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A Spelling Method That Works [episode 17]


Click below to listen to a spelling method that works:

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Morning Message: 

[00:57] Tell us how long you’ve been teaching without telling us how long you’ve been teaching.

We love this phrase and hearing everyone’s responses! We said our listening center was on cassette tape and we used Scholastic bonus points for more books on tape, and the use of overhead projectors with translucent math manipulatives.

Our listener responses definitely took us back to either our days as a student or early teaching days. Those responses include using transparency and CD-ROMs, using a die-cut machine, entering grades manually on a bubble sheet, having a monthly subscription to Mailbox Magazine, actually using chalk on a chalkboard, and more recently, surviving the era of bottle flipping and fidget spinners.

We’d love to hear your responses to this question and future questions, so let us know over on Instagram!

Here’s an overview of episode 17:

There are so many different approaches to how to teach spelling. Yet, very few of them seem to actually teach kids how to spell! The truly ideal spelling program often seems like a unicorn. Does it even exist? Well, we think we found that magical unicorn in our system! In today’s episode, we’re sharing our spelling method that actually works.

The spelling method we’ve adopted in our classrooms is called chunk spelling. In this unique method, we focus on a chunk or a word family for the whole week, but the effectiveness of this method is having your students help generate the words they’ll be studying for the week. This is an important part of the process because it gives the opportunity for students to be introduced to new words they may not have encountered yet. Then on the flip side, for teachers, you get to see what words your students know and then get the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions they have. 

Looking for a method that meets the needs of all your students? Well, this one is it! In chunk spelling, you can make it adaptable for your class needs and easily differentiate within those needs in your classroom. Throughout the episode, we explain how this is a flexible method that can be used in a variety of different ways to ensure your students are being challenged at their own level. 

Magical unicorns are hard to come by, but we think we’ve found it in chunk spelling. Not only does it give students real-life reasons to use the language standards they’re being taught, but it allows them to extend the simple words they know, to the more complex words they are learning. There are so many benefits in this spelling method that we know this will change the way you implement your spelling instruction. 

In this episode on our spelling method, we discuss:

  • The process students go through in developing their chunk spelling lists
  • Explaining the difference between assigning more work and assigning challenging work 
  • How to modify chunk spelling for each grade level
  • What you can do this summer to prepare for using chunk spelling in the fall
  • All the skills students will learn and develop through our chunk spelling method

This week’s teacher approved tip:

[16:02] Use baseball card sleeves in a binder to store cards you want to reuse from year to year.

This is a great way to organize your materials and resources, especially if they’re small! This binder provides a protective and easy way for you to keep all your materials together in one place. 

However, we do recommend putting a rubber band around the materials in case you pick up the binder the wrong way to prevent them from all falling out! Another hack is to use photo album sleeves for bigger materials. 

Not quite sure what we’re talking about? Here’s a visual:

What we’re giving extra credit to this week:

[17:47] Heidi is giving extra credit to our mom (the ultimate chunk spelling resource helper!).

[18:28] Emily is giving extra credit to Heidi for all the incredible planning she did on a recent family vacation.


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Read the transcript for episode 17, A Spelling Method That Works:

Hey there, thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’re diving into the topic of spelling instruction, and we’ll share a teacher approved tip for keeping track of small sets of cards in your classroom.

We start our episodes with a morning message just like we used to do at morning meeting in our classrooms. This week’s morning message is tell us how long you’ve been teaching without telling us how long you’ve been teaching. So Heidi, show us how about this, my listening center was on cassette tape when I first started, and then I would use my Scholastic bonus points every month to get new books on tape. That was the best way to build the library. bonus point. How about you, Em? I used an overhead projector with my super cool translucent math manipulatives those were some of my most treasured teacher possessions I have to say, Oh, those were coveted and I wouldn’t ever let the kids touch them. No. We have some responses from our audience. Jennifer said I’m transparency and CD ROM old. Oh man. That hurts because it doesn’t feel that. Lauren said I had file folders for each color of letters that I die cut on the Ellison machine. Oh yeah, that takes you back. I was volunteering at my kids school recently and they were in a nice, like new fancy school. And in the workroom, they had a die cut machine. Oh, it didn’t look like it had been used. I will say that. Laura said I used to have to enter grades manually by bubbling on a bubble sheet. Oh man and prime miss that one. Mary said I used a mimeograph ditto machine to make copies. The kids loved the smell of the paper. I didn’t have to do that as a teacher, but I remember that definitely as a kid; me too. Martin said I survived bottle flipping and fidget spinners. Congratulations on making it through that difficult. Feels like there should be merit badge for that one. Yes. Heather said monthly subscription to Mailbox Magazine. That was such a good. I know. We had many treasured copies of those. Yes. And lastly, Steve said I use chalk on a chalkboard, which automatically dates you a lot. I never used the chalkboard as teacher but I do remember clapping erasers outside at school when I was in sixth grade. So my first classroom had a chalkboard and I heard they were using it because I hate writing on the chalk fields on that building wasn’t even that. Oh, right. It was pretty new. It was like, wow. Well, we’d love to hear your responses to our morning messages. And you can find those over on Instagram at @2ndstorywindow.

