How should spelling be taught?

What does research show is the best way to learn how to spell?
a. memorize spelling words
b. learn rules (i before e except after c)
c. write with a purpose in mind
d. a combination of all of these

The answer is d. Memorizing words and learning rules have their place in learning to spell, but far more important is that little children have many reasons to write throughout the day, unconcerned with getting the spelling right.

How does the teaching of spelling progress?

  • For the child learning to assign a sound to a letter, spelling might begin with a single letter representing a word. Or the child might write more than one letter, leaving out the vowels. The name John might be spelled “JN.”Young child writing C-A-T.
  • Some parents might want to intervene immediately to teach the right way to spell, but that would be a mistake. Let the child use invented spelling at first.
  • Meanwhile the parent or teacher could be supporting this learning with teaching about the alphabet, the correspondence of all 42 sounds in English to letters or pairs of letters, understanding what words are, and understanding how words are written in English—left to right and top to bottom.
  • As the child gains confidence (not correctness), she can be asked to write useful items such as grocery lists, a daily schedule, a sign welcoming Dad home, or an email to Grandma. As she writes, she thinks about sounds and letters and makes decisions in an experimental way.
  • Aware of the child’s increasing sophistication in writing sounds and words, the parent or teacher can continue to teach basic writing ideas such as word families (rhyming words).
  • As the writer matures, the teacher can introduce simple spelling patterns. But it is better if the child discovers the patterns herself with the parent’s guidance. “Do you notice anything that is the same about ‘bake’ and ‘rake’ and ‘make’?” Let the child talk about her findings. Congratulate her on her discoveries. Then when the silent e rule is taught, it will have more meaning.
  • Practice makes perfect with spelling too. If the child has many reasons to write, she will encounter success in getting her meaning on paper, but she will also encounter problems to solve. This is important since the parent can offer ways to solve these spelling problems, such as
  • Try writing the word two or three ways. Does any way look like a word you already know how to spell? Does any way look wrong? Look right?
  • Try using a dictionary. Little children will need help, but the adult can show the child how useful a dictionary is for figuring out spelling. ABC order can be introduced to show how the dictionary is organized. (I keep a spelling dictionary for first toMother shows child spelling of her name Kelly fourth graders. It’s much easier to use than a real dictionary because the meanings of words are not given, just the spelling. And because it’s easy to use, children use it.)
  • Try finding the word in a familiar book.
  • Try asking the parent. Sometimes it’s good for the parent to tell the child the spelling of a word so the child can keep writing. But for the child to become an independent speller, this cannot be the default solution for spelling words correctly.
  • Try using an online spell checker if the child is composing online. This, too, can become a crutch once kids become aware of it.
  • Try creating an individualized speller. A child can label each page with a letter of the alphabet. Then the child can fill the book with words she can spell, or reserve it for words that cause her problems or which she is trying to learn.
  • When the child has turned the corner from invented spelling to standard spelling, the child should be introduced to roots, prefixes and suffixes, and how the spelling of those affixes alters (or not) the root word.

If the parent or teacher recognizes that each child learns at a different speed, and if the teacher relates spelling to reading and writing, good spellers usually emerge. But not always. Some children require more explicit spelling instruction.
More on that in a later blog.

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