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Developing whole school approaches to differentiated spelling instruction

Marianne Schubert

This article is adapted from a paper presented at the 2009 Bridging Divides Conference of the Australian Literacy Educators' Association and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. The article outlines a trial project in which four schools developed strategies for improving students' spelling and developing teachers' pedagogical content knowledge in this area of learning.

This article provides an overview of a project on differentiated spelling instruction at four Queensland primary schools. The schools trialled the use of new strategies with the twin aims of improving children's spelling at all year levels, and of enhancing teachers' pedagogical content knowledge concerning this aspect of student learning. The trial was an initiative of Education Queensland's Regional Literacy Manager for the Greater Brisbane region.

The participating schools

The four schools were selected to reflect the types of schools and school communities found across Greater Brisbane.

School A is located in an outer area of the city. The school has trebled in size over five years, generating significant changes in both student and staff composition. The project was led by the school leadership team, and all Prep to Year 7 teachers were expected to take part.

School B is located close to the CBD and serves a largely middle- to high-SES population. Staffing is relatively stable and includes a high proportion of experienced teachers. Only teachers who were keen to commit to the project took part.

School C is a large public P–12 college in an outer suburb. Early and middle years students are organised in multi-age pods and are taught by several teachers. The head of curriculum helped support the project, which involved self-nominated staff from the lower and middle primary groups, one of whom helped to lead the project.

School D is a well-established school located close to the CBD and serving a wide range of SES groups as well as a large number of ESL students. The vice principal played a significant leading role, in tandem with the learning support teacher and a Year 3 teacher. All teachers from Year 1 to Year 7 were required to participate in the project.

Projects strategies

The approach to spelling instruction used in the trial matched the framework used in Queensland state testing. This approach identifies 15 phases of spelling development over the years of primary schooling. They represent five broad stages, labelled Emergent, Letter Alphabetic, Within Word, Syllable/Affix and Derivational, which are each broken down into early, middle and late phases. The phases are explained in the resource Words Their Way (2007) which, together with Spelling: Improving Student Learning Outcomes CD (2000), was used by leading staff to guide their teachers' professional learning during the project.

At the outset of the trial a preliminary assessment of students' spelling was undertaken. Using these results, students were grouped according to their spelling proficiency as the basis to provide differentiated instruction. In each group students then received 10 minutes per day of explicit word study targeted to their group's particular developmental needs.

One of the key teaching strategies applied in the trial was the use of 'word sorts'. A word sort is an exercise in which suitable lists of words are categorised and sorted based on qualities shared by each word. The instructional materials provided to teachers for the trial contained lists of words that could be categorised and sorted in various ways, for example by a single consonant sound or blend, short or long 'a' and words with or without a final 'e'. The groups of students with lowest spelling proficiency were asked to sort pictures rather than words as an exercise in conceptual development that would help to prepare them for later work in sorting words.

Schools were free to devise their own way to use word sorts. One example is the approach used in School D. At this school participating staff at each year level undertook a full day of professional learning, covering three sessions. In the first session, the School D teachers sourced or created word sorts for their class spelling groups.

In the second session a Year 3 teacher from the school who helped to lead the trial suggested a five-day sequence for the use of word sorts in the classroom:

  • Day one: Students read the new words in their group word sort with the teacher and discuss their meaning.
  • Day two: Students sort the words from the previous day according to their own categories. These groupings are discussed with each other and with the teacher before recording their groupings in their spelling workbook.
  • Day three: Students sort the same words using a category decided by the teacher based on the identified spelling needs of the group. Students then discuss with the teacher the spelling generalisation they can make using the word sort. The lists and generalisation are recorded in the spelling workbook.
  • Day four: Students locate more words that fit the word patterns created the previous day to check their generalisation works with new words they encounter in reading and writing. These words are added to their spelling workbook lists.
  • Day five: Students engage in an activity to reinforce their knowledge for that week: for example, using a crossword, word game or sentence activity.

In the third session the Year 3 teacher modelled the effective use of word sorts using some of the lists teachers had prepared in the first session.

Findings from the trial

At the conclusion of the project, a final spelling assessment was administered and compared to the results of the assessment undertaken at the start of the trial. Teachers were also asked to complete a survey about the trial, and a final data collection session was also held at each school, which provided further feedback from school leaders and teachers.

Students' test results from the pre- and post-trial assessments were used to measure each student's progress through the 15 phases of spelling development. Based on statewide measures of student progress, an average student would be expected to advance one phase over the nine months of the trial.

However, the achievement of participating students in the early and middle primary years was well ahead of this benchmark. In Prep and in Years 1, 3 and 4 students improved by at least 2.5 phases, and students in Year 2 improved by almost two phases.

Year 7 students advanced by just over one phase, although still in line with the benchmark, and students in Year 5 and Year 6 improved by slightly less than one phase. Ongoing monitoring and data collection may help to identify the longer term influence of the project on students at these year levels, since the schools have decided to continue applying the processes used during the trial.

At school B, students showed marked improvement above the norm in all year levels. It may be significant that at this school only fully committed teachers volunteered to participate in the program.

School D also saw significant improvements in spelling, which suggests that explicit teaching targeted specifically to learners' needs is an effective approach for ESL learners and learners from diverse backgrounds.

Results between individual classes varied significantly. The school leaders often attributed the strong results achieved by particular classes to highly effective pedagogy.

Feedback obtained from teachers and leaders indicated that teachers were now sharing more professional information in relation to students' spelling. Teachers also indicated that they now felt better able to identify the demands of spelling assessments including NAPLAN test items, and that they were keen to map developments in student learning. However, some school leaders expressed interest in learning how they might better assist staff in differentiating spelling instruction for different groups of students.

Some barriers to implementation were identified. One was the impact of staffing turnover. Another significant barrier was the time required to analyse the spelling inventories; this challenge may be eased by a new computer data collection program that is expected to help teachers to analyse their own students' data.

While the trial has reached completion, each school has continued working with the processes undertaken in the project, and the region has begun sharing the project processes and outcomes with other schools and clusters.


Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S. & Johnson, F. (2007) Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, 4th Edition, Prentice Hall, New York.

Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S. & Johnson, F. (2004) Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, 3rd Edition, Prentice Hall, New York.

Spelling: Improving Learning Outcomes (2000), Department of Education Queensland, Queensland Catholic Education Commission and The Association of Independent Schools of Queensland Inc.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Ability grouping in education
Primary education
English language teaching