Is drill and kill the right approach to learning to spell?


My headline is in lots of ways misleading for there is no one right way to learn to spell efficiently in English.

In the 60’s and 70’s we made students learn to spell lists of words through repetition or drill with lots of rules thrown in and then in the Donald Graves  “Process Writing Era” of the 80’s and early 90’s we moved to what was seen as a more liberal view of spelling where we encouraged children to have a go at words and then got them to learn of few of their errors.

This of course is a massive over generalisation and certainly Donald Graves did not just advocate the “have a go” principle but teachers were often left in the confused state of trying to value everything in the end and students were often left with no clear system in their mind to follow.

Now I think we understand that we learn best when we can make prior connections to our own understandings and get challenged to think and find patterns and anomalies. How does this work for spelling?

Well we have trialled a Words their Way” approach to spelling and more recently vocabulary over the last few years whereby students engage in a variety of sound, pattern and meaning activities, sorting pictures and words. The approach caters for differentiated learning in the classroom, where children are grouped according to their diagnosed need and use hands on tasks.

This approach is combined with the visual memorization strategy of Look Say Cover Write Check where children choose some of their patterned words from Words their Way combined with a few words from their edited section of their writing (we focus on the 200 most commonly used words first) or from the tier 2 word list work generated in classrooms.

This combined approach when workshopped with students at least twice a week has shown amazing results. We track the progress of our students who have been known to learn at twice the previous rate or more (we used Hattie’s effect size work work to determine improvement rates).

The picture is of two teachers participating in a professional learning workshop after school on the approach.

I share this information to hopefully support teachers in this improvement work. For further information please contact me.

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10 Responses to Is drill and kill the right approach to learning to spell?

  1. Delaneys says:

    Hi Mark
    I attended your presentation at the O’Shea Centre in Brisbane earlier this week, “what’s good for the goose…….” I enjoyed your talk and was interested in some of the slides you put up very quickly towards the end of your talk. I think one was titled “Peter Hill’s checklist”. Is there a way of accessing these slides to have a more detailed look at them.

  2. Cheryl Laing says:

    Great to see it is still working Mark, Agree agree agree with your words!

    • mwalker says:

      Thanks Cheryl. Your initial support and mentoring to some of our teachers is still having an effect some 3 years later.

  3. Sue T says:

    Hi Mark,

    I’m a long time reader of your blog and have found many of your words helpful in my leadership roles. I remember your last post about Words Their Way. At my previous school we started the journey and at my new school I am looking at using it. I would be really keen to hear how you have implemented it at EPS.

    • mwalker says:

      Hi Sue,
      We trialed WTW in 4 classrooms (18% of the school) with intensive coaching support for 2 terms in the first year and looked at the impact using Hattie’s effect size formula’s. The effects were all positive ranging in 0.5 to 0.9 (we calculated 0.8 to be an effect equivalent of 2 year learning). In the second year we rolled WTW out to about 10 classes (40% of the school) using a workshop PD approach and again got a good result with effect sizes ranging from 0.4 – 1.0. The major variation in effects got down to the number of sessions a teacher ran per week for a semester. This year we have aimed for a 100% implementation although walkthrough data suggests its not there yet. Hope that helps.

      • Sue T says:

        Thanks Mark.. it does. At my previous school we started in every classroom but had all children on the same sort to ease teachers into the process. We saw growth in their Spelling achievement. I am interested in how you combined WTW sort and high frequency words through Look Cover Write Check. As I start the journey with my new school, would it be possible for some teachers to touch base with you or one of your leaders? Cheers, Sue

  4. nina davis says:

    Hi Mark,
    Loving your blog. I’ve heard quite a bit about ‘Words their Way’. We’ve been using THRASS with other strategies. Some students find THRASS helps, but others learn differently. I’ll need to look further into this program. Thanks for sharing.
    Cheers Nina

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