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Using Drawings to Help Students Retain Spelling and Grammar Lessons

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
February 19, 2023

When I work with educators, they often ask for examples of what UDL looks like in practice. It’s a difficult question to answer because, as James McKenna said in his book Upskill, Reskill, Thrive, UDL is much more about answering the question, “What could UDL look like for this goal? with these learners? in this context? with these constraints? with our current capacity?" We have previously shared examples of how educators revised lessons in math and in scienceThe example that follows is from Lillie Marshall, an amazing educator that shared how she has incorporated UDL into vocabulary instruction in her ELA classrooms. She recognized that students struggled with owning words under study, and decided to try to create multiple means of representation to help to build language and to provide exemplars for students so they could create their own representations. I’m delighted to share her work and how she incorporated flexibility into vocabulary instruction in her middle school classroom. 


What helps learners retain and embrace vocabulary, spelling, and grammar instruction instead of having it evaporate into thin air every time there’s a new writing task?

In my two decades as a middle and high school English teacher – plus years of parenting elementary school-aged children – this question has popped up again and again. All educators have seen it: a student will score 100% on grammar or spelling assessments, and then hand in a writing response filled with all of the typos they’d supposedly “learned.” Argh! What was the barrier that prevented this learner from internalizing, and thus effectively using, language conventions and vocabulary? I believe that much of that barrier comes down to a failure in accessing the mind-heart connection. 

The Barrier: Failure to Access the Mind-Heart Connection

What do I mean by mind-heart connection? We best retain information that taps into an emotional chord – information presented in a way that makes us laugh, or feel the awe of beauty, or that offers an answer to a relevant life quandary – thus connecting the heart and the mind, and activating a sense of ownership and “oneness” with the material that helps it endure. 

The Solution: Help Students Retain Information by Connecting Emotionally

Because humans are so varied, we teachers have the best chance of hitting those emotional chords by offering multiple means of representation in student inputs (what learners are reading and seeing), and multiple means of action and expression (what they’re doing or producing). What connects with one student may not connect with another, meaning that many methods are necessary. 

To this end, as my teaching career progressed, I began sketching cartoons on my classroom blackboard with funny scenarios to help hammer home concepts. The art helped students smile – and remember the lessons better.  These cartoons were created to help these commonly confused rules and words finally “stick” by evoking a grin or laugh. Here are a few examples, plus ideas on how you can use the “cartoon technique” in your own classroom!

Spelling and Grammar Help

To teach loose vs. lose, I used prose, art, word diagrams, and a video to teach the memory trick, “When you spell lose, you LOSE an “O” from “loose!” To represent this idea in different visual ways, I created illustrations (like the one below), one shows two monsters discussing it (while holding a giant “O”), while another drawing writes out each word and uses arrows and labels to point out the difference in the spelling, and how to remember it.  

Lose vs. Loose_Cartoon Drawing

Vocabulary and Concepts

To teach ELA concepts like types of conflict and the ever-confusing types of irony, I focused on kid-friendly language, paired with illustrations of scenarios that would evoke giggles or emotional reactions. For example, a frog being yelled at by a whole group of frogs to portray the “Character vs. Society” type of conflict.

External Conflict

Applications With Students 

In UDL, it is important to offer multiple means of representation, and using illustrations offers a way to engage and connect with our learners. Strategies include:

  • For the “input” side of things, teachers can project and read aloud the articles (ex: “Apart vs. A Part) and discuss them with a class, or provide the option for individual students to read and respond.
  • Inspire students to produce creative, authentic artifacts of their learning. For example, for students who keep mixing up commonly confused words, you can offer them the article on how to spell definitely as an example of how to make up and possibly even illustrate a silly sentence that helps remember word order – such as “Daniel Eats Fish IN IT Every Leap Year”.

Lillie Marshall is an amazing educator I had the opportunity to collaborate with through a Gates Foundation Project, “Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching.” The Gates Foundation brought hundreds of practicing teachers together every year to share best practices, collaborate, and create plans to scale effective practices. This project lead to lifelong relationships and friendships and continues to inspire my work. When we connect and share best practices, we can build collective teacher efficacy and create a problem-solving network driven by a passion for student outcomes. 

We are always looking for more examples of what UDL looks like in practice so if you have a great example, we would love to hear from you and see your work at education@novakeducation.com.

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