National Writing Project

One Idea—Many Audiences

By: Ann Dobie
Date: May 2007

Summary: Dobie describes how she transformed a graduate research paper on teaching spelling into an academic conference presentation, a professional development workshop, a journal article, and then a book.


Everybody knows that the best personal stories are those we tell again and again. Some of these become family rituals, part of the Thanksgiving dinner routine or the Christmas morning ceremonies. We can retell Uncle Jim's account of the time he got lost on the way to his wedding or Aunt Susie's version of how she cooked her first turkey without removing the giblets as well as they can. Each telling seems to make the anecdotes more important to us.

So why do we limit our professional storytelling, our information about our best practices or our research, to a single publication or presentation? My premise is that we don't have to, and in fact we shouldn't. A good idea deserves more than a single sharing.

Casting Seeds

A good idea deserves more than a single sharing.

The old agricultural sense of the term "broadcast" comes to mind here. The term originally meant "to cast broadly"—to dip into a seed bag and with sweeping arm motions throw great handfuls of the contents over as much tilled land as possible. When we teachers become aware that we are in possession of knowledge or insights that other teachers can use, we have an obligation to broadcast them in a similar way. By reaching multiple audiences using a variety of forms at different venues, we enhance and enrich our profession by expanding its knowledge base. One idea can be broadcast to many audiences.

That assumption leads to the next question: how do we take a body of data or experience and circulate it to the maximum number of readers and listeners? I have a personal story that may provide some suggestions for how to get more than the usual mileage out of a single idea.

Graduate School Research Paper

It begins in graduate school, where I wrote a research paper on a lowly topic, but one which, as a beginning college teacher assigned to teach basic classes, I struggled with daily. I taught in what was then one of the few remaining four-year open-admissions universities, meaning any student who had a high school diploma could enter. (Louisiana has always been a populist state, and all of its state universities were operated on this basis until not too many years ago.) It was no surprise, then, that my "remedial," "basic," "pre-college" writers, whatever we were calling them that year, had big problems with spelling.

I knew that my students and I were too far along for spelling bees, but I was really tired of putting "sp" all over their papers, most of all because it didn't do any good. Since they continued to misspell the same words the next time around, I decided to use the requisite graduate school term paper as an opportunity to see what I could do to improve the situation. I would read the relevant research and write my paper. I had no designs on using the material in any way except to fulfill the requirements of my graduate rhetoric class and to do something about the appalling spelling of my students.

Some Strategies

I was surprised by what I discovered, some of which involved finding out what does not work (studying spelling lists and repeatedly copying words) as well as identifying what does. It was the latter that most interested me.

I found out that there were actually some simple strategies that students can use to remember the correct spelling of words that give them problems. Some of them involve using the senses. For example, tracing a word in the air with a finger and trying to "see" it although it is invisible seems to improve memory of it. Writing a word on paper using a red pen to write the troublesome spots helps, too.

The auditory sense can also play a role. By exaggerating the pronunciation of a difficult syllable, a speller can grow to hear how it should be spelled. If the word independence poses problems, for instance, the writer can stress the final syllable with an exaggerated ence sound so that he or she no longer hears it as ance.

And there are mnemonic strategies, too, such as associating a problem word with something else. The more ridiculous the association, the more likely a speller is to remember it. Does cemetery have a final ery or ary? Recalling that a cemetery can be an eerie place late at night provides the needed clue.

A report on my findings was the initial stage of publication: an assigned paper written for a professor for a grade and course credit. But after that, I found other more creative ways to use the data I had collected from both the studies I read and the classroom practices that I tried. I discovered three more stages of publication. I call them

  1. Recycle
  2. Renovate
  3. Redecorate.

Recycle: Academic Conference Presentation

It may be a less than enthralling type of presentation, but it worked to my advantage in this case.

By recycling I mean using the same material, pretty much intact, in another setting. Recycling proved to be fairly easy because moving from producing the graduate school term paper to using the same material to make presentations at academic conferences did not require a very large step.

