Steve Wood's
View from the Classroom

Teacher Tools:
A Roll-Your-Own Spelling Program
Fourth in a series on computer tools for teachers.
December 13, 1999




In the dark days when we had practically no budget and seemingly unlimited kids in our special education classroom, we saw the need for a "sure thing" self image builder to get the kids to believe in themselves again and give us a good effort. Most of our students had extremely limited reading skills, but seemed capable, if we could just get them going. Over the years I've found this to frequently be the case, whether dealing with special learners or the general education population.

We also faced a problem with commercial spelling programs (adopted texts). The textbook exercises were too difficult for the kids to read, or required copying the exercises from the book, which by definition my kids aren't very good at. When I taught regular ed, I often found many of the students had difficulty with copying as well.

Whether through superior intuition or just plain dumb luck (I'd personally vote for the latter--every time.:-), we hit upon creating a spelling program that in the beginning followed the regular classroom spelling lists, but used special, limited reading activities. The goal was to get every child at or close to an "A" in spelling!

Our choice for spelling lists has varied over the last six years. We started the project with the nineteen-eighty-something-very-old Scott Foresman program. About the time we had our materials pretty well complete, our school shifted its adopted text to the spelling component of the 1996 Silver-Burdett & Ginn World of Language program. At one point, we almost totally replaced basil texts with non-graded lists from the Project Read program, the old SRA Basic Read Series (SRA:BRS), and Dolch lists. Two years ago, the elementary special ed teachers all gravitated to the Steck-Vaughn 1996 spelling release, which has considerably eased reading (and materials construction) demands. Frequent reader Joe Taylor once wrote, "You have also reinforced my suspicion that Steck Vaughn can be found in special ed classrooms all across America." I also found the Dolch lists to be a great review for my regular ed third grade summer schoolers a few years ago.

Spelling list 12/13-17/99
Steck Vaughn second grade lists 13-18

The roll-your-own program starts with a basic list in AppleWorks. It's needed to cut and paste into other documents, for text-to-speech pronunciation practice, and is an easy way to arrange words your way for later modification (I think the current legal word is "accommodations.") to a shorter list. The list at right only includes the lists where we give the actual test, but we also currently generate lists for Saxon Phonics lists at second grade and Silver-Burdett & Ginn on the fifth and sixth grade level. Using items generated in previous years is an absolute lifesaver. I keep all the current spelling stuff on a zip disk that I would protect with my life. I also frequently back up to the 7500/G3's hard drive, the 8550 Mac file server, and my G3 minitower at home. The file server also runs Retrospect backups three times a week. Am I paranoid about data loss? You betcha! Been there, done that!

We cut many, many copies of the basic list and refer to them as "strip lists." The kids are always free to come into the room and get one or more of their list. We also staple them to less-than-perfect practice tests and assignment notebooks. We also generate 6-week and semester lists to go home to mom and dad. Gee, it's sorta thrilling to know your computer handiwork adorns refrigerator doors all over a two county area!

We begin with making sure the student can pronounce all of their spelling words for the week. Often, the problem with spelling and disabled learners isn't spelling, but a reading problem. If they can't read them, it's difficult for them to spell them. I must quickly add that I've seen some amazing exceptions where kids do accurately spell from memory a list memorized in order that they don't have a clue as to how to read!

One of the things we often do to help our kids is to try to encourage them and their parents to begin studying the list over the weekend. We follow a normal Monday through Friday spelling cycle, but can buy our kids an extra correct word or two just by getting an early start. The pronunciation of the words often occurs on Thursday or Friday of the week preceding the test. When the kids finish or hopefully ace a list, we start right in on the next one.

My assistant and I usually just sit with the kids and do the usual stuff of helping the kids see the sounds involved in their words, or pointing out non-phonetic words (i.e., "one") that just have to be spelled from memory. For several of our kids, we regularly put an AppleWorks copy of their list on our classroom computers for them to use the text-to-speech function to practice and hear the pronunciation of the words.

