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10 Errors I made as an SWR Newbie — Part Two

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Today I’ll continue sharing the last five errors I made as a newbie SWR teacher. You can read Part One here.

6. I didn’t have the kids “say it while you write it.”

The “sight word” approach to teaching reading involves showing the child a card, saying the word, and expecting the child to visually memorize that word by seeing it repeatedly. Part of the problem with this method is that the word is being presented as a whole. There is no left-to-right reinforcement and no instruction about the relationship between the sounds in the spoken word and the letters or letter combinations that represent them on paper. The process also relies completely on the visual modality. Unfortunately, roughly a third of the students will not understand if you teach through this kind of visual technique alone. These are smart kids; they just don’t get it.

There are many reasons why the spelling-first approach is so valuable. Students literally write their way into an understanding of how the English language works. They write from left to right, they relate each sound in the word to the letter or letter combination representing it, and they utilize four different pathways to the brain for better processing and retention.

When I was a new teacher, I didn’t understand the huge importance of developing the 1:1 correspondence between speech sound and letter or letter combinations. We sounded out the words, and the students wrote them in their Learning Logs, but I didn’t have them say each sound AS they wrote it. As long as they wrote the word correctly, I assumed they understood the process. If there was an error, then my natural instinct was to have them slow down the process and say it as they wrote it, but it never occurred to me that they should have done that from the beginning.

Today my dictation automatically includes that instruction. After I have dictated a new word, I tell the students, “Say it while you write it.” …and I listen for this to happen. The kids that resist the process do not do as well. They make mistakes. They doubt themselves. They falter. I gently insist, and we see their spelling improve.

7. I didn’t have the students writing enough.

My process in the beginning was to teach the new words and to assign sentence writing once a week. That was it. Although the SWR dictation process is powerful, it is not the only way to help the students learn their spelling words. More interaction with those words needed to occur for the kids to truly master them.

Some teachers try to reinforce spelling by having the student write a word 10 or 20 times in a row. This is a meaningless and useless way to teach spelling. It amounts to nothing more than busy work that does not engage the brain for retention. Essentially, it’s a passive handwriting lesson. Instead, we want our children to reinforce their spelling words by writing them (hand to brain reinforcement) and connecting them to language in which they’re found.

I remember hearing early in my SWR journey that a student needs an average of six meaningful encounters with a word before it is truly learned. My students today are interacting with their spelling words all week in fun and varied ways, and they’re writing them as many times as possible in MEANINGFUL ways. After I’ve taught new words, we spend the week interacting further with those words through quizzes, logging them in a Word Bank, and using them to explore grammar, vocabulary, and other areas of Language Arts. We consistently have different kinds of sentence or paragraph writing activities—depending on where they are in the writing process—and I like to finish our week with a fun review game.

8. I didn’t play games enough.

When I was teaching in the classroom or tutoring, I had very limited time to work with the students on their spelling. It didn’t occur to me to spend part of this time with games. When I was using SWR with my own children in our homeschool, I tended to avoid games because of the time it would take. We could easily spend a half hour to review phonograms with a game — having a blast, laughing together, and strengthening our relationships — or I could blitz through a flash card drill in 2 minutes. The vast majority of the time I opted for the blitz. What I didn’t realize was the power of games for children’s learning.

When I opted for the fun reinforcement now and then, I started noticing something. The blitz was definitely more efficient on our schedule, but the children continued making the same mistakes and stumbling over the same phonograms. Once I moved that practice into a game setting, a different part of their brains got turned on. If they couldn’t take a turn until they could read a phonogram card correctly, they would work on actively memorizing it so they could make that little game piece jump three spaces. In other words, they were motivated to actively engage their own memory process. They also looked forward to reviewing their phonograms because they associated those cards with fun and excitement. A positive emotional connection had been made, and they knew they could learn and succeed at the task. If I wanted my children to enjoy the learning-to-read process, those fun encounters were highly effective and exactly what I needed to schedule time for in my lesson plans. This is why we offer several different game packets in our shop.

9. I didn’t reinforce the rules enough during dictation.

When we had a new rule to learn, I would teach it, and we’d work on the reference page as directed. However, I didn’t require the students to repeat the rules every time they came up in new words. I assumed that because the students had learned how to mark the rules that that was an indication of understanding. I was so wrong.

