A special way with words

Hello!  I know I said I was not going to be adding any more posts to this blog.  However, I am happily aware that there are folks out there using the thing as a resource in informing their own teaching of Real Spelling and Structured Word Inquiry in the Primary Grades.  So I had to share the following:

Lyn Anderson is a pioneer in this work–much more experienced as a teacher of young children, and with a longer experience of Real Spelling.  I could not admire more the intelligence and skill of her teaching.  She is methodical in ways that I rarely am, and the fruit of this energy is evident in her students.  Last summer, Lyn launched a blog of her own–high time!–and I recommend it with enthusiasm.  Lyn has a special way with children, and a special way with words, that you will find deeply inspiring.  Her blog is called beyondtheword, and it is beautifully beyond anything I’ve done.  Go!



This blog has been a fun and fascinating experiment this year.   I have enjoyed the reflection it inspired in myself, and the conversations it inspired with colleagues and parents.  I have been amazed to note that folks have been visiting from sites around the globe:  from Zurich to Accra; from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur.   I am gratified that many folks have been appreciative of the sharing I’ve done.  It has felt somewhat risky sharing what is obviously a work in progress. 

I will not be returning to teaching Grade One in the fall (which kind of breaks my heart, but there it is) and so I am essentially capping this blog.  However, I’ll maintain its existence as a document of my own teaching experiment at this grade level.  I welcome comments and questions (and challenges). 

Thank you to the families who allowed me to share something of their children’s experience in the last year.  And, of course, thank you to the children who, brave knights that they were and are, made any of it possible with their energy and enthusiasm.

The Orthographic Word Wall: Grade One

In previous posts, there have been references to or images of my particular version of the “word wall.”  As I end three years teaching Grade One, I thought I would share a deeper description of the rationale, creation and application of this tool.  I do so because it is one of my few actual innovations (inadvertent as it was); because the students and I think it was useful; and because I suspect there are folks out there who might use and probably improve on it.  As always, this is not prescriptive:  you might try this out exactly as I have, or you might encounter ideas or principles here that you apply in some very different way.  


When I was first thrown into Grade One, and had to spend a weekend creating a primary classroom, I thought “I need a Word Wall.  All those primary teachers have Word Walls.”  But I wasn’t clear what they were used for, or how they were created, and I found the convention of organizing the words alphabetically somewhat confounding.  My Real-Spelling-fueled intuition suggested that there was something fundamentally shallow or limiting in this approach.   I wanted to ensure that my word wall reflected and helped teach solid orthographic principles.  My original conception therefore was simply to organize words by vowel, and so I had only five categories.  This proved immediately unworkable, as the vowel letters so rarely work alone.  Where would <eat> go?  Very quickly, it seemed to make sense to me to organize them by central vowel phoneme, by sound.  I created a structure built around long and short vowel phonemes.  My categories were written on the colour-coded cards pictured above.  (Note:  this works in the First Grade because most of our words have a single syllable.  I am not sure yet what I would do in Grade Two or beyond, but I am going to find out next year, in Grade Four).


Central for me is that the Word Wall be a living document, created collectively and useful to all.   Thus, when the school year begins, it is empty.  (In reflecting at the end of the year, several students said “I remember the first word we put on there”, which I mention because it highlights their sense of ownership).  My first year in Grade One, the thing got a little out of control with sticky notes.  There are areas in my classroom where students are encouraged to independently add words or questions (see this post), but for the “Word Wall”, I came to want a little more control over what words are included.  Because this becomes a resource for the students in their writing and their reading, and because there is a loose bank of common words  that students will regularly want to use in their writing or encounter in their reading, I have attempted to make these the focus.  These are the “high frequency” or “sight” words so useful to developing fluency.  These are certainly not the only words we include, but they fairly naturally become the main body of our collection.

Now, I could probably predict these words before the students walk in the door in September (Dolch, Fry, et al are examples of attempts at such lists), and so the words could be up there already.  Why not?  Then the resource would be available to them from the get-go.  There are a couple of reasons why I prefer to have the students involved in the posting of the words.

