I hear a lot of buzz in schools, conferences, and the blogosphere about the latest and greatest educational websites. But it’s very rare that a product generates only positive feedback from everyone I talk to. It seems like there’s always a catch: something about it that doesn’t work well or is less than stellar. And yet VocabularySpellingCity is a resource that every single person I’ve talked to absolutely loves. I see the crowds around the Spelling City booth at education conferences, and I know many, many teachers who say it’s a lifesaver that makes it easy and fun for kids to practice spelling skills.
I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical. How many different ways can you really have kids practice their spelling words? And do you need an entire website for spelling practice in the days of spell check? Don’t we need to be focusing on higher-level thinking skills? So when John Edelson (the self-described “mayor” of SpellingCity) contacted me about our shared interests, I was very curious about what the site had to offer. The company is based in the Fort Lauderdale area, so one week when I was in town, John invited me in to meet him and his staff and see what they were all about.
VocabularySpellingCity is a remarkable little start up that has evolved into the most highly trafficked education site on the web: each month, 8% of American elementary students visit the site, resulting in a monthly average of 53 million page views. John now employs dozens of educators, web designers, IT support, and other staff to continue expanding the site at an astounding pace. The office is filled with quirky, vintage ed tech stuff that John collects (you can see more images on the Retro Ed Tech blog.) It’s clear from the moment you enter that this is a place where people are passionate about education and technology, and John’s personable, enthusiastic attitude permeates the workplace. I really enjoyed meeting the friendly and talented staff and learning about their different areas of expertise.
As John sat down to show me around the VocabularySpellingCity site, it was immediately clear to me that the educators on staff have a huge influence over the content and design, because it’s really user friendly for both teachers and students. The interface is intuitive and the activities have obviously been tested out in real classrooms. John showed me an overview of the site, then gave me premium account access so I could explore the resources more on my own later.
I discovered that there are lots of cool things you can do on the site for free and everything is customizable for the words you want to include. Unscramble tops out my list of the best free spelling games, and Hangmouse is a kid favorite. The vocabulary materials (tests, flashcards, definitions, synonym/antonym and parts of speech activities) are very useful, as is the integrated writing program and the grammar lessons for every grade level. One thing I really like is that most of the games (as well as the handwriting and sentence writing practice) can be printed so if students don’t have computer access at home, they can still complete the work. When playing or testing online, students get instant feedback on how they did.
Managing your spellings lists is pretty simple: there are free home pages where you can save the lists. Creating free printable worksheets that are correlated with each week’s spelling words is as simple as clicking a button. If you want to spend more time customizing and individualizing the printables, you can do so by selecting from four sentence choices (perfect for words with multiple meanings) and even insert your students’ names or familiar places and events into the sentences.
Most parents and teachers who use the site start out with the free stuff. And why not? Every spelling resource you could ask for is right there. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine what else there could be that would justify the cost of a $49.99 annual premium membership. But I have to say, there are actually a number of really useful features that I think make the upgrade worthwhile.
One of the biggest advantages to being a premium member is that you can track how much time each student has spent practicing and which games they’ve played. You can assign specific activities to each students, giving kids that extra push to practice the areas they really need help with. You can also assign a different spelling list to each spelling group in your class in order to differentiate their spelling practice. The premium version also generates reports on each student, which means you get automatically calculated data that shows student progress over time instead of having to compile and calculate it yourself with offline spelling activities.
Another great benefit is that there are no ads on the premium site. Although the free version isn’t inundated with ads and they’re all appropriate for little ones to see, it’s nice to limit the possibility of distraction and accidentally clicking off-site. There are also more games available for paid members (Letterfall and SpeedySpeller are among my favorites.) I like that you can check out the premium games for free by choosing a pre-made list.
Though the site is very easy to use and navigate, there’s a ton of different stuff that you might not realize is there. You can watch the short screencasts that show you what to do. I’ve embedded the overview video below so you can see what they’re like, but the videos are also available on the training videos page so if YouTube is blocked at your school, you can still watch them. There’s also a useful newsletter which keeps users updated on new features on the site and provides them with helpful information about utilizing the site. Also, there’s a teaching resources page which shows useful links, a forum where other users share their spelling lists, and various word collections (Dolch, compound, sound-alike, etc.)
Toward the end of my visit, I talked with John about how he sees VocabularySpellingCity fitting in to education’s overall movement away from drill-and-kill and toward critical thinking skills and problem-solving. It’s something that the staff has been grappling with extensively. In fact, the company is currently developing an entire science curriculum, reading program, and a bunch of other curricular resources for homeschooling, tutoring, and after-school programs through Time4Learning. The desire to challenge students with higher-level thinking has also been part of the reason for the site’s incorporation of the word vocabulary into their SpellingCity name and the increased emphasis on they’re placing word meanings, context clues, and other vocabulary skills. I love that they’ve expanded into science vocabulary lists and math vocabulary lists for each grade level so that students can build background knowledge in those areas in which vocabulary practice is particularly hard to find.
As for the basic spelling resources on the site? They still have an important and prominent role. There’s clearly a strong correlation between spelling and reading comprehension. The way I see it, there’s a lot of value in providing spelling resources from a practical stand point, too:
- Spelling is part of all state standards and CCSS, and almost every elementary teacher is required to include spelling in their literacy instruction.
- With so many other literacy skills to teach, educators need simple and quick methods for kids to practice spelling skills independently at home and at school.
- With few high-quality spelling resources available, teachers and parents are often stuck using dull and ineffective rote methods of spelling practice.
- Differentiating spelling instruction is important but can be extremely time-consuming and tough to manage: a good online program can make the process much easier for teachers.
If spelling practice is something that you dread doing or just can’t find time and resources for, you definitely need to check out VocabularySpellingCity. I’ve looked at a lot of different programs, and I can say with certainty that the resources they provide are unmatched. You can start with the free stuff and show your administrators how much it helps your students, then make the case for individualized spelling and vocabulary instruction and see if there’s budgeted money for a classroom or school-wide premium membership. I also know teachers who have applied for grants to cover the premium costs, and that’s worth pursuing, too. Regardless of whether you use the free or premium version, you’ll find more than enough resources on the site to provide your students with meaningful and fun spelling practice all year long.
Have you used VocabularySpellingCity in your classroom? Which games and activities are your students’ favorites?
Disclosure: Vocabulary Spelling City granted me premium membership access for the purpose of this review and compensated me for the time I spent exploring that membership and writing this review. However, all opinions are solely mine. I don’t review or recommend any products or services unless I would use them in my own classroom and truly believe they’re a worthwhile investment for educators.