Trace, copy, abc orderOur first writing exercise for our kids is always tracing and copying the words in manuscript. Sometimes we add alphabetical order to the task. For the younger group, we frequently provide word cards to arrange into "abc order" before copying them to the page. While our older kids are often expected to do all of their assignments in their homeroom in cursive writing, most material in textbooks is presented in manuscript. The older kids also just plain forget how to print, sometimes, so a once-a-week review of printing isn't a bad idea. To facilitate this activity, I actually wrote a manuscript font several years ago that mimics the letter formation we expect of the kids in printing. It's not free, but MSDWT Manuscript is an inexpensive ($5) charityware that is available for both Macintosh (171K) and Windows (111K).

Cursive practice with school fontsWe also do cursive copying practice, using Mountain Lake Software's School Fonts Collection to produce as good a computer generated cursive font as I've seen. It's not perfect, but having tried my hand and miserably failed at writing a cursive font, I have great respect for their product despite its limitations. Either the manuscript or cursive activities could easily be done by hand in about twice the time. That's sorta what computing for educators is all about, saving us time in one area to devote to our kids in some other area. 

Wordsearch keyThere are any number of good wordsearch creation programs available, but my favorite is still Word Find (156K). While we don't wear Brett Helbig's freeware out, we frequently have the kids do a wordsearch for spelling. It gets them associating the correct first few letters with each word, if not the whole spelling. I make the wordsearch grid in Word Find, but cut and paste the grid into AppleWorks. I also add the spelling list so the kids can check off what they've found. On a twenty word list, I can usually get each word into the puzzle four or five times in a 20x20 grid! To do so, when making the word list, just repeatedly paste the list into the word list window.Word Find puzzle options Word Find allows you to choose which way the words run in its puzzle options menu. For beginners with lots of reading problems, we never present backwards spellings, or else we might see "eert" for "tree" on the test. With the older kids, we frequently use all of the directional functions. They enjoy the challenge and have learned to handle their reversal problems. Or, is that "smelborp lasrever?" :-)

Just as there are many wordsearch programs available, there are probably even more crossword puzzle creation programs. I still find Australian Gordon John Stevens CrossWord Express to be my favorite, possibly because when there is a problem, John sits down and writes an immediate update to fix it. The last time that occurred and I found the bug, John had a free update out within 48 hours of my first email to him! When I registered, one shareware fee covered both the Mac and Windows versions. I'm not sure that's still true, but updates have always been free!

CWE Input WindowPuzzle creation can use the input window at right, or you can import just the words and add the clues later, or even import both words and clues. The last one does take a bit of doing! I usually import the word list and add the clues in the "Edit Dictionary" window.

CWE ExportI generally don't use Crossword Express to print my finished puzzles for the spelling or reading programs, although it can do that job acceptably. I let CWE generate the puzzle and use its export function to cut and paste the puzzle grid and clues into an AppleWorks document. I also cut and paste the clues from CWE. I also like to add a word list of the answers to the document. At one time the Windows export function created a better puzzle grid than the Mac version, so I generated all of the crossword puzzles on the Windows platform! While the Windows version remains a bit more stable than the Mac, the Mac export function is now equal to its Win counterpart and the application is stable enough that my Windows version doesn't get much use.


While it takes a bit of work, the finished AppleWorks document on the left looks pretty classy. The CrossWord Express version on the right is definitely usable as well. The kids need to be trained on how to do a crossword the first few times they do one. After that, they just grin and groan and get to work! Or is that "grown?"

While crossword puzzles do address the word meaning issue, I also like to have the kids do weekly context sentences with their spelling words. Good context sentences using a controlled vocabulary are difficult and time consuming to write, but add another dimension to what otherwise might be rote memorization of black and white symbols on a page. The Steck-Vaughn spelling program we currently use has fairly good context exercises, other than the controlled vocabulary issue. To correct that deficiency, we can scan the weekly context exercise into the computer using OmniPage Pro and convert it to editable text to be used in AppleWorks with text-to-speech. I'd love to say we do this with every context assignment at every level, but the actuality is that I do it only when absolutely necessary. It just takes too much time. Our scanner is currently connected to our Mac 8100 which has decided to become demon possessed with constant crashes and SCSI problems. Also, we get a lot of reading mileage out of sitting together at the reading table working through the context stories.

While this is a computer column, let me add a couple of non-computer activities that are worth their weight in gold to us. We frequently have our students do a drill we call "fingertrace and erase." Either the instructor or the student carefully write the word correctly on the chalkboard. The student then uses the index finger of their handwriting hand to trace the chalk image while saying the letter names. It's cheap, quick, and simple.