As a new teacher, I tried lots of different approaches to spelling, but I couldn’t find anything that I felt actually taught kids to be better spellers. But I had a list of what I wanted. I felt that with an ideal spelling program, children would internalize basic spelling patterns, learn strategies that help them spell or read any word, make connections among words, in many ways, be engaged in the process and have an opportunity to exercise choice that they would be able to master words and spelling patterns that can be generalized to other words, that they could quickly and efficiently transfer spelling words to their writing, and that they would be challenged at their individual levels. Kind of sounds like a unicorn. And I really don’t know if such an ideal spelling program is possible. But we think we’ve gotten pretty close with what we call chunk spelling. Isn’t it such a catchy name? Even typing it when we were making these notes? Oh, why did we do them that we did. So? That’s because chunk spelling is exactly what it sounds like. We focus on a chunk or a word family for the whole week. But it’s not just me handing out a list of word family words. The effectiveness of chunk spelling comes from having the kids generate the words they’ll be studying. Why don’t you break it down a little bit Emily.

So to start, we have students begin working on developing a word list independently. So we give each student a small strip of paper with the week’s chunk on it, and a sheet of paper in three columns. Or they can just use a page in their notebook, which is what we train our kids do how to divide their page into three columns. And then they also have a sheet we call a soundboard. So on one side of the soundboard, there’s all the possible consonants, and then on the other side, there’s the beginning digraphs and blends, that the students start by placing the chunk next to the first consonant B. So if our chunk this week is N, we’d have made the word been. If students recognize that word, they write it in the first column of their paper. They continue down the soundboard pairing the chunk and the consonants to see what words they can make. For N, they’d have been, finn pin, ten, you get the idea. So we call the words that start with one continent, our little words, and those all go in the first column. Then they flip the soundboard over and they start on the list of medium words, those words begin with a blend or a digraph. For the word chunk N, these words would be words like chin, grin and thin, and then they list those words in the middle column of their paper. At the beginning of the year, you want to take the time to model this process for them. And then try a few weeks where you do it all together. And then they should be ready to complete the process on their own with some support from you.

After using the soundboard with the suggested beginning letters, then comes the challenge of big words. And big words are where the magic happens. For N we’d have words like print and window, but not train or making that have in in the spelling, because in those words, the N pattern doesn’t make our target sound of N, it can be kind of a tricky distinction for kids to get. Second graders are supposed to work with compound words, prefixes, and suffixes. Chunk spelling gives them a real life reason to do so. So we can talk about turning instant into instantly and win into winning. Once the kids have had a chance to make a good start on their word lists, we switch to generating a whole class list, I post a giant chart paper with the header. If you can spell pain and grin you can spell. And then there’s just a bunch of blanks with the N chunk listed in the three columns. The kids give their suggestions for words, and we fill it out together a column at a time. This part of the process is so important because it gives the opportunity for students to be introduced to new words they may not have encountered yet. As a teacher, you get to see what words your kids know. And then you get an opportunity to clear up any misconceptions. For example, you may have a student that suggests a word that sounds right, but isn’t actually spelled with this week’s chunk. That becomes a big problem when you’re working on those long vowel pattern. Yes, that can be spelled so many different ways. Or they may have a word that is spelled right. But it’s pronounced a different way. These opportunities to dive into the nuances of spelling different words just comes up naturally in this method. At the beginning of the year, you’ll want to take the time to model this process and then try a few weeks where you do it all together. But then they should be ready to complete the process on their own, just with some support from you.