The two genres use the same language and invoke a similar voice. And if you've ever attended an academic meeting, you know that professors literally read their papers, sometimes hardly acknowledging the audience at all.

It may be a less than enthralling type of presentation, but it worked to my advantage in this case because it meant that I could take my paper and tweak it here and there, prepare an abstract, cut it in half to meet the time limit, and present it. Basically I was recycling the term paper and delivering it to a wider audience.

In the long run I ended up using both halves and presenting them at two different meetings of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the CCCC. My humble topic was growing up and gaining some respect.

Renovate: Professional Development Workshop

If recycling was a simple process, I soon discovered that renovation was a bigger job altogether. Renovation involves reshaping a piece for an audience quite different from the one originally intended. It involves critical changes both in the look of the material and in its substance.

When I was asked to create a workshop for teachers in my local school district, I found I had to do a thorough renovation of my presentation on spelling. Recycling the academic paper was not an option here because the workshop would have to be interactive, engaging, and practical. The audience was not likely to be deeply interested in research theories or quantitative data. They would want something they could use in their classrooms to improve students' spelling.

First of all, reading the presentation was out. The workshop would be a dialogue between the teachers and me. That meant truncating the formal introduction and adding an opening writing activity that explored how the teachers dealt with the spelling problems of their students. Thinking about their current practice helped them enter the context of the work we would do together.

When we shared what we had written, we discovered that we held in common a sense of frustration that bordered on admission of failure. Nobody had ideas for improving student spelling that he or she was eager to describe. Everybody wanted help. We all wished we were teaching Italian, where everything is spelled just as it is pronounced.

Having admitted our despair, there was nowhere to go but up. It was time for me to introduce some of the strategies I had discovered in the course of my research. Again, simply explaining the strategies would not work. Applying them was the way to go.

Everyone has a couple of words that remain impossible to spell regardless of how many times they are looked up. Does committed have one t or two? Does ninety keep the e or drop it? Ninty? I asked the teachers to list three words they could never remember how to spell, and we tried out some of the remedies I had turned up.

Simply explaining the strategies would not work. Applying them was the way to go.

Some Remedies

We began with simple exercises. For openers the teachers tried imagining one of their problems words one letter at a time as each appeared on a gigantic mental television set and traced each of the letters using only their imagination. Anyone entering the workshop room at that point might have had doubts about what we were doing. With only eyes rolling and an occasional head moving from side to side, we might have been mistaken for an advanced meditation group.

We plunged on. In another exercise the teachers associated problem words with other forms of the same word to get a clue about their spelling. Muscular reminded one to put the c in muscle; condemnation reminded another to put the n as the final letter of condemn. To distinguish between two words that sound alike but have different spellings, they set about memorizing the meaning and usage of the one that gave them less difficulty and decided to use the second word on all other occasions. A teacher who had trouble distinguishing between weather and whether chose to remember that weather refers to rain, sun, wind, and the like. She would use whether whenever another subject was under discussion.

When the workshop ended, the teachers not only had some classroom applications they could take back to school with them, they also could spell three words that usually gave them trouble. I think I finally conquered the spelling of commitment at that workshop.

The workshop worked so well that eventually I gave it several more times on the local level as well as at a state meeting of the Louisiana Council of Teachers of English. Looking back, I could see that the material was still rooted in my term paper, but it had been thoroughly renovated. The structure was entirely different. I was using a new blueprint for a brand new floor plan.

Redecorate: Academic Journal Article

The first time I gave my academic paper on spelling at CCCC, I was approached by someone on the editorial board of the Journal of Basic Writing who asked me to submit it as an article for possible publication. This was irresistible, of course, and I agreed to do so, not at all realizing that a paper delivered orally is only a distant cousin to an article one finds in print. I could use the same material, but the written piece was going to have to look (and read) in a different way. In short, I would have to redecorate.

I made a list of the ways the printed piece would differ from with the one I had read aloud:

  • Those arm gestures or facial expressions that can help clarify an example or support a point would not be available. The words would have to carry the entire meaning.
  • Definitions might become necessary, as I would not be able to tell whether the audience understood my terminology or not.
  • Something visual could be included—a graph or a diagram to enhance and clarify the written text.
  • Journals have their own preferred formats and approaches, which would not necessarily match my own.

