Loyola University Maryland

Emerging Scholars

Christopher Wrightson, Elizabeth Trimmer

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In second grade, how will Words Their Way compare to traditional, rote spelling instruction in terms of retention, transfer, and overall achievement?

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With ever-greater writing and literacy-related achievement standards being placed upon students, spelling pedagogy has been receiving a renewed look in educational literature.  Once an area of instruction relegated to rote memorization, teachers and other interested parties are increasingly concerned with the efficacy of this instruction (Fresch, 2007).  The traditional, rote method of instruction entails providing students a list of words (which may not be clearly related in any meaningful way), performing practice and activities with them throughout the week and concluding with a spelling test of those words.  This method’s name is derived from its tendency to cause students to opt for word memorization in order to perform well on weekly spelling tests.

As a graduate student intern, I have witnessed an intervention which is often contrasted with the traditional spelling instructional method: Words Their Way (WTW).  WTW is one commercialized version of a spelling instruction technique more generally referred to as “word study.”  With influence from the school administration, I decided to conduct action research exploring the efficacy of the new program – particularly as it compares to the traditional method which was largely displaced.  Thus, my research questions was: At the second grade level, how will WTW compare to traditional, rote spelling instruction in terms of word retention, transfer, and overall vocabulary achievement?

This topic of research lends itself to other, related strands of research – in particular, neuroscience.  Such scholarly literature describes how the human brain learns, and it generally agrees that the brain learns new information by relating it to a vast interdependent and interconnected network of neurons; it attempts to seek meaning in new information based upon related neurons which already exist (Weiss, 2000).  And, more specifically pertaining to word study instruction, “the brain is a consummate pattern maker;” the brain seeks patterns, attempts connections, and works towards generalizations (Weiss, 2000, p. 23).  WTW connects to this research insofar as it helps students understand the patterns and meaning behind spelling.

To determine whether or not WTW is a viable spelling pedagogical technique – perhaps according to its harmonious functioning with brain-based research – I collected data by multiple means, for multiple purposes.  I compared students' abilities to correctly spell words learned by the traditional, rote method and the word study program, after certain periods of time, in order to measure retention.  And, to measure transfer, tests, anecdotal evidence, and writing samples were analyzed to determine if spelling rules were maintained in new contexts.  Overall spelling achievement was determined by a spelling inventory which measured whether or not the WTW program effectively taught that which it purported.  The results were clear: WTW proved more effective than the traditional, rote method in terms of retention and transfer.  Furthermore, the spelling inventory results convey that the program effectively teaches that which it is supposed to teach.  Though, importantly, because of the complexities of the English language, an effective spelling program will utilize both methods in balance.