Second-grader Aidan Burns, 8, writes his spelling words down after sorting them during class at Waterloo Elementary in Columbia. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda, Patuxent Publishing / February 28, 2013)

Seven-year-old Alayna Gifford and a few of her classmates were seated in a semicircle on the floor at Waterloo Elementary School.

"OK, Alayna, your turn," said teacher Staphanie Yonowitz, who is sitting on the floor facing the students. Alayna picked up a slip of paper with the word "small" printed on it.

She smiled. "My brother is very small," she said. And then she placed the slip of paper under one of four groups arranged in front of the students, the one headed "al."

"Very good, Alayna," Yonowitz said, and moves on to the next student.

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Welcome to the new face of spelling instruction in Howard County.

The annual Howard County Library System Spelling Bee, to be held Friday, March 8, at Reservoir High School, will feature dozens of fourth- through eighth-graders likely to dazzle onlookers with their spelling wizardry. (The winning word last year was "kudize.") But few adults would recognize the way many of those students learned to spell.

In county schools these days, you're less and less likely to find the lists of 10 or 20 words traditionally handed out to students on Monday, memorized during the week, spelled back in a test on Friday — and often forgotten by the following Monday. Instead, students clip and sort short series of letters called "word chunks." They learn to recognize patterns within words, the sounds within words. They learn, ideally, to get excited about words.

It's part of a revolution in spelling that in the past few years has hit not only Howard County but much of the nation.

"Spelling is definitely taught differently in schools now," said Fran Clay, coordinator of Elementary Language Arts for the county school system.  "We're trying to get far beyond just memorizing a list of words. The focus now is on word study, on vocabulary, phonics, as well as spelling. We want students to understand how and why words work."

The new spelling regimen, part of the Common Core standards for language arts being instituted in Maryland public schools, is based on the "Words Their Way" curriculum developed by Donald Bear, a former teacher and researcher in literacy development.

Under this approach, students use "word sorts" to compare, contrast and analyze words, to recognize patterns, and to learn spelling principles. 

The roots of words

The regimen encompasses not just spelling but, as students get older, the roots of words (typically Greek or Roman), phonics, prefixes and suffixes, and vocabulary.

"It's a much more child-centric way of approaching a very challenging task," explained Teri Trail, the reading support teacher at Waterloo. "It breaks it down into very meaningful chunks."

Research recognized that students weren't retaining their knowledge of words under previous spelling instruction, Clay said. "It's considered best practice now to have a broader scope for word study." 

Best practice or not, the new spelling regimen takes some getting used to — for teachers and parents as well as students.

For teachers, the heavier emphasis on instruction means more work. 

"It's more hands-on for teachers," Clay said. "With all the cutting up of words, sorting … there's more instruction in the classroom now. We're not just giving (students) a list to memorize." 

As well, Clay said, teachers must choose wisely the words they have their students study, making sure they choose words with common patterns. 

Yonowitz, who has been teaching at Waterloo Elementary for six years, said the new system, now in its fourth year at Waterloo, took some getting used to.