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.
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.
"In the beginning it was more work," she said. "It's much more hands-on.
"But now, it's just sort of how we do things, and the benefits certainly outweigh the workload. … The meanings go much deeper for the students — there's a real carryover into their writing."
To help teachers adapt to this new method, Clay said, the county has done "a lot of professional development of teachers in the last five years."
Trail, one of 16 reading support teachers in Howard County, is creating a website for teachers to use as a resource on word study. She also leads workshops on the approach.
As for parents, accustomed to their children coming home with lists of words to memorize, they typically are told about the new system when their children start elementary school. Elementary school is where parents are most involved with helping their children and where most of the basic spelling instruction occurs.
At Waterloo, Trail explains the new approach to parents at the Back-to-School night at the start of the year. "It's different, not what they're familiar with," Trail said.
"We have to educate the parents as to how we do this," Clay said.
Other schools take similar tacks, though, as Clay noted, some schools (like Waterloo) are further advanced in using word study.
She said some schools still use the more traditional method of teaching spelling. However, she added, "we encourage schools to use the new approach, and common core standards definitely support this approach."
Nationally, feedback on the Words Their Way approach is largely favorable.
A 2007 review of the book on the website K12reader.com, which highlights programs that supplement reading instruction in the schools, called it a "great find for any teacher" that lays out "a comprehensive program to implement effective spelling, vocabulary and phonetic instruction to improve literacy and writing with any student."
An assessment of a pilot program for the curriculum in the Arlington County, Va., school system several years ago found the pilot improved students' reading and said teachers "plan to use (it) again next year."
County educators say the new spelling regimen is working here.
Michelle Leader, principal at Waterloo Elementary, noted that teachers now use two weeks to teach sets of words rather than one. That and the focus on letter patterns, she said, "has really bridged the disconnect" that prevented young students from fully learning words and their spelling.
"We think it's made a big difference in the way kids spell," Leader said.
Trail agreed. "We've slowed down the spelling instruction and gone deeper … to make things stick for kids," she said. "We see students using a greater breadth of words in their papers."
Heather Gifford, Alayna's mother, is also a fan.
Besides Alayna, Heather has another daughter, Jocelyn, in kindergarten at Waterloo. She said the new spelling approach was explained to her and her husband at the school, and they're happy with the results they've seen with their daughters.
"They're spelling words you wouldn't think they would be at seven and five," she said. "I definitely think they're doing a good job teaching it."