Sound DeckWe also use movable magnetic letters in a drill the Project Read program called "word building." The student builds the basic word from dictation, such as "hat." From there, either that student or others modify it one or two sound units at a time, going from 'hat" to "sat" to "sit" to "fit," or from "pad" to "pack" to "puck" to "luck." This activity seems to appeal to the younger set.

Master SpellGoing back to technology, we've long used Roger Clary's SpellTutor (450K) for frequent practice spelling tests. We now have a large collection of test files on the server for use by all classrooms. SpellTutor works on our Macs from 68000 chip SE's running System 7.0.1 to G3's running System 9.0. Another program of the same genre is Jay Lichtenauer's Master Spell. While it requires System 7.5.1 and a 68040 chip or better, Master Spell also has many more functions and capabilities and is now free.

There are a couple of related applications that have recently caught my fancy that you might want to look at as well. Word Spell (389K) is a piece of Kurt Kaufman's KKGames, which allows kids to drag letters to form words for Apple's text-to-speech to pronounce. Spell 1.1 (2938K) displays a picture and asks students to spell the word. It then pronounces the word.

While included on most Mac Classic system disks, I thought I'd add a link for Apple's text-to-speech. Under Mac OS X, look in your System Preferences under Speech and the Text to Speech button.

The Downside

Every program and approach to a subject has its downside. Our spelling program is no different. Using the Silver-Burdett & Ginn words was necessary at first, but was a mistake in the long run. It did give some of the kids status with their regular classroom peers, as many of the regular classroom teachers readily adopted using the same activities. We received excellent, but thankfully, gentle feedback from the regular staff which helped us make the activities as effective as we could. The downside was that our kids were often learning to spell words way out of reach for their reading level--i.e., they wouldn't appear in any reader these kids would read for at least a year!

When most of your spelling program is on a zip disk or hard drive, you're in a pickle if disk corruption or drive failure occurs. Regular backups are a must. Along with data loss, the inability to access your information due to mechanical breakdown can put you out of business as well. My recent trial with our Mac 7500/G3 reminded me of this one. And, for those days when your motor (auto or biological) just won't go, a substitute teacher may be unknowledgeable or scared to death of your computerized files.

Your spouse may leave you...and you might not even notice because you're so busy creating spelling activities. John Baughman wrote to me last week saying, "I have spent all the time on my Macs that my marriage will permit, at least for a good while." While John was kidding, I know what he means. When Annie begins referring to my Mac as "his mistress," I know I'm spending too many hours on my Mac. When I was totally writing a replacement spelling program, it seemed that was all I had time to do. It was a relief when we moved to the Steck-Vaughn program as a base and I moved to adding supplemental activities to it. Sadly, spelling averages have seemed to slip a little bit with that move.

Given all the above, I'm not sure I'd ever advocate anyone else trying to totally replace their regular spelling program as we originally did. Whether it's tracing or crosswords or computer drills, our emphasis on doing something in spelling every day probably does more than any one thing to make the program a success. I do hope some of the applications and/or activities above may help in your classroom. In all honesty, we really did just stumble and bumble our way into a program that fit our kids well.

Teaching special education is often a little like riding a horse that has spooked and bolted. You hang on for dear life with and to whatever you can and try to steer a little when possible. We use every trick we can, including, rewards. A perfect spelling test earns a variety of rewards. There's always a special sticker to go on the paper. In addition the kids get to choose a new pencil from our special collection of holiday, NBA, NFL, Barbie, and other "expensive" pencils. They may also opt for something to eat. Since nearly all of my students are sugar reactive, we use fruit and such for edible reinforcers. The regular fruit reward menu always includes bananas plus one other kind of fruit. Various apple varieties such as Granny Smiths or winesaps, and oranges are favorites. On special request, we've had plums, grapes, kiwi, salted in the shell peanuts, and whatever other fruit the local grocery might have on sale. While the rewards do get a bit expensive, they also have added some unexpected results. Several years ago, a tough twelve-year-old spelling achiever brought me his banana and asked, "How do you open this?" He'd never had a banana. Sometimes we don't know how much good we do with some of the little things we provide in the classroom!

You're to be commended for making it this far through the column. I think this one is, by far, the longest column I've ever written. Stop by my classroom later, and we'll give you a banana! Actually, maybe the best reward I can give you are some templates (1.4 MB) to use if you want to add some of these activities to your spelling program.