Firstly, it allows us to find the words in the context of our reading and our writing.   These are “high frequency” words after all!  They arrive naturally and unbidden:  from their writing; from their independent reading; from their guided reading with me; and from the shared reading we do as a whole class.  Of course, I often guide us toward discussion of words that will be the most widely useful, or concepts that will be the most relevant and generative at any given time.  But the children really do take the lead, and certainly bring questions, observations and discoveries that I had not considered before.

Secondly, it allows the introduction of these words to become platforms for introducing generative concepts, rather than simply about memorizing single isolated spellings.  Many of the words on those lists are function words that don’t carry a great deal of meaning, but they can be used as examples of important orthographic principles in the areas of morphology (meaning), etymology (history and relationships) and phonology (sound representation).  I always tell the story of my first Grade One class who all knew how to spell <the> because they had learned a little jingly song about it, but very few knew there was a digraph, none knew the term digraph, and none knew what phoneme the digraph represented in <the> (though they had no trouble observing it was different than <with>.  By analyzing the word, we are able to introduce several fundamental concepts that were then reinforced over and over–and helped us make sense of other words.   Sometimes these discussions lead to further, longer investigations; sometimes the word just goes on the Word Wall because we agree it will be useful to have it in our collection (because we will “frequently” need to use it in our writing, for instance).

One of the other features of the word wall is that we begin to sort the words into sub-categories, according to what grapheme represents each vowel phoneme. I colour-code these with other stickies (yes, I use a lot of stickies).  Like the words, I choose to add the graphemes as we go.  This becomes another source of discovery for the children.   To hear children exclaim, “We found a new letter team!”  (or, as my own practice has evolved, “a new digraph!”–they are totally comfortable with these terms) is not at all uncommon.  Again, the children are driving the learning, and teaching their peers.  See in the picture below where the word <saw> led us to discover the grapheme <aw> for the short <o> phoneme.  Note that this helps to normalize the reality that this phoneme can be represented by <a> or <o>.  This also helps to establish that though there is complexity, there is also order:  yes, there are a lot of graphemes for long <e>, but there are not an infinite number, and we can learn patterns that help us to understand that this is not random.  (To see this in action, check out the last couple of minutes of this film that Pete Bowers made in my class a few years ago).

IMG_3843Eventually, we find words that don’t fit easily under the headings we’ve got, and have to create more!  These include the dipthongs, and so on.  I have begun to experiment with using the IPA symbols for these, and so far it has been fine.

Finally, not every word gets a big treatment:  many times we simply say “Should this word go on our Word Wall?  Where should it go?”  Having students place it reinforces for everyone the structure of the word, and reinforces the structure of our shared resource.


The Word Wall becomes a collection of data that we can analyze, helping to reinforce and establish patterns and conventions.  For instance, certain patterns arise in the long <a> phoneme.  The children independently began to notice that <ay> always appears in the final position in the base elements we gathered.  Similarly, <ai> never appears there.  This helped to  deepen our understanding of the shared roles of <i> and <y>.

In our reading, the word wall becomes a regular resource.  As children work to decode an unfamiliar word–<draw> for instance–they are now able to scan the graphemes on our wall for <aw>, link this to the phoneme above and have an enhanced shot at pronunciation.

In our writing, the word wall grows as a resource for spelling these high frequency words.  Having included the children in its creation helps them to know where the words are and why.  But it also becomes a tool for figuring out other words.  I can prompt a child to look for graphemes that fit the phonemes they identify orally.  My aim is to have them make reasonable spellings, on the way to accurate spellings.  (Thus, in Grade One, I am delighted to see someone write <rayn>, and hope that further learning will lead to an understanding of why <rain> is the correct spelling).

This all takes practice, of course!  The first form of practice is regular use.  But we had a number of games and activities that involved the word wall.  (The Internet is probably filled with these for more conventional word walls–I expect many would apply to my version).  If you are still here reading, below is a video of my class playing “I Spy”.  Note that some children really do need the practice, and how the whole class gets to practice various concepts as we go.  (Note also how I have trouble filming and teaching at the same time).

