How to Get Your Students to Transfer Word Work to Writing

teaching Oct 17, 2018

“My students spend all this time on word work and they still spell everything wrong in their writing! They aren’t transferring their phonemic awareness training and spelling words to their real work.”

Sometimes it seems like we do all this phonemic awareness and word work prep to get it to be memorable for our students, and they STILL struggle with transferring the skills and knowledge. This is not a new dilemma. Teachers have struggled with this issue forever.

As long as we teach spelling and phonics only in isolation, transfer of these skills will continue to be an issue. There are teachers that effectively teach all of their spelling and phonics inside of their writing lessons and conferring. It takes great planning, practice and skill to do so. I would call it the gold standard as it’s the most efficient and effective way to teach these things. But, it’s not the only way.

Here’s the thing. Whether we’re working on a plan toward that super efficient method or just need to make it work with what we’ve got, we can continue teaching lessons for phonemic awareness and spelling outside of writing. However, we have to take the time to help our students do the hard work of transferring that knowledge into real writing as they write or else it’s all a waste of time.

Skills in isolation will stay in isolation unless we teach the transfer.

Sure there are a few students that will just make the transfer on their own. But, most students will not. Additionally, telling our students to make sure they spell their words correctly in their writing doesn’t count. Ordering students to do so is not effective. Students will either spend way too much time worrying about their spelling at the expense of their writing or completely ignore the order.

So, how does the transfer work?

It all starts with how we’re teaching phonemic awareness and spelling. Teaching students how to hear sounds, stretch and blend, recognize alternate spellings and use meaningful rules and tricks to remember is essential. Using as many senses as we can reasonably get into our teaching will make a difference as well.

We need to use our mini lessons in writing to teach the transfer. Modeling how we figure out words as we write helps student transfer those skills. As we model writing, we can model writing words we know but struggle with recalling. Additionally, we need to model how and when to just leave a word the way it is and fix it later.

Walk beside students with questions and suggestions as they struggle through trying out these strategies on their own. Students need to struggle a bit with their words when they write. This is key to transferring what we’ve taught them. Practicing hearing the sounds and making mistakes that can be fixed later is a meaningful and empowering process. Our students need to be focused on helping themselves, not relying on an adult or a word wall. Those are crutches. We need to remove the crutches and let them wobble about a bit. The transfer will seem to take more time in the beginning, but in the end it’s faster, longer lasting and sustainable.

Here’s an example of how too much help hinders growth.

When we first moved 2 years ago, I used my nav on my phone to help me get around. Sounds like a smart idea, especially for someone specially challenged, right? Well, it was for a bit. But, a year later I was still having some struggles getting around without it. I finally realized I needed to wean myself from the nav to help my brain create a mental map of the area. I started pulling up a map on my computer before I had to go anywhere and looking at the route. I planned my trip, made sure I left myself extra time and off I went. Keeping my phone handy just in case, I grappled with my growing mental map to find my way. Within a week, I rarely needed any help getting around within 20 miles, and within a month I had the outlying areas firmly in my mental grasp. Why? I created a system to help me be successful while I struggled through the process.

This is what we need to do for our students.

I train my teachers in how to teach students phonemic awareness and spelling in a way that helps them be more successful and transfer the information as they struggle through in their writing. In essence, we’re helping students create a mental map of letters, letter groups, sounds and words.

We need to back off on:

  • writing tricky words on the board

  • putting up word walls

  • spelling words for students

  • giving students just a few words to fill in on a sentence or paper

The Blank Paper Problem

There is a lot of pressure out there for student work to look perfect. I believe that’s why so many teachers turn to worksheets, framed sentence starters, writing tricky words on the board, word boxes, etc. However, perfect isn’t reality. We’re deluding ourselves with prefect looking work into thinking our students know more than they do. Real learning is messy stuff.

Hello, reality. Goodbye, perfection.

Get a plan in place and make the big, scary leap to blank paper and student struggle. It’s time to give our students blank paper for their writing work and have at it. That’s what real writers do. You heard me right. If we want our students to be real writers, then we have to treat them like real writers. Even Kindergarteners should be given blank paper by November. [Yes, I’ve spent plenty of time in my career as a kindergarten teacher. With the proper prep, they’ll amaze you.] If we prepare our students well with the right tools and skills, our students can absolutely do it. Not only that, I know from experience students will rise even higher than they have before.

“As long as we hand students crutches and convince them to use them, they will hobble about on crutches. It’s time to take away the crutches and let them take steps toward independence in their learning.”


Teach joyfully,



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