Direct Instruction: Writing and Spelling

What are the DI Writing and Spelling Programs?

There are four main DI writing programs. These include:

  • Cursive Writing
  • Basic Writing Skills (Capitalization and Punctuation; Sentence Development)
  • Expressive Writing
  • Reasoning and Writing

There are two main DI spelling programs. These include:

  • Spelling Mastery
  • Spelling Through Morphographs

Cursive Writing builds on students' knowledge of manuscript writing to teach cursive writing. Students learn to: name, read, and write upper- and lower-case letters and words; copy letters/words/sentences based on specified rates; and read questions written in cursive and write cursive responses to these prompts. This program is meant to be used in one school year.

Basic Writing Skills includes two remedial programs: (1) Sentence Development and (2) Capitalization and Punctuation. In the Sentence Development program, students learn to: recognize and write sentences; expand simple sentences to form more complex sentences; and combine shorter sentences to form longer ones. In the Capitalization and Punctuation program, students learn to edit and write sentences using 19 basic capitalization and punctuation rules. Both programs could be used in one school year to improve writing skills of students who lack basic writing skills.

Expressive Writing includes two levels: 1 and 2. In Level 1, students learn basic rules of grammar, punctuation, and style. Editing is also utilized. In Level 2, students expand their skills to write a variety of sentences and passages and to edit more complex text forms. Both programs could be conducted in one school year.

Reasoning and Writing includes Levels A-F. This program teaches important reasoning concepts such as classification, deductions, retell, and clarity of meaning in addition to the writing process (including story grammar elements). Each level of the program could be conducted across one school year; levels correspond with grade levels (e.g., Level Arelates to grade 1).

Spelling Mastery includes six levels (A-F). Each level is supposed to be used in one school year; levels correspond with grades start in grade 1. Simple spelling strategies such as learning letter-sound correspondences for regular words are taught before more complex strategies (base words, prefixes, suffixes).

Spelling Through Morphographs (previously called Corrective Spelling Through Morphographs) is designed around the morphemic approach to spelling (focusing on the smallest unit of language that carries meaning). The program is designed to be completed in one school year.

For Whom are DI Writing and Spelling Programs Appropriate?

Reasoning and Writing and Spelling Mastery are programs that are conducted in grades 1-6. They are typically seen in general education classrooms but can be used in resource/self-contained rooms as well for those students who need focused remediation in writing or spelling.

Most of the writing and spelling programs are more appropriate for older students. For example, Cursive Writing is targeted for third and fourth graders. Basic Writing Skills(Capitalization and Punctuation; Sentence Development) is most appropriate for students in grades 6-12 who have at least third-grade reading and spelling skills. Expressive Writing 1 and 2 are typically geared toward students in grades 4-8 who have third-fourth grade reading levels. Finally, Spelling Through Morphographs can be conducted with fourth- through eighth-grade students. These programs (with the exception of Cursive Writing) have been targeted for use with those students in need of remediation.

What are the Key Elements of Writing and Spelling Instruction in DI Writing and Spelling Programs?

Writing and spelling skills are important, particularly given an emphasis on writing mechanics and text production on state assessments. Writing and spelling are closely linked to reading. Further, writing well is aligned with better organization and clarification of our thinking. In fact, those who write and spell well are often judged as more literate than those who struggle with these academic skills.

Explicit instruction. DI writing and spelling programs include explicit and systematic instruction to improve the writing, editing, and spelling skills of students. That is, instruction is focused and teacher-directed. Students are shown what to do by the teacher, have opportunities to practice writing and spelling with frequent feedback opportunities, and engage in multiple opportunities to perform skills on their own over time to ensure skill maintenance.

DI writing programs focus on the dual role of the writer as author and as secretary. Critical thinking is often emphasized. Students learn to write increasingly more complex sentences and to edit their work using more and more editorial marks. Editing checks are often listed to help students include important writing elements. Lesson 9 of Expressive Writing 1 illustrates how a lesson is carried out for remedial writers.

    Mediated scaffolding. Mediated scaffolding is used in DI writing programs. That is, students are provided initial instructional prompts; these prompts are faded over time as students demonstrate proficiency of the skill. For example, in the Cursive Writing program, students learn to write a basic "i" form. Lesson 1 of Cursive Writing is illustrated.