Templates included in AppleWorks 6, Pages, and Microsoft Word formats:

  • Weekly lists (requires MSDWT Manuscript and Russell Square fonts)
  • Trace, copy, abc order (requires MSDWT Manuscript)
  • Cursive practice (requires School Fonts or suitable alternative)
  • Various lined papers for handwriting instruction and spelling tests
  • Wordsearch (primary requires Moderne, intermediate requires Russell Square)
  • Crossword puzzle (requires Russell Square)
  • Large and Small Flashcards

Fonts used and where to get them:

  • MSDWT Manuscript (171K) - This one is mine, but it's a cheap charityware. There is no demo. The download is fully enabled and includes both TrueType and Type 1. There is also a Windows version available.
  • Moderne - If you have Print Shop, you have this one.
  • School Fonts - The price on some of these fonts will scare you to death!
  • Russell Square - This one is a $50 Adobe font, but look to see if you already have it on an Adobe CD in the Adobe Type Library folder. It is frequently included with Illustrator and PageMaker.

Update (4/28/2008)

Over the years, this column has remained one of the most frequently viewed pages on the MATH DITTOS 2 site. And for years, each time I'd see the site stats, I'd cringe because I knew many of the links were outdated. I made several stabs at updating the links, but always either lost interest or got totally frustrated with the task. I discovered just yesterday that the template file linked above wouldn't decompress properly anymore under OS X! I converted the old ClarisWorks/AppleWorks 5 files to AppleWorks 6, Pages, and Microsoft Word formats (where possible...the flash card templates didn't make it :-( and repackaged them in a new zip file for download. If you have problems with the file, please let me know. But that finally motivated me to take a day and update the links and content as much as possible.

Some of the best software listed above is no longer available. Roger Clary gave up on SpellTutor years ago. Jay Lichtenauer has turned Master Spell loose as a freeware. That's good news for teachers now, but it may also mean that Jay won't be updating his excellent application as much. Brett Helbig's now ancient Word Find still runs on my Mac in Classic mode (under Tiger, Mac OS X 10.4.11), but I can't seem to cut and paste words into it even from other classic apps. Bless his heart, Gordon John Stevens is still updating his excellent Crossword Express application and not charging for the updates!

Note: The same company/author that previously offered SpellTutor now offers Spelling Depot. I haven't tested the program as yet, but it appears to use the computer's text-to-speech instead of recorded spelling lists. It also is available for both Macintosh and Windows. (10/15/2009)

Some of the fonts listed above are no longer readily available at a reasonable price. The School Fonts collection can be replaced, however, with system fonts included on some Macs. I'm really not sure about something comparable on the Windows side. Since really retiring this time, I find I just don't work on the Windows side much anymore.

The Teacher Tools Series

AppleWorks Availability (12/8/2008 update)

I'm always amazed at how many hits some of these older columns still get. I'm also surprised when I check the site statistics and see how many searches there have been for "AppleWorks." Seeing 99 searches last month (November, 2008) for the old, reliable software suite, I realized that lots of folks might be looking to buy a copy of AppleWorks, rather than seeking my questionable expertise on the subject. So I did a Google search for "appleworks buy" and was surprised to see that a few outlets still have new copies available!

Please note that these listings will eventually go bad as vendors exhaust their supply.

  • Hardcore Mac: AppleWorks 6.2 (Don't worry about the 6.2 part. AppleWorks updates to the final version 6.2.9 are free downloads.
  • Hardcore Mac: AppleWorks for Windows - This one is a rare find, but they also are currently charging $149.99 for it!
  • Amazon: AppleWorks 6.2.9 - the last Mac version
  • Amazon: AppleWorks 5 - freaking amazing it's still available!
  • We Love Macs: AppleWorks 6 - a few left - great price
  • Appleworks search results on Amazon - lots still available new and used

And if none of the above work for you, there's always eBay.

And yes, even though I have iWork '08 (Pages, Keynote, Numbers - I even bought the Family Pack.), I still have and use AppleWorks somewhat regularly.

(9/15/2011): Macworld's Christopher Breen reports that AppleWorks is dead (won't work) with Apple's Mac OS X 10.7 Lion operating system!

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All links checked and updated 9/15/2011
©1999 Steven L. Wood