10 Errors I Made as an SWR Newbie – Part One

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The year was 1991, and I was teaching in a Special Education classroom for children with speech and language delays. When I considered how my K-3 students were doing in reading, I shuddered. The Whole Language approach our district had adopted was failing not only most of the students in the school but especially my precious language-delayed students. I desperately needed another approach.

I had recently been exposed to the Spell to Write and Read program (then called Teaching Reading at Home) and realized it was exactly what my students needed. I got my hands on the materials as quickly as I could, gave myself one week to study up on it, and then jumped in with all I had. That year ALL of my students made huge strides in their reading and writing abilities, some even scoring above grade level in reading and being moved to the regular classroom the following year.

That first experience led me to where I am today, pouring my heart and soul into helping other educators use this amazing method for teaching Language Arts. When I look back on my first couple years using SWR, I realize that I definitely made some mistakes, mostly because I was barely one step ahead of my students on the learning curve. Here are the top ten errors I made as a newbie SWR teacher.

1. I didn’t read the phonogram cards or listen to the recording.

I was learning on the fly. Other than looking at the back of the phonogram cards for the sounds the new phonogram said, I didn’t read anything else. How could I? I actually learned every single phonogram as I held up the card and presented it to my students. They were watching me, listening, and repeating right after me. I didn’t have time to actually read the instructions (cough, cough). Back then we had a record of Mrs. Spalding reading the phonograms, not an app or CD like today. I didn’t even think of listening to the recording; I could read dictionary markings, right? Wrong! I taught several of the phonograms incorrectly and didn’t understand the rules because I didn’t study the very tools I held in my hands.

2. I didn’t build my own log first.

This didn’t occur to me until about 2 years after I’d been using the program. I was tutoring students after school and had to open my book to a new list every 30 minutes when the next student sat down with me. One night I remembered that in Wanda Sanseri’s seminar she had recommended that we build a Master Teacher’s Log as a way to work through word list. Once I built my log, I had a solid understanding of the way the program worked. Not having been taught this way, I needed to unlearn the faulty phonics I had been given as a young student. Working through my own log helped the English language become clearer than ever before. It would have saved me so much time and effort had I done that from the very beginning.

3. I didn’t ask for help.

A brand new homeschool mom had introduced me to the program, but I was “the professional” teaching in the schools. My pride kept me from going back to her for help. That homeschool mom could have cleared away much of my fog had I only asked. I taught the program for six months before I even attended a seminar. I sat in that class beaming from ear to ear because the phonograms, rules, and process finally made sense (see #1-2 above).

I’m not sure why I didn’t go to the seminar when I first decided to use the program—and there was one not far away that very weekend—but I know I’m a better trainer today because I understand what it’s like to get the materials and not know what to do. 

Today we have so many resources available to SWR teachers that weren’t available to me 25 years ago. We have an amazing and active Yahoo Group where people can ask questions, a YouTube channel with helpful demonstration videos, and almost 20 Endorsed Trainers providing seminars across the U.S., Canada, and even internationally. Trainers like myself maintain Facebook pages with encouragement and tips and where questions can be answered, and in 2015 I completely redesigned my web site to provide clarity and help for those either just looking into SWR or just getting started. Probably the greatest help anyone could ask for is the classroom or homeschool teacher you already know who is using the program. Help today is only a click, a phone call, or a simple request away.

4. I didn’t have the kids dictate the words back to me.

Since I was the teacher, I thought I had to do all the work. I repeated the entire dialogue on my own with the kids barely verbalizing anything. I didn’t understand that they needed to be driving the dictation, sounding it out while I wrote it on the board, and teaching the word back to me. 

Now I understand that the more exposure the student has with the word, the more likely he will retain it. Picture the process with me. You just taught the word with the student and discussed any unexpected phonograms or “think to spell” with him. He has written it correctly in his book. Now he needs to read it back to you and review what he just did. When you have him dictate the word back to you, syllable by syllable, sound by sound, it helps cement this word more firmly in his head. Many times my student went through the process of analyzing a word and getting it in the book, but it wasn’t until he dictated it back to me, with my writing it on the board, that a double consonant or a special part of the spelling clicked for him.

When I have the students in my seminars take dictation from me, they say after a couple lists, “This is so easy!” When I dictated the words, I was guiding them, asking the right questions to lead their thought processes–all they had to do was follow. Ah, but when I have them practice being the teacher, they find that it requires more thinking than they first thought. When they dictate it back to me or when they have to teach it to someone else, much greater learning happens. The same is true with your children. When he has to remind you to add that silent final E or the double L, it is a reminder to himself as well. The saying is true: We learn best what we teach to someone else.

5. I didn’t quiz daily.

I thought the kids had to grasp every concept the first time I introduced it. I failed to recognize the stages of learning and that we all need regular repetition for ideas and concepts to sink in to the understanding and application levels…and then we probably need even more repetition because we all still forget. I had my students reading the cards with me almost daily, but I didn’t have them consistently writing the phonograms from dictation. Learning the phonograms has to happen in both directions (decoding and encoding) for the students to be able to use them effectively for both reading and spelling. Now I include regular phonogram card review and a quick quiz at the beginning of each lesson.

Read Part Two here

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