Sifting and Sorting Through the 4-Blocks Literacy Model|
by Cheryl M. Sigmon
My Poor Teacher Can't Spell!
All at once, I've been besieged by emails concerning spelling in the Writing Block at upper grades. Nancy, a fourth grade teacher in New York, who's enjoying her move to Four-Blocks wrote, "Cheryl, do you think it's important that we misspell words in our model writing daily? It really makes me cringe every time I misspell something, and I'm worried that my students may begin to pick up bad habits from the misspellings I'm modeling. I don't think I can continue to go against my better judgment to spell words correctly! What do you suggest?" Also, Cathy, a curriculum specialist, wrote to ask, "How do you respond to a group of teachers who feel it is of the utmost importance to spell everything correctly when writing in front of the students? These are 4th and 5th grade teachers if it makes a difference." This is apparently an important subject to many teachers---maybe not limited to upper grades. Let's take a look at solutions to this problem.
First of all, teachers certainly don't want kids to think they can't spell! Our worst nightmare is that Johnny will go home and tell his parents, "My poor teacher can't spell a lick when she writes in front of the class!" Then, of course, the parents are either on our doorstep the next morning or in the principal's office wanting our teaching certificate revoked! In a minute, we're going to be sure that everyone understands why we model misspellings in front of our students. But, until then, let's find a way to frame our misspellings so that students know that we really can spell the words we're misspelling for them. I usually say something like, "Boys and girls, when I was your age, I'm not sure that I could have spelled the word 'sergeant,' so I want you to know what to do if that happens to you. When you come to a difficult word, make your best guess and write it down. Then circle it and keep writing. You can come back to that word later if you're working on a further draft. I'm going to stretch out the sounds that I hear in 'sergeant' and put down what I hear." If we word it that way, we're making the point that it's for their benefit that we're misspelling.
We want students to know that there are no restrictions on the words that they might want to use---every word is a possibility. We want them to "go for it" as far as using the vocabulary they're learning. So, we'll tell them to write down the word just the way they hear it, and we'll accept it. We must establish a risk-taking environment to get them to experiment with words and to build a rich vocabulary. They need only use a word to have it become theirs for a lifetime!
Next, as far as teachers feeling that they must always spell every word correctly in their model writing, I feel that puts unnecessary stress on the teacher and that it might even be counterproductive to what we've trying to accomplish with students as writers. I would never want to give students at any grade level the impression that perfection is a goal of first draft writing. There are many opportunities in later drafts to edit our work. When producing the first draft, fluency in our writing---getting down our ideas---is the objective. I want to model for my students how to "overlook" possible misspellings by putting down my best guess and circling the word. The circling gives students "permission" to keep writing and provides a marker for returning to correct words they've had to guess.
What we're modeling isn't misspellings. We're actually modeling strategies for how to handle misspellings while we're getting our ideas on paper. Just as we teach students what to do when they come to a word they don't know when they're reading, we also teach students what to do when they come to a word they can't spell in their writing. We want them to be cognizant of the high frequency words they know, the many word patterns, and the meaningful word chunks---all of which will help them make a reasonable guess about the spelling of a word they want to use. We don't want to teach students that they should stop and look up words in the dictionary or the thesaurus during rough draft writing. The rough draft stage of writing is not the appropriate time to do so. That's done in later drafts when editing. We also don't want them to ask us how to spell for them. "The teacher won't spell for you" is a steadfast rule made clear to students in the beginning of the school year. It liberates the teacher, who has more important responsibilities, and liberates the students, too!
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