Supporting Student Achievement in Writing
Stan and Sheila Hartzler
Students struggling with writing skills should have support from dedicated school programs involving spelling, cursive writing, and intensive phonics*.
School districts with low achievement in writing and lacking such programs should consider including them, for two reasons.
Varied Contexts Principle
The first reason involves the learning principle of varied contexts. The example that follows here features arithmetic fractions, not writing.
When a student encounters fractions in music, counting change, ruler measure, cooking, and sports statistics, the varied situations or contexts help develop and strengthen understanding of, and comfort with, the general idea of fractions.
Phonics and spelling (and, later, cursive writing) provide alternative contexts for the study of words. Automaticity with word recognition and recall is enhanced, along with confidence to tackle unfamiliar, multisyllabic words.
Student comfort with words makes both reading and writing easier. Students will shy away from using an efficient word when the spelling thereof is difficult and intimidating.
For example, a student who can’t spell scissors may be inclined to substitute the phrase, “that paper cutting tool.”
Opponents of dedicated spelling programs may argue that the advent of spell-checking and auto-correcting software, and electronic dictionaries for classroom use, diminish the need for student learning of spelling skills.
While such technology is indeed powerful (and assists in some cases for improving the writer’s spelling), situations arise where either such support is unavailable, or is unfriendly because of spelling oddities. In this way, spelling skill is important in and of itself.
Merits of Spelling; Merits of Cursive Writing
The spelling oddities mainly involve words with silent first letters. If a new oil lease named Psalm 23 is telephoned to a dispatcher, entry or retrieval of the name in a computer file will be difficult if neither the caller nor the dispatcher can spell psalm.
Other common words with similar issues are hour, honor, honesty, homage, and hors d’vours. One dictionary lists three pages of words beginning with ps and another full page of words beginning with pt.
Spelling is also needed to practice distinctions between homophones, such as their and there, and too, two, and to.
Cursive writing is also important for its own sake. Reading other people’s cursive writing is needed, including historical documents. Cursive writing also makes note-taking easier.
Like spelling, cursive writing contributes another context for processing words. Beginning at least in third grade, students should have a weekly list of spelling words to be written cursively each day.
Early each day, the list should be written cursively twice. Later that morning, the list is written twice more, and again at three more intervals during the rest of the school day.
At the end of the week, the spelling has been learned — not “memorized.” The learning may also be practiced orally, in class and at home with family members.
Importance of Automaticity
The human mind has limits on how much attention may be given at one time to any task or group of tasks. If a student is attempting to write thoughts but is distracted from expressing thoughts by spelling or handwriting struggles, writing thoughts will be more difficult.
On the other hand, if spelling and handwriting are automated, ideas will flow into writing more easily. Anyone experienced in coaching academic teams knows the value of fluent handwriting skills for freeing attention, allowing focus on expression of ideas being written.
* In contrast to “gradual phonics”, true phonics or “intensive phonics” teaches all of the main sound-symbol relationships intensively from the very beginning of reading instruction.
From individual letters, blends of two or more vowels, blends of two or more consonants, and vowel-consonant blends are practiced. This practice is independent of use in words initially. The practice is daily and cumulative.