More than Words, Ep. 9

Active Retrieval for Improving Spelling

A few Lower School teachers and I have embarked on a study of how cognitive psychology and current brain research can enhance the way we teach. One of the fantastic books we have read is Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel. This book focuses on common study habits that we all use that are really counterproductive to learning. Research is clear that cramming, highlighting, and rereading do not create mastery in learning new material.

Teachers have long been frustrated trying to figure out how students can score perfectly on spelling tests each week, but spell the exact same words incorrectly in their everyday writing. It seems that the “practice all week, then test on Friday” way of teaching spelling wasn’t improving a student’s ability to commit these weekly spelling words into their long term memory.

One important take-away from reading Make it Stick was that educators need to start thinking about testing in a different way. We need to stop using it as a measure of learning and begin to use testing as a tool for learning. This was interesting to consider. Testing/quizzing forces the brain to actively retrieve material, which in turn strengthens memory. When students have to retrieve information for a test/quiz, the brain has to reconsolidate the memory, which also makes it easier to recall what you know at a future date.

Taking this new knowledge, teachers in first and second grade have made slight and powerful changes to the way they are teaching spelling, now focusing on the critical role of active retrieval. Students are now asked to ‘show what you know’ on Monday. The teacher makes corrections, and this gives students the opportunity to see what words they already know versus the words they need to continue practicing.

On Tuesday, students participate in a variety of spelling retrieval games. One of their favorite games to play is SPARKLE.

On Wednesdays, students then get to again ‘show what you know’ by taking a low-stakes spelling quiz. This time, students have to self-edit their own quiz with teacher assistance. If a student misspells a word, they have to write it again the correct way. On Thursday, students have to review the spelling rule, and then complete a worksheet that has all of the words listed, but each word has several missing letters.

After a week of active retrieval practice, students are given their last ‘show what you know’ on Friday. This quiz not only has all of the words studied throughout the week, but also includes dictation sentences using words from previous lists as a way to ensure that words are committed to long term memory.

After following this new plan for a quarter, teachers are seeing improvements in spelling mastery and student writing. “It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a big difference.”**

**Brown, Peter C. (2014). Make it stick : the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts :The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,