Hope this is helpful!  Please let me know if you have any success with this system, and especially if you modify, expand or improve it.


Here are some little video clips from a few of our amazing Grade Ones, spontaneously made after an activity with our Word Wall (about which I hope to add a sort of instructional post in the next week–that’s why I was filming).  We were having a brief discussion about the usefulness of the word wall and I asked the children, “What have you liked about the word investigations we did this year?”   The sound and filming quality are not great–my voice too loud, theirs too faint–so you may need to have fingers on the volume control.  Also, you’ll notice many of the children are a bit, er, droopy–it was late in a very hot day.  What impressed me though, and what I hope makes an impression on someone else out there, is the clarity and precision of these spontaneous comments from these young students.

Abdul:  “I like that we had suffixes and letter teams and digraphs and we could make…all different words up here [indicating our word wall].  And there’s lots, and how we made like a million words up here.”

Olivia:  “I liked the way that we discovered things…that I never knew before.”

Shilo:  “When we discovered homophones.  Because there’s two meanings.”

Sophie:  “I like when we had a word problem and we solved it.  Just like the word <O.K.>.    I really like that you told us the story about it.”   [See this investigation here]

Ahmed:  “I like the vowels.  Because I didn’t know that every word has a vowel.”

Madisyn:  “I liked how every day we discovered a new homophone.”

Abdul:  “I like how we discovered lots of words have stories inside.”

Making words.  Solving word problems.  Meaning.  Stories in words.  Discovering new things.    These are very little snippets.  But it feels very gratifying to have the children immediately reference these concepts, so central to the work we did with words this year.  These are among the tools I believe will carry our able scientists forward in their lifelong exploration of words–or anything else they turn their attention to.  Thinking big, indeed!

P.S.  My unplanned question was sparked by end-of-year blog posts from several other teachers I admire greatly.  Click on these links to see the remarks of older students doing similar work in Switzerland, Malaysia and Massachusetts.  Collectively, these comments form a massive testimonial to the power of engaging deeply with words.  Thank you to these teachers for their ongoing inspiration and encouragement!

Dear Old Grouch

As we were having a last day chat on the carpet about the remembered events of the year, Madisyn exclaimed, “We need to write to Old Grouch about our words we found!”  I confess I’d kind of forgotten, but everyone seemed to agree.  The ongoing investigation was not in itself hugely important, save for regularly reinforcing our grasp of various graphemes.  What struck me was that the children have never met Old Grouch (my dear friend and mentor), have seen no photo.  And yet, his presence in our class was, if somewhat mythological, at the same time real and enduring.  So, we sat about on the carpet with my laptop on my knees, wrote the letter together and posted it–quickest post I’ll ever do!  And so I will add my own thank you to Monsieur Grouch (wherever he may be…).

Dear Old Grouch,

A few months ago, you gave us a challenge.  You asked us to see if we could find words that were made only of digraphs or trigraphs with no single letter graphemes.  We have been keeping  a list, called “Words for Old Grouch.”  Here is what we have found so far:










But the most amazing word we found is the last name of one of our students.  (We know that names don’t always follow spelling rules, but they often do).  Her lovely last name comes from Cree, one of the native languages of Northern Ontario.  It has four digraphs!!


Today is the last day of school!  Happy holiday!  Thank you for helping us to learn with your questions.

Your friends in Grade One,

Cameron, Akira, Orestis, Marjuri, Nate, Olivia, Merrick, Nautica, Hayden, Jadis, Azylynn, Ethan, Reyad, Abdul, Ahmed, Daniel, Darcy, Deanna, Sophie, Shilo, Madisyn and Mr. Caldwell

Following the tracks of words

Happy June!  I’ve really slacked off on the blog in the last while!  But, it’s report card writing time, which is usually when I do lots of neglected tasks, like cleaning my desk…and my car, and my basement, and my driveway…so, I might as well put in a little time catching up here also.

