Open the box to active word play

Give pupils some freedom and learning how to spell need never be dull

Danielle Smallwood

"Copy your words out 10 times and write a sentence using each word." That spelling mantra is as ancient as the hills, but it's boring, isn't it?

The old-fashioned approach to spelling and homework was just not having the desired effect of getting my P7 class enthused about learning and improving their spelling. So, I decided to find a new method.

I put together an interactive set of spelling resources that we rotate around the school, so that each class gets a different spelling box each term. The difference has been amazing. For one thing, the children in my class actually "whoop" when we have spelling now.

I was certain that rather than teaching them to spell a list of words each week, we could do more. I wanted them to learn how to learn the words. The idea was to equip them with a range of tried and tested study skills they could build on and use throughout their lives. This means that each child takes responsibility for, and personalises, their learning - a crucial part of A Curriculum for Excellence.

The first stage was to teach them about different learning styles and how our brains work. We covered the three basic styles - visual, auditory and kinaesthetic - and looked at examples of each. Then we worked together to come up with different spelling strategies using the resources in each box.

We have just finished a term of having the blue box. In order to immerse our visual learners in an associated colour, everything in that box is blue. The range of resources includes blue whiteboard pens, blue modelling clay, blue foam letters, and the standard sign language alphabet copied on to blue card.

Each child works with a partner, taking turns to test each other. This helps them to identify the words they personally need to concentrate on. Armed with this information, the pair then discusses their preferred learning style, or styles, and any strategies they would like to try.

The pupils continue to surprise me: their strategies are ingenious and far more creative than mine. We have children tracing words on to their partner's back as the partner spells out loud what they are feeling; we have children making words out of modelling clay, and using foam letters to make anagrams for a partner to unscramble; we have children signing words across the room as their partner notes down what they see. These are just a few examples. The classroom buzzes as they continue to develop strategies.

The beauty of these spelling workshops is that they enjoy them. Each child is thinking about what works for them and has the freedom to tap into those skills to enhance their learning.

Taking ownership of their learning one step further, they now work in groups to decide which words they want to learn, occasionally supplementing them with a tricky word from their own writing. The pupils collect my planning file, flick through it to the spelling section and decide as a group which words from my plans would be most useful and relevant for them that week. (I love to eavesdrop on their fascinating discussions.) Once agreed, they mark the words on my list, and I check them before we use them.

I have had a positive response from the staff in my team who use the boxes, and great feedback from parents about the creative strategies the children are now using to practise their words at home.

The Curriculum for Excellence is opening the doors to active learning like this. Offering pupils some choice in their learning, and stepping back as a teacher, creates opportunities for children to surprise themselves and their teachers.

Danielle Smallwood is a P7 teacher at Stobhill Primary, Midlothian.

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Danielle Smallwood

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