I hadn’t needed to consider before. If you’re teaching in person back in the classroom, you can see the benefits of each student having their own personal dictionary, rather than having to touch communal ones.
And if you’re teaching virtually and are able to send home personal dictionaries with students (perhaps at a materials pickup), these are an invaluable resource at home. Many kids may not have access to a dictionary otherwise, and this allows them to have a useful reference material at home for their writing assignments. If you are able to share with your students’ parents or guardians how to utilize the dictionaries, I’m sure they will find them to be a helpful tool as well.
This resource is available here in my online shop, and also on Teachers Pay Teachers. There are two versions; one is ready to print and go, and the other is editable. I chose to include an editable version in case you might want to customize any of the words to meet the needs of your grade level (or that are specific to your location, such as the name of your school, city, mascot, etc.) You could also make any of your own custom categories for the back of the dictionary if needed.
I hope that you’ve been able to gain a helpful tip or two for your student writers here! From my own experience, I’ve found that these strategies help kids gain more independence and confidence in their writing, while still allowing them to get the guidance and support they need. And in my dictionary, that spells s-u-c-c-e-s-s!