I am racing down the highway, traveling from Phoenix, Arizona to San Diego, California. Jagged mountain peaks, desert fauna, the Mexico/California border fence and periodically a town provide a backdrop to this trek. Not too far into California a sign grabs my attention with the Calexico. I announce, “Cal –ex –ico,” alerting my traveling companions to our whereabouts. Jon is my youngest son and a soon-to-be ninth grader. He is always ready to correct me and states, “We are approaching Cale–I-co.”
The teacher in me takes over. “Cal-ex-ico, Jon. Think! Look, check out the sign, it is a combination of California and Mexico, and it’s a border town.” “Oh . . .right . . . Are you sure? I see.” is Jon’s muffled response. Jon’s misunderstanding has made my mind wander. The word geek in me takes over. I begin to ponder his decoding and visual analysis skills. I consider, “What is he looking at, noticing, and remembering?”
Driving, wondering, and soaking in this perpetual panorama, my mind drifts off. I think about school and begin to analyze my word study system. My thinking changes into questions.
What do you look at?
Why do you notice this feature?
What do you recall?
Why does this stick in your mind?
What vocabulary do you use for observations and insights?
Word Observations are cornerstone lessons in my classroom, and at the heart of my word study system. I begin each spelling cycle with this activity. Word observations help children learn about the visual nature of words, connect phonemic knowledge to words, develop a vocabulary to think about and discuss words, and notice spelling patterns.
Word Observation is a short, focused activity. Like all of my focused word study lessons, it lasts approximately 10 minutes. Word observation lessons are structured in a shared learning format. I present my students with an exemplar word. Exemplar words clearly illustrate a spelling concept, anchoring student’s spelling knowledge. Students copy the word. Then they observe, discuss, and record their observations. I bring closure to the activity by dictating a sentence that includes a word or two that has the same spelling feature.
Lessons begin by focusing students’ attention. I guide students to tune in, orally sharing the word we will observe. Children repeat the word with me, and then the group restates the word chorally. I want children to develop clear articulation of words. This helps the English language learners who are a large percentage of my class. In intermediate grades I often use curricular vocabulary. Helping children learn to tune their ear and eyes into key vocabulary supports listening, reading, and writing in content studies. Repeating the word helps students connect oral language with visual symbols, developing phonemic knowledge.
The learning begins when I write the word on chart paper. I like to use chart paper, but smart boards or LCD projections will also accomplish this task. Once the word is written I read it smoothly. Children are prompted to read the word together.
“Today we are going to write and look at the word big,” I tell kindergartners. “Say the word big with me — big. Say the word smoothly and listen to the end sound.” My students are now learning about the end sound of words.
Next, children copy the word. It is important that children are saying the word to themselves by whispering or saying it out loud while copying. This helps them to continue to connect letters with letter sounds. Children neatly record the word and later their observations in word work notebooks (grades 2-5) or wipe off boards (grades K-1). Slates, magna doodles, or paint and write programs are a few alternative options for independent practice.
The physical act of recording the word is key. I do emphasize handwriting and consistent letter formation. I am trying to help children focus on visual information, noticing and remembering patterns, and connecting what is seen to phonetic knowledge.
“Today when you are neatly copying bottle [the exemplar word used for syllable doublet] into your word work notebook, I want you to write it syllable-by-syllable,” I tell third graders. “Make sure you say the word to yourself, checking that it looks right.”
Next, we have a short, shared discussion focused on spelling features. I have kids turn and talk. This is brief taking only a minute or time or less. Children help each other notice spelling features, including some that may have been overlooked by the whole group. Shared discussion rolls into a quick write for second- through fifth-grade students. They quickly record their observations. Kindergarten and first graders orally report back to me. I ask them to share what their partner said, coaching their listening and speaking skills.
While we debrief as a whole group after partner discussions, observations are shared and my role shifts. I restate observations, clarify confusions, and use specific spelling vocabulary terms. I point out features within the exemplar word and write them down. Shared writing is used to create an anchor chart about the features in the beginning of the year for all students, and these anchor charts continue all year long in grades K-1. By Thanksgiving anchor charts are made during planning time for grades 2-5. I want to get to the final step, remembering, more quickly as the year progresses.
I use a dictated sentence to assess what kids have remembered. I dictate a sentence to my students that has a word or words that have the same spelling feature as the exemplar word. Students listen to the dictated sentence.
“Today you are going to write a complex sentence that has a word with the same spelling features as today’s exemplar word evaporate,” I tell fifth graders. “Listen and repeat after me.” I dictate my sentence. “Animals that hibernate during the winter, expend energy fattening up. Now you say it.” I prompt the group to repeat the sentence chorally. If it is not stated correctly I go through this process again.
Children then record the dictated sentence in their word work notebook. I observe students writing. Students that need help I can guide individually or in a small group. When students complete the task I have them read their writing. I can provide immediate feedback if necessary, or if I notice a pattern of errors I can wait until the group has completed the task to provide feedback.
Learning to look at words, notice features, remember those features, and then apply this growing knowledge are independent habits I want students to develop. Word Observation is an activity that asks kids to look, notice, and then apply learning to future reading and writing.