Making Differentiated Spelling Lists Work

I'm slowly crawling out of my hole. This year has been a doozie so far. We've learned so much and have come so far already, but my blogging will still be sporadic for awhile.

One thing I've never be proud of has been my spelling practices and routines. And much of it is due to our limited time and high demand. Those two things don't go together. But with some creativity and collaboration from others, I think this is the year where we will see a lot of improvement with our spelling. Here's how I got it rolling this year in 5 steps!

But first... our reality.

We literally have 10 minutes each day to devote to spelling. And that includes a major transition where students are trickling back in from their intervention groups around the building. So that means, I can't count on having all 10 minutes for instruction because they aren't all back at the same time. We (my co-teacher and I) agreed to do some shifting in another part of our day to give us time to introduce and teach new lists. I'll explain more of this throughout.

At the beginning of the year, I gave 2 assessments. One was the Words Their Way spelling inventory. This is our adopted curriculum. However, I noticed after the first word (bed) that there were some students who were not ready for sorts. So I gave another assessment that I created. I found a list of commonly misspelled sight words for 3rd grade and picked 31 of them. Why 31? I don't know, because I couldn't decide on just 30. So we go with 31. I had students take this sight word assessment too. And the results were very telling. Only 3 students scored 85% or higher on this assessment. More telling, over half of my class could spell less than 60% of the words. So I decided to start the year off with two lists: one sight word spelling list and one sorting word list. Students were placed in a group based on these two assessments.

So tip one: START SMALL! I could easily have 6 groups to meet students at their exact needs, but that would be a managing nightmare, especially at the beginning of the year. We are starting with just 2 different word lists and after we get into routines more, I will start to introduce another list to further my differentiation. This was the step that often intimidated me. But doing two lists is better than one in terms of differentiation, so we will celebrate that and continue on.

Next, I made sight word lists. 13 of them to be exact. Each with 15 words. We started on list 1. I also used the WTW books to find a sort to start with my other group who have sight words pretty well mastered. Both groups will also practice 1 prefix and 1 suffix each week.

Here's how it actually is rolled out then. On Mondays we have library time at our school library, so our writing instruction time gets cut in half. We decided to use the 2nd half of our writing time on Mondays for our instruction on the spelling lists. My co-teacher takes one group and I take the other. We review the list: Sight word list discusses multiple meaning words on their lists (their vs. they're) and practice reading each word. Sort word lists discusses sorting rule and patterns. Both groups also learn and record their prefix and suffix for that week. We write the prefixes in green and suffixes in red. We make a map to record examples. This takes 20 minutes per group. However, when there is two teachers, we each take one group.

Tuesday-Thursday are spent on individual practice during that 10 minute chunk. Since students trickle in, they are allowed to get started as soon as they get back. They take out their word work folders that contain their list and spelling contract that changes weekly and their notebook where they practice each week.

The contracts are done each week. I set a goal point system. They choose activities to practice their words. Most of the practice can be completed in their notebook or on paper that I've laminated to reuse or use in Smart Pals so I don't need to make copies of that each week too. I have a contract for sight words and the sorts so that it pertains to the type of work each group needs to do.

On Fridays, we test! It was tricky our first go, but it will only get smoother. I just alternate lists when reading aloud. Each group has 15 words (I pick 15 out of the 25ish from the sort; they don't know which ones I'm going to pick) Eventually, I will have the sort group do partner tests, where they quiz each other. After the tests, I grade them and hand them back. Then, they need to write down any words they spelt incorrectly on their index card (with a sentence). Now, each time they are writing during writer's workshop, they grab their card and use it as reference so they can practice writing the words correctly. Each week, they will continue to add to it so I also see which students continue to struggle with their sight words or sorts practice.

Then we begin again! I've even planned out alternative schedules for if we don't have school on a Friday or Monday to fill our time with other meaningful practice. Just having that laid out gives me piece of mind.

How do you manage spelling in your room? Do you follow a program or create your own? How much time do you dedicate to it? I'd love to hear!



  1. Love this! Is this in your Teachers Pay Teachers store? What list did you use to assess commonly misspelled words? Thanks.

    1. It isn't yet, but I'm working on it (just don't know the timing- totally swamped haha). I just found a list of commonly misspelled words for 3rd grade in terms of sight words and picked the words I wanted. When I post this to TpT, I'll add that in too. :)


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