Personalized Spelling with TAG

When I was in the sixth grade we took a spelling pretest at the beginning of the year and were divided into leveled spelling groups. Each group would learn a different set of words each week and take a spelling test on Fridays. My teacher was sensitive to the potential embarrassment of students knowing which level group they were in, so instead of using “high, medium, low” or “A, B, C” group names, she gave each group a dog breed. I was in the “chow” group and despite her best efforts it was pretty obvious that we were worse spellers than the “golden retrievers.”

As a kid I built a story for myself around being a “bad speller” that I am still trying to shake off to this day.

When I became a teacher (incidentally, my first teaching job was as a sixth grade language arts teacher) my students expressed a need to practice more spelling, but they were all over the map when it came to ability levels, so what did I do? Leveled spelling groups.

I knew I wanted to move away from leveled groups as soon as I started, after all I didn’t want any of my students to take on the identity of being a low chow speller! So I found a resource on how to use personalized spelling lists. In this system my students were given a blank paper list and were asked to notice when they misspelled words in their writing assignments, find the correct spelling, and write that words on their list. Then, each week, they would choose ten words to study, practice, and take a partner quiz on.

Great idea! A total mess in execution. Here are the problems I had with it in practice:

  • The students didn’t actually bring the paper list around with them and record words they were misspelling. Instead, they would frantically find any words to jot down before the quiz or before I checked their lists, defeating the entire purpose of customized lists.

  • The students were supposed to look up the correct spelling of the word before they added it to their list, but occasionally they were misspelling words on their personal lists, not only defeating the purpose of learning to spell, but it was actually teaching them how to spell incorrectly.

Because of this, I ended up checking each list at the beginning of the week to make sure my students had written down words and they were spelled correctly. With 200 students, it created so much more work for me, and even though I loved the idea of personalized spelling lists, I eventually had to ditch the system.

However, I was still committed to the idea of personalized spelling practice and figured that there must be a way to make it work with technology.

The next thing I tried was using Google Keep as a digital version of the personalized spelling list, and wrote a whole blog post about it. This system worked much better in ensuring the words were spelled correctly, because students were copy/pasting them after they’d been spell checked, and it was much easier to share their words with me in a digital format. The problem, again, was getting students to remember to capture their misspelled words in the moment.

Realizing a perfect solution might not already exist, and feeling empowered after the Google Certified Innovator program, I decided to create my own.

I spent the better part of 2019 designing and working with computer scientists to create TAG, a Google Chrome Extension and personalized spelling list.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Students download TAG to their Chrome Browsers (I had to get permission from my IT department to unblock the extension for our user group, you might have to request the same).

  2. Whenever students spellcheck a word on a Google Doc, Slide, Sheet, or Form, Tag collects that word and places it on the list. That list can be viewed on the extension itself or exported to a Google Sheet.

How to Use it With Students:

  • After students download the TAG extension, ask them to open their spreadsheet, edit the title to include their name, and then share it with your email.

  • Once all your students have shared their list with you, create a folder of all your students’ personalized spelling lists in your Google Drive.

  • Every week, every other week, once a month, or however often you are practicing spelling, ask your students to go to their spreadsheet and choose 10 words that they think they use often and would like to be able to spell correctly.

  • If a student doesn’t have ten new words to spell, you could provide them with a “challenge list,” I often get these from the international spelling bee site.

  • Have your students copy/paste their spelling words into this Flippity Spreadsheet template (full instruction for how to do this are on their website).

  • Provide the Flippity link for students to then practice and quiz themselves on their spelling words.

  • For an assessment, either ask students to submit a screenshot of their Flippity quiz score, or conduct partner quizzes in class.

Beta Mode

TAG is still in Beta, meaning it is the first draft of a product that I plan to fine-tune and expand.

One day, I hope to have an entire integrated platform where students can select words, play games, and be assessed all in one place, but for now Flippity is a good alternative to help students practice their words.

If you have feedback or suggestion on how I can improve TAG, please let me know using this form.

What challenges remain?

Again, this is still not a flawless system and there are challenges I am working through.

Can students intentionally misspell easy words to get those added to their lists? Yes, absolutely. However, if this is a problem teachers could choose words for their students from each list or just for individual students who might not be challenging themselves as much as they could. You could also required student lists get approval early in the week before they become the lists students will learn and be assessed on.

We often mistype words we know how to spell. Yes, and those are added to the list as well. When Google started adding grammar check (blue lines), I adapted TAG so that spelling words would be sorted into one list and grammar into another, but that doesn’t mean simple mistakes don’t happen. I encourage my students to go back to an underlined word and try to correct it manually before using spell check, so that their TAG words are as accurate as possible. Students are also asked to choose ten of their most challenging words from their lists each week and skip the words that might have just been mistyped.

What if a student isn’t misspelling many words, and doesn’t have much to choose from? One day I hope TAG will be able to suggest words for that student to learn based on the level or trends of misspellings they do have, but for now I would offer challenge lists and words for students to choose from if they haven’t collected enough words of their own.

To Download TAG and for more information on the extension, please visit its website here.