I want to share three recent examples of word investigations that have flowed in the last little while.  I share them as illustrations of several things:

  1. I am not always in control of where our learning goes.  In fact, I have come to appreciate the root meaning of learning as “following a track”.
  2. I am learning too.  A week–a day!–hardly goes by when some question or discovery from the Grade Ones does not confound or surprise me.  I choose not to believe this reflects poorly on me for not knowing everything, but rather that it reflects well on the small humans for being such big thinkers.
  3. Grade Ones are Big Thinkers (but we don’t all have to be thinking about the same thing).  One of the things I like about this investigative approach, and the openness of it, is that learners are able to initiate and follow learning paths that fit with both their interest and their ability.  Thus, we can meet our learners where they are.  This isn’t strictly speaking a “high or low” thing.  Certainly, many of the children are not ready to initiate or pursue some of these investigations on their own.  But I think they all benefit from having access to the shared experience of learningLeading me to…
  4. Many times, the process is as important as the content.  As you’ll see below, nobody’s life will be saved by knowing these words or the stories behind them.  But, I am optimistic that lives might be improved by learning how to learn.


A couple of weeks ago, as often happens, two children brought almost the same question to me within about an hour.  The question was, “We know about homophones [words that share pronunciation, but differ in meaning and spelling] and we know about homographs [words that share spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings], but what about words that have different meanings and the same spellings, but are pronounced differently?”   Madisyn had found <wind> and <wind>, and then someone else–none of us can now remember who–turned up with <close> and <close>.  We brought this interesting question to our whole class circle time (which led to the discovery of a very interesting homophone pair).   close close I didn’t know the answer, and so shared our investigation on Real Spellers, a website devoted to such pursuits where I knew an answer would await.  (You may follow that stream of discussion here even just to see how far such a discussion can travel).  It turns out, these are called <heteronyms>.  For many children, just having this conversation (and the one that follows) was a chance to highlight and reinforce their sense that different graphemes can represent more than one phone  (e.g. see the <s> in the words at left).  For others these may reinforce the accurate spelling of a given word.  For others, understanding of the word is deepened.


Ahmed came to me  with a great question I had never considered before:  “I have seen the word <O.K.> and I have seen it written <okay> but which is the right way to spell it?”  Brilliant!  He even had two books in hand to demonstrate the different spellings.  I confess: the smarty-pants in me immediately thought I knew which one was proper but I also thought, what a strange word.  So, Ahmed and I went off to the Online Etymology Dictionary to see what we could find out.  This is what we found:


oll korrect!”  Hilarious!  Ahmed and I read this together as best we could and chatted about this crazy history.  We have shared it with the class.  I am not sure they really get the story, but there is so much else we get out of this!  We have seen that words can be played with.  (I think they did at some level grasp the irony of us investigating the proper spelling of a word that it turns out is based upon a purposeful misspelling).  We have glimpsed, again, that words have stories inside them, they have history, they came from somewhere.  And, this can help us to understand these words.  (Also, importantly, our teacher doesn’t know everything!)   You may find one or two declaring “Oll Korrect”.


In the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the features of non-fiction text.  I have this little book called Frog and Toad Facts that I love because it contrasts so nicely with our beloved Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel (among the greatest works of English literature).  This has been shared reading, where we are all exploring the same text together, in this case through our cool mounted digital camera, the Elmo.  As we read, two of our tasks has been to keep track of what we learn from this non-fiction text, and what questions we have.  Well, it turns out, toads have poison glands behind their bulging eyes.   And so, What’s a gland?”

I provided what I thought a passable explanation, but then a relatively new thing occurred:  three children–Reyad, Jadis and Abdul, as I recollect–ran to grab our dictionary!   The dictionary is a fairly new resource for us, as the entries can be a bit overwhelming in terms of vocabulary, but they are drawn to the secrets it holds.  I don’t keep dumbed-down “children’s” dictionaries around, though, and you’re about to see why.