Now there’s a reason why we’re talking about spelling in the middle of summer if you’re listening to this right after it airs. If you want to do chunk spelling next year, one thing you can do this summer is to prep all your charts and word chunk cards ahead of time. If you don’t want to deal with weekly charts, you can easily project them from the computer. But we like having the chart posted all week for reference. If you need or want to do a weekly spelling list for the kids to practice, the completed charts can be used to generate that weekly list. We did it where the kids choose all 10 of their own words. So each child has a totally unique list. But this is a very flexible system. I’ve heard of teachers working as a class to choose five words for everyone to put on their list. And then the kids chose five words of their own. Some teachers work as a class to make one list that everyone uses, that still provides the element of choice even if it’s not completely individualized. If you have to use words from a certain program, you could make part of the list from the required words and part from the class checklist. There’s just a lot of ways to make it meaningful for your little spellers.

We focused on 10 words each week, because if the kids are working at an appropriate level of difficulty 10 words is plenty. We sometimes maybe frequently get questions from teachers who feel like 10 is too few. A lot of times if you’re looking for published spelling lists, you’ll see something like 10 main words, five challenge words, and then five bonus words or something similar to that. But is that really pushing kids to be better spellers? Or is it just giving them busy work, we have to make sure that we’re not confusing assigning more work with assigning challenging work. And I think I’m a little salty about this because spelling has always been easy for me. So as a kid, I had to do the full 20 or 30 spelling word list, but at least half of those words were just busy work and clearly I still have a lot of resentment over it. Oh, and why haven’t our spelling words progressed from what I was doing in the 80s and 90s, we shouldn’t still be doing spelling with this way. Our students practice their words all week. And then we did have that traditional Friday spelling test. Because our kids all had individual lists, we train them to give each other spelling tests. And it took about six weeks, so we had them fully trained. So it definitely takes some work to get up and running. Partially because you’re only practicing it once a week. So it’s not a skill you can practice every day. However, you can easily continue with whole class tests if that works better for you. Because the goal is for kids to spell that week’s chunk correctly, you could decide the minimum that you expect every kid to master, perhaps it’s the 10 easiest words, and then test everyone on those. Or you could give more challenging words with the expectation that everyone should at least spell the chunk correctly, even if they don’t know the whole word. But I wouldn’t recommend doing a whole class test of only big words, because developing spellers can’t always hear the chunk in a multi syllable word. Picking out every sound in a word can take some kids a while to develop, and we don’t want to penalize them for their growing skills. Right.

So this is how we did chunk spelling in second grade. So if you want to do this in first, but need to simplify things, you could focus your efforts on just the first two columns where words are built using just the beginning consonants and beginning blends and digraphs. And you would just skip the big words. We like to have students generate word lists independently. But to make things easier, you could work as a whole class to generate the list from the get go. You’ll also want to choose mostly short vowel word chunks to focus on for younger students. One way that you can generate the list altogether is that instead of giving them chunk cards and sound words, you can write all the beginning consonant blends on index cards, and hand each kid a card or two, then ask who has a card that could make a word with the chunk for that week. If you want to increase the difficulty of chunk spelling for third or fourth grade, you can use more challenging chunks with fewer small and medium words, but lots of the big words. So for example, the word dream would be in the medium word list for the chunk EAM. But then you can make most nouns plural by adding an S or an E S, to make the word dreams. Verbs will have different tenses, like dreaming, dreamed, and adjectives can often be comparatives like dreamy, dreamier, or dreamiest. Plus, they’re all the compound words like day dream, and dream time. It’s important for kids to see how knowing a small word can help you build so many other big words. And the really great thing about this method is that it’s so adaptable for your class needs, and you can differentiate easily within those needs in your classroom. And even if you don’t send a weekly spelling list or do weekly spelling tests, this exercise of investigating words together is incredibly powerful and well worth your time.