The list helped me to recognize that the printed version was going to need a voice appropriate for the journal in which it would be run, a revised introduction that would "hook" some readers, and added documentation. And I definitely needed a snappy title, something attention-getting with a colon in the middle of it.

I began by reading through several back copies of the Journal of Basic Writing and studying the guidelines printed on the inside of the front cover. I quickly realized that my friendly-neighbor-and-colleague voice was going to turn into a more formal, academic one. I was going to have to sound like my professor self.

Out went the personal pronouns; out went the contractions. In came more use of the passive voice and polysyllabic words. Spelling became orthography. While I was not entirely comfortable with some of these changes, I made them willingly because I realized that they were the conventions of the genre. Academic writing has its own vocabulary and format, which my audience would expect and understand.


I was very comfortable, however, with another aspect of writing for a scholarly journal. Now I would be able to include more of the theory that I had found so fascinating in my original research. With the emphasis on classroom strategies that had characterized the workshops, and to some degree the CCCC papers, theory had taken a back seat. Now I could indulge myself by linking strategies more firmly with the thinking behind them. I could talk about the why, not just the how of orthographical practice.

I enjoyed reporting, for example, that recent research has discovered that the development of spelling ability does not happen piecemeal. It is a holistic endeavor in which several aspects of word structure are experienced with each written language encounter: correspondences of sounds and letters, letter sequences, word building, and so forth.

I thought my new audience would find it interesting that James Conely (1974) had found four major causes to be responsible for the bulk of spelling errors: the eclectic nature of the language itself, mispronunciation of words, confusion of similar words, and mistaken etymologies.

I even took pleasure in explaining that the most successful remedies for spelling problems are based on use of the visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic senses. In short, the academic journal allowed me to take my ideas to a new and deeper level.

The redecoration took some time, and when I finally submitted the article, it had explanatory footnotes, a bibliography, parenthetical documentation, third person point-of-view, and nonsexist language. I had repainted, put down new carpets, recovered the sofas, and hung some flashy drapes. I had given it the works.

Beyond Redecorating: Collaboration on a Book

The second time I gave the spelling paper at a meeting of CCCC (or rather the first time I gave the second half of the original), I found myself in the company of two other presenters who had made some discoveries about "the pedagogy of orthography" (I was back in academia again), particularly in regard to students with special needs. They knew material I didn't know, and I had some practices that they thought might come in handy in their classrooms. We decided to put our ideas together and propose a book to the National Council of Teachers of English. When NCTE reported that they liked our ideas, I realized that I was looking at yet another redecoration.

My material in the context of that of my coauthors posed yet another series of challenges, some of them stylistic, others thematic. As to style, we would have to find a way to make all three voices consonant, or at least harmonious; keep the length of the pieces similar; and maintain the same balance of theory and practice throughout the book.

The theme of the proposed text, which was entitled Improving the Spelling of Learning Disabled and Basic Writers, would require me to expand my thinking (and research) to include topics such as common spelling routes (auditory and visual), covert memory (an unconscious storing of word images from one's reading that form an "internal lexicon"), and learning disabilities (such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, for example).

I was obviously no longer the only decorator. This would be a group effort that would attempt to blend the deep greens and rich rust colors I liked with the red, black, and white palette or the pink and blue pastels the others favored. In short, we all had to redecorate to create the resultant book, Beyond the "Sp" Label, published by NCTE in 1992.

So there you have it: the story of a humble little idea that made its way from its initial creation as a term paper to being a couple of academic presentations, then several workshops, an article in a scholarly journal, and finally a book.

It's amazing how many audiences you can find for one idea.


Conely, J. 1974. "Speling." College Composition and Communication 25 (4): 243–246.

About the Author ANN B. DOBIE is the director of the Louisiana Writing Project State Network, former director of the National Writing Project of Acadiana, and a founder of NWP's Rural Sites Network. She is professor emeritus in the Department of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

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