So, we placed the dictionary under the Elmo so we could all view the entry for <gland> they had quite capably found.  Predictably, the definition was challenging to make sense of, but then someone shouted out “Latin!”  Now this surprised me a little, and may surprise you.  I couldn’t say for sure that we had ever discussed the presence of Latin in English, but there it was.  So I explained that this was the part of the entry that told the story of where this word came from, and what it meant in its root language.  And so, the root meaning of <gland> is…



It wasn’t until after a conversation with our friend Old Grouch that I thought about my own children’s often-enlarged tonsils, those mysterious, germ-absorbing glands in the back of our throats.  I frankly would have said they looked more like raspberries, but I think “acorn” will do.  And now, they’ve had another glimpse of the wonderful discoveries held in a good dictionary.  (So-called “children’s” dictionaries, aside from having a woefully small collection of words, almost never contain the roots of those words.  The publishers imagine children aren’t ready).


Is the word <gland> core vocabulary, or one of the top sight words necessary in Grade One?  Of course not.  Do we need to know the history of <o.k.>?  Not at all. 

Do we, though, want our children to be actively engaged with the richness of their language?  More broadly, is it important that children learn how to pursue their questions down unexpected avenues?  I think so, on both counts.  

Off to clean my driveway…er, finish my report cards!

Steam Power in the Digital Age

mike_mulligan in holeLast week, Akira and I played a trick on the class that I have to share:  partly because we think we’re really funny; partly because it highlights something wonderful about our school; and, partly because it may help some of you at home to understand why we went on a field trip to see the boiler.


Orestis’s TNT-and-a-passing airplane solution

We were reading a book called Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton, a follow up to another book by her called The Little House.  (You can see three boys enjoying this one in the Gallery–who says boys don’t like to read fiction?)  These are wonderful old stories, and fit nicely with our exploration of community and how communities grow and change.

We had got to the point where Mike and Mary Anne (the steam shovel) had completed their amazing hole for the basement of the new town hall.


Jadis’ elevator solution.

The students had written and drawn some excellent ideas for how they might solve the problem of getting out.  It was now time to find out what idea the author had come up with, through the character of the little boy, whose insights twice save the day.

Why Akira and I think we’re really funny is that Akira arrived at school with a copy of this book translated into Japanese with which he was very familiar.  So, I—with our digital projector that I’d been using so that we could all read the book together—said to the class, “Okay, let’s see what the little boy suggests,” and opened to the Japanese page.  Jaws dropped in surprise, then some children recalled that Akira had said he knew the book in Japanese and correctly surmised this was what they were seeing.  Then… I ran my finger along the Japanese text and read the corresponding English words which were quietly sitting just out of camera view.  Exclamations of “Mr. Caldwell can read Japanese!!” ensued.

Something wonderful about our school is the opportunity to learn from the many children who speak other languages than English.  In our class we have speakers of Arabic, Hindi, French, Mandarin, Spanish, Greek, maybe a little Cree, and Japanese!  I am often struck by how readily these new language learners embrace the structured word inquiry we do.  They are motivated (and reassured, I think) to discover the logic and order of a language so different from their own.  And, they often have things to teach us about our own language.  Our resident Greek speaker, Orestis, has helped us to understand the spelling of several Greek-rooted English words, such as <school> or <alphabet>.    Lately, a number of our students have shared something of their language and country of origin on the daily announcements, which the rest of the class has loved.IMG_3535

After our joke, Akira got up and actually read the Japanese, which was wonderful to hear.  We could see that, like English, the Japanese words are separated by spaces on the page, and that the characters represent phonemes:  we were able to identify the symbol for /m/ by noting which word represented “Mike”.

And so, the reason we went on a field trip to the boiler in the school’s basement is…wait!.  Maybe I shouldn’t tell you, for fear of spoiling the ending of the story for some.  Ask your child.  I’m returning my copy to the library this Friday–go and get it!  Suffice it to say that the children were delighted and fascinated to see that our school is heated with the same technology that drove Mary Anne (in 1939, when the book was written), and that allowed the little boy to save the day.