If we go back to our characteristics of that unicorn ideal spelling program, you’ll see that chunk spelling fits every component. So that list again was that with an ideal spelling program, children would internalize basic spelling patterns. learn strategies that will help them spell or read any word, make connections among words in many ways, be engaged in the process and have an opportunity to exercise choice, master words and spelling patterns that can be generalized to other words, quickly and efficiently transfer spelling words to their writing, and be challenged at their individual levels. With chunk spelling, kids are seeing that words are composed of predictable and recognizable patterns. Chunk spelling works by using what’s known to build what’s unknown. By using small chunks to build bigger words, kids are learning how to extend the simple words they know, to the more complex words they’re learning. But it also helps in the opposite way. It’s helping kids recognize that big words aren’t just walls of letters. They’re composed of smaller words and syllables. Chunk spelling gives them the skills to decode unknown words and their reading, and to stand up the words they need for writing. While traditional spelling practice is typically dry, and boring, chunk spelling is a dynamic process. Everyone is involved in generating the list, and everyone has some say in the words that are chosen. The aspect of choice creates a sense of ownership and increases engagement and learning how to spell. The three tiers of words make it easy to differentiate spelling practice. In a single class, some kids will be struggling with cat while some kids are ready to spell caterpillar. With chunk spelling kids are able to be challenged at their own levels, but there’s not any kind of hierarchy. We’re all working with the same chunk and from the same group of words. We’re just approaching it in 25 different ways. If you’re interested in learning more about chunk spelling, check out the show notes where we link to a blog post that has pictures and videos that will walk you through all the components. And we give you lots of tips about how to set up the system in your classroom. Or if you want to save yourself a whole ton of time, we offer a chunk spelling bundle in our shop that makes it so easy to implement in your classroom. The chunk spelling system includes over 80 common word family chunks with all the materials you would need for each one, and you can pick and choose exactly which chunks you want to use. We also have a line of word family worksheets that correlates perfectly with our word family chunks. There is a link to this in the show notes as well. And don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions you might have about chunk spelling or anything else. You can find us on Instagram at @2ndstorywindow. And that’s what the two, or come join us in the Teacher Approved Facebook group.

Now let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week, we leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is use baseball card sleeves in a binder to store cards you want to reuse from year to year. Heidi, tell us more about this. So if you aren’t a baseball card collector, maybe you don’t even know these exist. But baseball card sleeves are like page protectors with nine little pockets. So just store our word chunk cards that we use to generate their lists each week, we printed the cards on cardstock to make them a little more durable. And then we stored each weeks cards and their own label pockets. So if you collect the word chunk cards after the kids use them, and I just train them to like put them on the back table. You can reuse them for at least three or four years, so you need to replace them. And I learned the hard way to wrap each set of cards in their own rubber band. Like the cards are little so I just use like the little hair rubber bands before putting them away. Because otherwise if you pick up your binder the wrong way, you suddenly have word chunk confetti in there. Baseball card sleeves also work to store any kind of card that you might need to reuse. So if you are doing word sorts with your students, and you want like a sample store to introduce the word sort each week, you can make it once and then store them in those labeled baseball card pockets and just have them every year. So you never have to make it again, any kind of small group math game, or really anything with small cards you want to say for another use, just store perfectly in these little pockets. And even if you have bigger cards, there’s usually some kind of like a photo album page that would fit in a binder that you can store larger things in just so handy and easier than file folders for things like cards. Yes. And we will put a picture in the show notes for this. If you can’t quite picture what it looks like.

To wrap up the show, we’re sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Heidi, what are you giving extra credit to this week?

What with all this talk of chunk spelling made me remember mom and giving extra credit to our mom, because in the summer, she would make us the weekly chunk spelling posters. So 36 for each of us with the great, great big, you know, like the three foot long posters. And then she would also cut out word cards for us every few years when I would need them. I’d be like, Okay, put me another set on cardstock. And then she would print and cut them for me. And that just saved me so much time. I don’t know if she’s available for hire, but maybe be checking out. If you’re in the northern Utah area, let us know. What about you Emily, with your extra credit this week? Well, we just got back from a few days up in the mountains with our family. And Heidi planned a whole bunch of really fun Harry Potter themed activities for my kids to do while we were up there. And it really made the weekend so fun. My kids are super into Harry Potter right now. And it broke up the time between going to the swimming pool and having snacks. So I’m giving extra credit to Heidi for all her hard work on our little family getaway. That was a sweet surprise. Thank you. And I had fun being the auntie and we made pretzel ones and made fun of those plan mandrakes so it was fun for me too. That’s it for today’s episode. Give chunk spelling a try in your classroom. And don’t forget today’s teacher approved tip for utilizing baseball card holders for storage. Thank you for listening.

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.