It would be hard to describe how much I've gotten from the assigning of spelling sentences for my students to write each week. As tired and underappreciated as this activity may seem, it's been a miracle worker in the area of writing improvement over the years.
Here's an excerpt from Chapter 6: Homework Made Easier from my new book, Eight Great Ideas that relates to this idea:
Quality From Your Students
W. Edwards Demming, the industrial management guru from the 30's and the pioneer of team-based manufacturing, discovered that if you can cut back on quantity, you'll get quality as a by-product. By assigning just one homework task to complete and return--decrease the quantity--you will give your students a chance to do a better job--increase the quality.
Take spelling sentences, for example. Teachers have been asking students to write sentences containing their spelling words ever since I was a student. The problem is, most of them go for quantity over quality. By that I mean, if there are 20 words on the spelling list for the week, the students are supposed to write 20 sentences. You can do it that way if you want, but don't be surprised when you see sentences like these:
I have a bicycle.
I saw my nephew.
I like opportunity.
Wake me when it's over.
How about assigning just five sentences to write and let them choose the words they're going to include in the sentences? (For one thing, there's no way students are going to be able to learn all of their words by merely writing sentences that contain those words. For another, I dare anyone to learn 20 new words every week. I know I couldn't.)
Since they're only having to write five sentences, it would then be reasonable for you to request that the sentences be almost poetic in composition. Do that long enough and you'll begin to get sentences that look like these:
The witch strapped on her dusty apron
before she stirred her bubbling brew.
--Gwen DuVall, fifth grade, Class of 1995
The officer was determined to catch the villains
who killed Ethan Hunt and the other IMF agents.
-- Robert Milse, third grade, Class of 2000
Adding to the motivation factor of writing poetic sentences is the fact that I publish the best sentences from each week's collection. These sentence go into a book we call "Hot Stuff." The new entries are read to the class on Monday morning and the authors receive a credit. (See Chapter 8: Credit Cards in the Eight Great Ideas book.)
It doesn't take too long before they really begin to crank out some beautiful sentences. This doesn't happen overnight, but happen it will if you continue to showcase the best of the best and allow them to the time to produce quality writing.
In an effort to make the experience better for my students, I wrote a little Spelling Sentence guide that they can take home and show the folks. It's just three pages long and offers suggestions on creative writing in addition to explaining the rubric I use for assessment.
For a change of pace, try one of these slick little assignment sheets that cover a week's worth of spelling activities.
One of them can be used as a part of your homework activities while the other can be used as an in-class assignment.