    Phonemic, whole word, and morphemic spelling. Spelling is typically taught in three ways. Phonemic spelling (e.g., c-a-t based on the smallest unit of language--phonemes) focuses on regular words; whole word spelling (e.g., was) involves irregular words; and morphemic spelling (e.g., reborn spelled re and born based on morphographs-the smallest unit of language that carries meaning) are emphasized along with spelling rules (e.g., "You double the final c in a short word when the word ends cvc and the next morphograph begins with v") for later and more complex spelling patterns.

    Phonemic spelling is illustrated in Exercise 1 of Lesson 18 of Spelling Mastery Level A. The focus is on individual sounds-phonemes.

    Whole word spelling is illustrated in Exercise 1 of Lesson 51 of Spelling Mastery. The focus is on the whole word, given that it is irregular.

      Morphemic spelling is evidenced in the word building exercise of Lesson 5 of Spelling Through Morphographs. The focus is on the smallest unit of language that carries meaning-root words and affixes (prefixes/suffixes).

        In addition to morphemic spelling is morphographic analysis where students learn to identify the component morphographs in a word. Morphographic analysis progresses through five stages of difficulty shown below.

          Finally, spelling rules are taught to help increase spelling generalization. For example, students learn "dropping a final e, doubling a final consonant, and changing y to I" rules. A rule exercise is illustrated below.

          What do Sample Lessons from DI Writing and Spelling Programs Look Like?

          Lesson 62 of Reasoning and Writing Level E is shown. This lesson illustrates complex reasoning and writing skills pertaining to inferences.

            Lesson 54 of Spelling Mastery Level D is provided. This lesson illustrates spelling rules, whole word spelling, and morphographic analysis, among other important spelling skills.

            What Format Features Make DI Writing and Spelling Programs Unique and How Can We Use these Features without having These Programs Available?

            There are several format features that make DI writing and spelling programs unique. These include: (a) clear teacher scripts, (b) placement tests and within program assessments, (c) choral (unison) responding and signals, (d) individual turns, and (e) error correction and verification techniques. If teachers do not have access to DI writing and spelling programs, they can still use these format features to enhance other published programs or teacher-developed lessons in the classroom.

            Clear teacher scripts. Clear teacher scripts specify what teachers say (typically noted in color) and do (noted in regular print) and what students say or do (noted in italics). Words noted in bold in the teacher script are referred to as "pause and punch" words. These words should receive increased emphasis by the teacher (e.g., are said louder by the teacher or are said after a pause to stress the word). An example script from Spelling Mastery illustrates the clarity of teacher scripts.

            If teachers do not have access to DI writing and spelling programs, they may use scripts such as these to ensure consistency in the delivery of instruction in the classroom. Instructional assistants, parent volunteers, and tutors would benefit from having clearly defined instructions to provide to students. Substitute teachers would also benefit from clear scripts.

            Placement tests and within program assessments. Placement tests and within program assessments allow teachers to place students in the proper level/lesson of DI writing and spelling programs and to track their performance over time. Students can be skilled grouped based on their performance on the placement test. The placement test from Spelling Through Morphographs is illustrated.

            Within program assessments help determine the efficacy of instruction. Teachers may decide to repeat lessons to ensure firm responding (mastery) before moving on or accelerate students to higher lessons/levels based on their performance.

            Within program assessments occur every day or at regimented points in the program. They include workbook activities and mastery tests. The sample lessons from Reasoning and Writing and Spelling Mastery provided above illustrate workbook activities conducted in the programs.

            If teachers do not have access to DI writing and spelling programs, they can still incorporate aspects of assessment into their daily teaching. For example, they can survey what skills will be taught to students during the upcoming year and assess whether students have these skills or not on a teacher-developed pretest. Further, as teachers provide instruction in the classroom, they can assess key aspects of the lesson to determine if further instruction is needed or if they can proceed to the next lesson. Assessment informs instructional practice and should be used in some capacity. DI writing and spelling programs make it easy for teachers to assess students given that everything is in place-teachers do not have to develop anything. They just need to analyze performance and make data-based decisions.

