Schools try to sharpen spelling, handwriting Teachers get guidance with revived concern for these basic skills

July 31, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When Melissa Swecker reads the writing of elementary school students, she knows which areas will be among the biggest problems -- spelling and handwriting.

"We lost spelling and handwriting when the whole-language philosophy came in," says Swecker, a fourth-grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary School in Middle River. "You almost felt like you were doing something wrong if you took time out to teach those areas."

But in August, Baltimore County elementary school teachers will start hearing a new message: Not only is it OK to teach spelling and handwriting -- it's mandatory.

No longer will it be acceptable for children to leave elementary school with sloppy cursive and rotten spelling skills. Instead, county educators are prescribing which skills students need to be taught and how long teachers are expected to spend each week on those topics.

For example, the new guidelines call for teachers to spend 60 to 75 minutes a week on direct spelling instruction for second- through fifth-graders, including regular reviews of common letter patterns and weekly spelling tests.

The new handwriting manual lays out everything from the proper way for students to draw lines and circles to the correct position of the paper for right- and left-handed pupils.

"We're sending a clear message to all teachers," says Patricia Hoge, the county school system's supervisor of elementary language arts. "All teachers taught spelling and handwriting, but I don't think we had consistency across the schools."

The new handwriting and spelling guidelines mark another step in the district's movement under Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione toward more consistent instruction of basic skills in elementary schools.

Test scores have risen since Marchione began the district's phonics-intensive early-reading program almost three years ago.

Baltimore County educators also have revised the district's elementary writing curriculum, putting together a 345-page resource guide laying out how children should be taught to write everything from letters to essays.

The writing guide is accompanied by a 45-page summary of the county's spelling program and a 25-page handwriting booklet.

The spelling book includes lists of the 25 most frequently misspelled words from first through eighth grade. Some words -- such as "too," "their" and "there" -- appear on almost all the lists, while "friend" and "said" tend to be misspelled by younger pupils.

In July, two teachers or administrators from each of the county's 100 elementary schools spent two days in a conference room at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital learning to use the guides. ** They, in turn, will lead training sessions for the other teachers in their schools Aug. 21 -- five days before students return to class.

"Teachers are going to love this," says Karan Bevers, a fifth-grade teacher at Baltimore Highlands Elementary School in Lansdowne. "We've been asking for years for some consistency and direction. Teaching writing and the skills that go with it are difficult things."

The new guides replace years -- if not decades -- of county teacher manuals and revised curricula. Some teachers report having bookshelves filled with binders representing periodic updates, creating confusion as to what was required to be taught and what was optional.

"Finally, there is a single, concise guide that lays out the teaching of writing," says Nina Nozemack, a third-grade teacher at Pinewood Elementary School in Timonium. "We don't have to go through seven or eight guides and pick out the best parts of each one."

The writing guide calls for students to have portfolios of written work that follow them through elementary school. Every grade ++ level has required compositions, ranging from a two- to three-sentence story for first-graders to a business letter for fifth-graders.

Teachers will be able to track the quality of their students' writing, spelling and penmanship.

"Every teacher will know exactly what their students were taught in the earlier grades," says Jonna Hundley, the county's coordinator of elementary language arts. "They'll know where their children need extra help."

The new guides still give teachers flexibility in instruction. But the minimum guidelines give teachers far more direction about what children are expected to know.

For example, weekly spelling tests should illustrate common patterns in the English language, rather than be used just to teach children whatever words are related to that week's social studies topic.

"Sometimes, teachers use spelling tests to reinforce other lessons, like if they're studying medieval times the words on the list will be related to that," says Roberta Bukovsky, the county's director of elementary education. "The spelling tests should be used to reinforce the basic principles, which will help students become more successful spellers."

Second-graders ought to have 15 to 20 minutes of cursive instruction three to five times per week -- and they should continue practicing handwriting through fifth grade, according to the new guidelines.

"It's great to see them telling us that we're supposed to teach handwriting," says Linda Noel, a fifth-grade teacher at Sandalwood Elementary School in Essex. "I know it's something the children need to do better, but it hasn't been clear that we're supposed to spend a lot of time on it."

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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