I remember one student I was tutoring named Jamie who knew her phonograms, who followed my dictation methodically, and who knew the dialogue for marking the new spelling words perfectly. Working with Jamie was like clockwork…I thought. After I’d taken my second SWR Seminar and had been reminded to have my students repeating the rules, I started asking Jamie to recite the rules more often during our lessons. She complied happily. One day she was telling me how to mark a new word, when she stopped suddenly and said, “Oh! THAT’s why!” Puzzled, I asked her to tell me what she meant. She proceeded to explain the rule she had just recited and which she had told me how to mark many, many times. It was at that moment that the rule finally made sense to her. Had I not required her to revisit that rule yet again, I would have continued to assume — erroneously — that she actually understood it.

Today, we recite the rules regularly. In the classroom setting, we all join in together when we need to practice a rule, so those who know it well can lead the band and so that those who are still learning it can hear it and follow along. Today there are lots of lights going on.

10. I was inconsistent.

Consistently was not a problem when I was teaching in the classroom since spelling had assigned times during our daily schedule, and I was on a mission to help my special education students learn to read. Obviously my tutoring students had consistent lessons since I was being paid to work with them.

Unfortunately, it was my own children that suffered from my inconsistency. As a homeschooler, one of my biggest struggles was being consistent with lessons. Life or the other subjects that we enjoyed got in the way so often that our SWR lessons started to slide more than they should have. With my quarterly accountability, I would review the previous nine weeks of school and finally realize how spotty I’d been in our lessons. With renewed focus, I’d try to be hyper vigilant and schedule every day only to have to bump the plans when something unexpected came up or when life didn’t match the “perfect” plans I’d written out with such good intentions. Other times I tried the “just take the next step” approach, without any goals or an overall plan of what I wanted to accomplish for the year or even for the quarter. For me, that was the worst method; since I’d failed to plan, I had actually planned to fail.

Once I was back in the classroom, I had the accountability of others to keep me on track, but I also improved how I planned. At the beginning of the year, I looked at how many weeks I had to teach and then factored in how many of the spelling lists I wanted to cover. Between those two pieces of information, I determined what pace I needed to keep, when we’ll need to slow down because of other events (like holidays or school plays) and when we could be more diligent to cover more ground. I also factored in some flex time, which really came in handy when the teacher (me) got sick and couldn’t show up to class. Having the big picture mapped out for me kept me on track but yet allowed me to adjust the week-by-week plans if I needed to. My “Setting Goals with SWR” video series can walk you through the process I use today to plan lessons and what I will cover.

After coaching some other homeschool moms and seeing the progress of my own classroom students with a steady pace, I’ve came to realize just how important consistency is to the learning process. When a routine is set, the students find stability. They know what to expect and retain far better what you’re teaching. Variation can still happen with the activities you plan and the games you sprinkle into your schedule, but the persistent time with the lessons pays off big time. Resistance never dies out completely with kids, but when they know you mean business and you’ll continue despite the occasional interruption, they settle into the groove and start enjoying what they’re learning. They start finding the connections between your lessons and what they encounter in the world of print around them. They notice examples of a rule or a word you’ve recently taught, or they come running to show you a derivative they had thought of on a recent reinforcement activity is in the book they’re reading. Just like with the tortoise and the hare, consistent plodding wins the race.

What tips have you picked up that you want to work on in the coming weeks to improve your teaching with SWR? I’d love to hear from you.

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  1. lmroth  January 31, 2019

    Thanks Liz, Your article is helpful and encouraging to me. Thanks for your transparency. It’s nice to know that the struggles that newbies face are not unique. SWR has been brilliant, mysterious, complex and overwhelming. But now, so very insightful as I’m beginning to make more sense out of it than ever before as I keep plugging away at it. The more I learn, the more committed I feel to keep working at it. It is so systematic and logical. I love that it gives the students the tools they need. Thank you for the YouTube videos and the encouragement. Your input is a real blessing.

    • Liz FitzGerald  January 31, 2019

      I’m so glad that you found this post helpful. Yes! There is much to learn with SWR, but it truly is worth the process. When I started SWR, I actually began to understand my own language. Keep up the great job!

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