Strategies for improving your students’ spelling

students working on spelling in the classroom

Published: June 8th, 2023

Spelling can be challenging for some students, but by leveraging the Direct Instruction Spelling Mastery program, you can help your students vastly improve their accuracy and confidence with spelling. Read on to learn all about the Spelling Mastery program and how to use it in your classroom.

What is the Spelling Mastery program?

The Spelling Mastery program is a six-level teaching series supported by the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER). Designed for teaching spelling skills to students in grades 1 through 6, the method combines three different approaches to learning spelling skills – the phonemic approach, the morphemic approach and the whole-world approach (we’ll dive into these approaches in more detail a little further on).

Spelling Mastery in Australia

Spelling Mastery materials are published in Australia by McGraw Hill Australia and these can be purchased on the McGraw Hill site.

The Direct Instruction method

The Spelling Mastery program is a Direct Instruction method of teaching spelling. Developed by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker, Direct Instruction is based on the theory that clear and explicit instruction eliminates confusion and misinterpretation and can greatly improve learning. As such, the Spelling Mastery program provides you with carefully planned lessons that explicitly teach spelling skills. And because the lessons are scripted, you don’t have to spend as much time preparing.

What are the three methods included in the Spelling Mastery program?

Spelling Mastery combines three evidenced-based methods for learning spelling. These are the phonemic approach, the morphemic approach and the whole-world approach.

The phonemic approach

The phonemic approach to learning spelling is based on teaching students the sounds associated with each letter or group of letters. Students are instructed to break down words into individual sounds, or phonemes, and then spell them accordingly. This approach emphasises the importance of understanding the relationship between sounds and letters.

Phonemic awareness is a crucial prerequisite for successful spelling. As such, it’s taught explicitly in the early stages of learning to spell. Once students have developed an understanding of the sounds that make up words, they can apply this knowledge to words they encounter in their reading and writing.

With the phonemic method, students are taught spelling rules and patterns, such as how to form plurals, based on the sounds of the words. The phonemic approach to learning spelling is effective for a variety of reasons. For example, it allows students to see patterns and relationships between letter sounds and words, which helps them to become more efficient and accurate spellers.

The morphemic approach

The morphemic approach involves teaching students how to identify and use the meaningful components of words, such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots. This approach emphasises the importance of recognising the meaning of a word in order to spell it correctly.

Students are taught about the different parts of words and how they can be combined to create new words. For example, students learn that adding the suffix “ness” to the end of a word can create a new word (e.g. kind + ness = kindness). This approach also helps students understand why words are spelled the way they are, as they can identify the root word and any affixes that have been added.

Using the morphemic approach can improve students’ spelling and their understanding of vocabulary. By recognising the components of words, students can more easily remember how to spell them and understand their meaning. However, the morphemic approach may not be as effective for words that don’t follow common rules or patterns, such as irregular verbs. In these cases, the phonemic approach may be a better option.

The whole-word approach

The whole-world approach involves teaching students to consider the meanings, origins, and usage of words in addition to their sounds and patterns. This approach emphasises the importance of understanding words in their broader context.

With the whole-world approach, students are taught to analyse words based on their etymology, or their historical development and origins. This can help students identify patterns in spelling across different languages and recognise common roots and affixes. The whole-world approach can help students understand how different words are used in different contexts and avoid common spelling errors that arise from using words incorrectly.

Backed by research

The Spelling Mastery program is based on extensive research into different methods of teaching spelling. Many studies have shown that teaching students phonemic, morphemic and whole-world skills is an effective way to increase spelling accuracy.

In addition, studies comparing the effectiveness of spelling programs found that students taught to spell using Spelling Mastery consistently outperformed students taught to spell through other spelling programs.

The Spelling Mastery levels

The Spelling Mastery program has six levels (level A to level F), suitable for students in grades 1 to 6. To determine which level is most appropriate for your students, they should first take a series of placement tests. To assist in placing your students at the correct level, a placement test can be downloaded from the McGraw Hill website. 

Starting with placement test A, students are asked to spell 10 words. If the student spells five or more words incorrectly, they will be placed in level A. If they spell fewer than four words incorrectly, they will move on to the next test – placement test B. And so on, until they are placed in the correct level.

A typical Spelling Mastery lesson

After assigning your students into the most appropriate development level using the placement tests, you can deliver the Spelling Mastery program in as little as 15 to 30 minutes a day.

The Spelling Mastery program provides you with a presentation book that contains daily scripted lessons. Because lessons should be presented exactly as scripted, there’s much less planning and preparation required.

Depending on the level you’re teaching, lessons may include phonemic, morphemic and whole word strategies. Strategies are presented in small steps, modelled, and practised to encourage long-term retention. Students are also provided with a workbook that they can use to apply the spelling rules and principles they’ve learned.

Every skill, pattern and rule is then assessed (students are provided with Spelling Mastery words lists so they can study skills and words at home). As your students master the spelling level, they progress to the next level.

Spelling Mastery online and other digital tools

While McGraw Hill Australia at this time does not provide online access to the program, you can purchase a digital version of the program through McGraw Hill USA. The online subscription provides you with a digital version of the teacher guide and student workbook.

In addition to leveraging the Spelling Mastery program, your students may benefit from using online spelling games. While these shouldn’t replace your Spelling Mastery lessons, they make for a great addition and are a fun way for your students to learn to spell. For example, VocabularySpellingCity provides many online spelling and vocabulary games that can be paired with the Spelling Mastery word lists.

There are also many online games that focus on the different Spelling Mastery methods. For example, you can find many free online games to teach phonemic awareness and morphemic awareness. And, for a creative way to develop whole-world awareness, you could use a tool like Promethean’s interactive display to create interactive presentations that combine words with audio and images. Here are some more ideas for creating fun, interactive presentations.

For more online resources focused on spelling for teachers, the Department of Education provides an online Literacy Teaching Toolkit that includes information on different teaching methods, links to relevant research, and ideas for incorporating spelling lessons into the classroom.

How to level up your lessons

While the scripted nature of the lessons can minimise the amount of time spent on lesson preparation, if you’d like to improve how you deliver the program, then you might be interested in the free Teach Spelling Mastery program offered by Good to Great Schools Australia.

Good to Great Schools Australia is a not-for-profit organisation offering educators a range of free professional learning modules and lesson improvement tools. The organisation has partnered with McGraw Hill Australia to support educators delivering the Spelling Mastery program.

Through a series of online modules, teachers are taught how to prepare to teach the program, how to better engage their students, and how to assess mastery of each level. The organisation also provides support on implementing Direct Instruction in the classroom.

What’s next?

To see how Promethean can help you integrate education technology into your classroom, get in touch with one of our experts for a free consultation and a virtual demo of the new Promethean ActivPanel 9.

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