Thursday, July 24, 2008

Spelling in the Montessori Upper Elementary Classroom: Ideas for Better Linguistic Learning

NAMC montessori upper elementary spelling classroom ideas boy writing
For several years, I struggled with creating a spelling program for my Upper Elementary Montessori students. I wanted to build a spelling program that had meaning for the students and not just teacher-created lists of words to memorize.

The first Montessori school at which I taught had a spelling program that was designed around phonograms (a succession of orthographic letters that occurs with the same phonetic value in several words (e.g., the ight in bright, fight, and flight) and spelling rules. The spelling program began in first grade and progressed through Upper Elementary. Spelling was taught three days a week at the same time, with all Lower and Upper Elementary teachers teaching a different level and the students moving to their appropriate group. At first, it seemed like a good idea. The same rules were presented each year, but the lists themselves got progressively more difficult as the students moved up in level. At the beginning of the year, there was a placement dictation (assessment) given and students were grouped by ability, rather than by grade level.

In theory, this seemed to fit the Montessori philosophy of following the child. However, we ran into some difficulties when we had 2nd graders who tested at a 5th grade level and were then put with the rest of the 5th grade, or when a 5th grade student tested at a 3rd grade level. The 2nd grade student felt great, but the 5th grade student felt pretty embarrassed having to go to the Lower Elementary level for instruction. It also became rather apparent that students were not retaining what they had learned at previous levels, nor were they retaining the words they’d supposedly learned over the course of the year. This was proven by their continued poor performance on review lessons and in their writing. Clearly, the spelling program wasn't working.

Spelling in the Montessori Upper Elementary Classroom: Ideas for Better Linguistic Learning

When I started teaching at a new school, a good spelling program became a priority for me. I had firsthand experience of what didn't work, and I was determined to find something that did. The first thing I thought of was the need to incorporate vocabulary from the Montessori curriculum. It is important that students are able to correctly spell words that they find in their lessons and works. Taken from all areas of the curriculum, these vocabulary words offer enrichment and help in their written work. There’s a sense of pride as well as ownership when students are able to spell quadrilateral, parallelogram, hemisphere, analysis, and even Montessori correctly.

Another idea I've used is a list of most frequently misspelled words. These lists can be found in books, online, or by checking your state standards.

One of the best ways to help students “own” their spelling and vocabulary is to create a Vocabulary (or Word) Wall. In my Montessori classroom, Vocabulary Walls are student directed. I cover a bulletin board with butter paper and have pre-cut strips of paper and colored markers nearby. When students hear or see a word that they do not recognize, they write it on a strip of paper, and put it up on the board in their own handwriting. (My students actually remind me that it’s their job to put up words if I start to do it). If a word goes up on the Wall, they are responsible for spelling it correctly. It’s great to hear a student ask how to spell a word only to hear another student say “Go find it on the wall”. Students are free to choose any of these words to use on their spelling lists, too.

In regard to creating spelling lists, I usually assign 5 words per week and let the children choose another 5 themselves. This way, it’s not just an arbitrary teacher-made list. Monday mornings are always fun as the children hunt through the dictionary or the book they’re reading for new and exciting words. Talk about an independent word study opportunity!

NAMC montessori upper elementary spelling classroom ideas girls working together
During the week, I have two ‘teacher assigned days’ and two ‘student driven activities'. The student activities are a shelf-work, which consist of a basket of laminated spelling card choices in the language area, and about 20 different spelling choices from which the students may choose. Some of the words are easy while some are more difficult. If I see that the students continue to choose the easy cards, those cards may be retired from the shelves for awhile. Some examples of spelling activity choices:
  • Write a review of a movie you've seen recently. Include your spelling words in the review.
  • Using a copy of the sign language alphabet, practice your spelling words using sign language. (They really love this one)!
  • Create a cartoon strip. Include your spelling words in the cartoon’s dialogue.
  • Write a pretend newspaper ad to sell something you own. Use your spelling words in the ad.
  • Create a magazine cover. Include your spelling words in the cover’s title and article descriptions.
I think it is important for students to practice their spelling each day. Here’s what our classroom spelling schedule looks like (the only days that are really set in stone are Mondays and Fridays; students may choose to do the remaining work in the order they are most comfortable):

1. Monday – Choose words and write them in your word journal (see below).
2. Tuesday – Choose a card work.
3. Wednesday – Write sentences, a paragraph or a short story using your spelling words. (Underline the spelling word).
4. Thursday – Choose a card work.
5. Friday – Spelling dictation.

If a student misses any words on their spelling dictation, those words are repeated on next week’s list. If too many words are missed, the spelling list the following week is shortened until the previous words are mastered.

A word journal is a student-made notebook of new vocabulary. Each entry has five components:

1. Write the word at the top of the page.
2. Write the sentence in which you heard or read the word.
3. Write what you think the word means? Why?
4. Write the dictionary definition of the word.
5. Write a new sentence for the word.

An example page might look like this:

Word: decorum

Sentence: The room was decorated with balloons and decorum.

Dictionary Definition: Merriam-Webster online: decorum (noun): literary and dramatic propriety: FITNESS
2: propriety and good taste in conduct or appearance
4: plural: the conventions of polite behavior

Sentence: The queen entered the room with great decorum.

When I was a child, I dreaded spelling. As I got older, I thought it was just busy work randomly assigned by the teacher. In fact, I remember getting into trouble for not using my time wisely during spelling because I was “reading” the dictionary for new words, rather than looking up the ones on my teacher-created list. I later learned that a good spelling program consists of words that the students want to learn as well as those the teacher feels should be included.
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Thursday, July 24, 2008.


  1. Michelle,
    We are currently trying to develop a spelling program as well. Remarkably, we have also used the very same resources along with some EPS books and Laidlaw Spelling. Thank you for your tips. We will try to use them in our Environments.

  2. I have been looking for a spelling program that is meaningful to my students as well. This sounds great! I am excited to try this next year! Thank you!

  3. Alexandra, I'm glad I could offer some ideas on your spelling program. Let me know how it works for you next year.

  4. This is fantastic! Thank you for sharing.


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