            Choral (unison) responding and signals. Choral or unison responding increases students' opportunities to respond and to receive teacher feedback. It is far better to have students respond in unison when they are first learning a skill than to call on students one at a time to respond. When choral responding is utilized, students should respond together (like one person said it), respond correctly, and "say it like they know it," responding on signal (described next).

            Signals are used to prompt students to respond together. If we have students echo one another, they may or may not have acquired the desired skill (they may be simply listening to others). The key to signals is to remember the following:

            • If students' eyes are on the teacher, use a hand drop signal. For example, "Listen. h-u-m-a-n. Everybody, what word?" The teacher should have her hand up in the stop position when she is talking and drop her hand when she wants students to respond.
            • If students' eyes are on not on the teacher (they are looking at items in their workbooks, for example), the teacher should use an audible signal. Audible signals include finger snaps, taps with the pencil, or claps that are stated after the teacher provides the directive.
            • If students are looking at the board, the teacher should use a point-touch signal. For example, if the teacher points to the word quiet and says, "What word?" she would tap the in front of the word, evoking a unison oral response from the students.

            If DI writing and spelling programs are not available, teachers can still use choral responding in the classroom. Saying, "Everybody, what punctuation do you use when you ask a question?" can prompt all students to come in together. The teacher may also use various signals in the classroom to evoke student response such as the hand drop, point touch, or audible signals.

            Individual turns. Following choral (unison) responses, teachers should ask for individual turns. The rule of thumb in DI language programs is 85% group responses followed by 15% individual responses. Before individual turns are provided, teachers should ensure that group responding is firm. That is, students should "say it like they know it." Once this is evident and group responses have been performed on a task, the teacher can announce, "time for turns." When time for turns is used, teachers should always use a student's name at the end of the directive. For example, "Spell fresh, Sandy" should be used as compared to "Sandy, spell fresh."In this way, all students are attentive and ready to work! The following example from Lesson 106 of Spelling Mastery Level B illustrates the use of individual turns (noted at the bottom of the format).

              If DI writing and spelling programs are not available, individual turns can still be utilized in the classroom. Again, they should occur after choral responses are provided and when the group is firm (shows mastery).

              Error correction and verification techniques. DI writing and spelling programs have specified error correction techniques. An example from Spelling Mastery is provided.

                As can be seen, the error correction includes a teacher model, an opportunity for students to perform the task with the teacher, an opportunity for the students to perform the task on their own, and a review of the item (called delayed test or starting over).

                In DI writing programs, teachers often refer to built-in edit checks in the form of questions. For example, in Expressive Writing, the teacher could prompt a student when an error occurs by saying, "Does each sentence begin with a capital and end with a period? Please check again." If the student still did not find/fix the mistake, the teacher could complete the error correction: "You need to begin each sentence with a capital letter. (the teacher would point to the mistake). Now show me." The student would be required to fix the mistake.

                If teachers do not have access to DI writing and spelling programs, the following error correction procedure can be used for most mistakes.

                My turn.

                (Show students how to do it).

                Do it with me.

                (Show students how to do it by doing it with students).


                Your turn.

                (Have students do it on their own).


                (Do a starting over/delayed test to start over at the beginning of the activity to ensure that students can demonstrate the correct response).

                For example, the teacher says, "Spell bother." The students say, "b-r-o-t-h-e-r." The error correction would look like the following:

                • My turn. That word is spelled b-o-t-h-e-r. (emphasize the "o" in the word)
                  Let's do it together. b-o-t-h-e-r.
                  Your turn. Spell bother.
                  Starting over. (teacher starts over at the top of the column and reviews bother once again).

                The rule of thumb is to provide a model followed by student practice. A "starting over" should be incorporated as well to ensure that students "have it."

                In addition to error corrections, teachers should also be liberal in their amount of praise or verification statements provided. A rule of thumb is to say, "yes" plus whatever the students said. For example, if the teacher said, "Listen. c-a-r-d. What word?" and students responded correctly, the teacher could say, "Yes. card." Additionally, if they wrote a sentence using a capital letter and a period the teacher could say, "Yes. You started with a capital and ended with a period." Teachers can use this strategy with or without the use of DI writing and spelling programs.