Cheryl Sigmon

Teaching Literacy
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Words—Are We Teaching the Right Ones?

Cheryl reveals how seemingly “simple” word wall activities can have many intricate purposes… and have a positive effect upon literacy development.
by Cheryl Sigmon
Regular contributor to the Gazette
November 1, 2008

A frantic teacher wrote at the beginning of the school year to say, “I’m new at third grade this year and am really feeling lost. I’m one of the few teachers attempting a Words Block the Four-Blocks way. Most of the teachers at this grade feel strongly that the suggested word activities are far too easy for our students. They’ve named Making Words and the whole concept of Word Walls as examples. First, do you think these activities could possibly be too easy for our kids? If you think we should be teaching these, please help me defend why we should continue these practices in third grade.”

This teacher has a great question that is actually more complex than it initially appears to be. I think it’s a question that we all need to explore so that we remember what needs to be taught and why at the word level of instruction.

First, I want to address this teacher’s comment that she’s rethinking her instruction based on comments of her colleagues. Although our colleagues can be a valuable source of information and ideas, I strongly believe it’s always best to judge your own students for yourself. I never taught a grade level for more than one year and felt that the students from one year to the next had the same needs. So, my advice would be not to rely upon other teachers to tell you what’s too easy or too difficult for your students. You’re the best professional to assess the individual needs of your students. You’ll spend a great deal of time at the beginning of the year doing that—being a careful observer, gathering anecdotal notes, conferencing with students, administering interest surveys, etc. Then, you’ll plan accordingly and will make much better choices based on data rather than hearsay or history.

Keep in mind, too, that some teachers who are offering opinions to this teacher about how easy it is or how inappropriate the activities are, may not understand what's really being accomplished through these activities. That’s something that is stressed in training that this teacher acknowledges many of her colleagues haven’t had. That the Four-Blocks Working with Words Block is too easy for students is a common statement made by many who are uninformed. We have to learn to educate teachers, administrators, parents and others about why and how we approach words the way we do. It’s these specifics that we need to pursue in this article.

Lots of pundits say that the Word Wall words are far too easy for students at different grade levels. They perhaps haven’t understood the difference between kids knowing these particular words on a test and knowing them automatically when they're writing. It’s the automaticity that’s our goal with these simple words that occur most frequently in what we read and in what we write. Many students may be able to spell a word correctly on a test, given the opportunity to deliberate over the sounds-symbol relationship, but then may spell it incorrectly in their writing when they’re not stopping to make a conscious decision about its correctness. Or, these students may stop when writing and waste time with their spelling decision or may hesitate in their reading when encountering these words. Hesitating during the encoding and decoding processes can impact fluency, cohesiveness, and comprehension. Automaticity at the word level ensures fluency—both in reading and writing; therefore, when words are automatic, students are better readers and writers.

This third grade teacher reported that many teachers at her grade level also questioned the need for activities like Making Words where it’s true that many of the words in the sequence could be considered rather simple. Again, the point of this activity isn’t the actual words themselves but rather the patterns used to build those particular words. If you can spell “kite,” you can spell “quite” (a word, by the way, which is so often misspelled and confused with similar words) and “fright,” and “dynamite,” and so many additional words.

Additionally, teachers need to remember that the critical part of Making Words occurs during the third step of that activity—a step that far too many teachers don’t even include. In step one, students form the words, based on patterns of language, at the teacher’s direction. In step two, students help to sort the words that were built, looking closely at the patterns and other common elements of the words. And, in the final step, students are asked to transfer their knowledge of patterns and other elements to new words that go beyond the words that can be made with the limited number of letters. Transfer is what it’s really all about—getting students to use the knowledge they now have about word features.

At the primary grades, transferable knowledge is the reason we do activities like Rounding Up the Rhymes, Reading and Writing Rhymes, Changing Fox to Hen, and Using Words You Know. All of these help students understand how to manipulate the sounds and symbols, how to use and choose patterns and, basically, how the English language works.

When we use Guess the Covered Word, another seemingly simple activity, we’re giving students three consistent strategies to apply every time they come to a word they don’t know. When we choose the activity Whats Looks Right, we’re teaching students not only to rely upon their valuable visual cuing system, but also how many different spelling patterns there are for the same sound patterns (that –ite and –ight have the same sound) and which pattern is correct of the chosen word. So, in all of these seemingly simple exercises, there is a critical purpose being served—one that stands to make an impact on students’ ability to read and write proficiently.

Additionally, at upper grades, I constantly find teachers who comment that the Fifty Thrifty Fifty words are words their kids already know—they can read them and spell them. Often that's true, but what the teacher has missed is the whole point of NTF—to teach the valuable morphemic units of language—the bases, prefixes, and suffixes that will enable these kids to figure out the meanings of so many additional words. Even as we think towards SAT preparation, this level of word study can be invaluable. Research says that 4 little prefixes account for 58% of all prefixed words and that 20 prefixes account for 97% of all prefixed words. Think about the power of empowering students with the key to figuring out meanings of 97% of all the prefixed words they’ll encounter!

So, don’t so easily dismiss the seemingly insignificant exercises that are typically done in the Working with Words Block—Rounding Up the Rhymes, Guess the Covered Word, Making Words, Nifty Thrifty Fifty or any others. There’s so much power in teaching students the “how to” part of our language that will translate to better reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. Be guided by goals when you make decisions about what activities to use in your classroom. Here are some that serve us well at different grade levels:

  • Help students appreciate our rich language.
  • Teach high frequency words that account for the bulk of reading and writing.
  • Teach the one and two syllable words that have basic spelling patterns that can be used to spell many words.
  • Teach the different spelling patterns that have the same sound pattern that are often confused in spelling.
  • Teach the valuable word parts of polysyllabic words that will enable students to figure out many additional word meanings.
  • Teach students to apply strategies for decoding unfamiliar words.

Also, for the teacher who inspired this column and others, judge your students for yourself and be sure to match your students with the curriculum and activities that are appropriate for them.

Next month, let’s look at another type of word level instruction that we offer in all balanced literacy programs—vocabulary, which is critical in students’ literacy development. For now, enjoy your word study with students. Have fun exploring all of the interesting elements of our rich English language!



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About Cheryl Sigmon...

Cheryl Sigmon has been an educator for nearly 30 years as a classroom teacher, a Dept. of Ed. language arts consultant, and currently as a seminar presenter, trainer and consultant in schools and districts around the US and Europe. She owns her own consulting firm, Sigmon & Associates, Inc., that brokers consulting services. She is co-author with Pat Cunningham and Dottie Hall of the bestselling Teacher's Guide to Four-Blocks and author of Modifying Four-Blocks for Upper Grades. Also, she is the author of numerous other professional books on literacy, including a writing mini-lesson series, Just-Right Writing Mini-Lessons (grade 1, 2-3, 4-6) and her newest comprehension mini-lesson series, Just-Right Comprehension Lessons (grades 1-6) with Scholastic Publishing Co.

Visit Cheryl's website at http://www.cherylsigmon.com.

On a personal note, she and her husband, Ray, live in SC, where they enjoy their stateís beautiful beaches and spend time with their three daughters, two grandchildren, and a multitude of grand-dogs and grandĖcats!


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