Category Archives: Spelling

My third grader spells haphazardly, using correct spelling in one sentence and incorrect spelling of the same word in the next sentence. How can I make her care?

Some kids, like adults, are detail people, proud when things are “just so.”

Other kids, like your daughter, are not concerned with details.  Does she get distracted easily?  This could be part of the problem.  Is she trying to establish a different role in the family from an older, more obedient child?  Is her personality laid-back and easy-going?  Causes for her lack of rigor could be many.

Child writing with right hand.

She might have gotten away with this carelessness in first and second grade, but now that she is in third grade, she will be taking the Common Core tests.  For the first time, lack of attention to detail might bring down her grades.  Does she know this?

The best motivation is internal, but for some children, an external goal focuses them.  What might motivate her to be more consistent with her spelling?  Money?  A trip to the book store?  A lunch out with Mom and Dad?

Considering your daughter’s age, a “contest” for one week might be a way to begin.  If she brings home worksheets every night and there are no spelling errors, she might earn a small but meaningful reward.  If she can keep it up for another week, then she might earn a second reward.  If she can get a certain grade on her end-of-year test, then she might earn another reward.

Or you might give her a 15-minute writing assignment at home Monday through Friday.  On Saturday she could receive her writings back and edit them, looking for spelling errors.  She could circle any word she thinks might be misspelled and look them up in a children’s dictionary or online.   This would be her chance to make changes before you evaluate her spelling.

Other ways she might find the correct spelling of questionable words are writing the word several ways and figuring out which one “looks right.” Or she might use a spell checker on the computer.  I have a spelling dictionary which I let children use to look up frequently misspelled words.

If she is writing at home, you might give her a short list of words she is likely to want to use.  If she is writing about fossils, for example, you could write “fossil,” “sedimentary,” “erosion,” and “layers.”  This encourages her to use such words and to follow standard spelling.  If she is using more advanced vocabulary, words like “canyon,” “marine” and “stratification,” and she spells those words phonetically, praise her for trying and tell her the proper spelling.

If you notice your daughter is repeatedly misspelling a particular word, you might develop a silly story which helps the child remember the correct spelling.  “An elephANT is beigger than an ant.  Or if she is misspelling a “family” of words, you might come up with a way for her to remember the spelling.

The more game-like you can make learning, the more likely your child is to participate.  And games have winners.  Offer her the prize she has earned, and let her know how proud you are.  Your daughter is still at the age where pleasing her parents is so important.  Make the most of it.

How can writing improve reading?

When educators combed research on the writing / reading connection in 2010, they found three writing activities which improve reading comprehension.

EPSON MFP image

  • Having students write about the stories and texts they read by writing personal responses, analyses, or interpretations; by writing summaries; by writing notes; and by answering or asking questions in writing about what they have read.
  • Having students learn about the process of writing; about how texts are structured; about how paragraphs and sentences are put together; and about how to spell.
  • Having students write  frequently.

All of these writing activities improve students’ reading. In future blogs, we will look at why these activities improve reading, and how these activities can be incorporated into a student’s schoolwork or work at home. We’ll start in the next blog with the last idea, that students should write more to improve their reading.

Meanwhile, for more information, see Writing to Read.  At this site you can read the full report, Writing to Read; evidence for how writing can improve reading by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert for the Carnegie Corp. of NY, 2010.

You might also enjoy reading Shanahan on Literacy, a blog about reading by an expert in the field. In his current blog, Dr. Shanahan comments on ideas in this report.

Play word games to encourage or to reward reading

When I tutor reluctant readers or bad spellers, sometimes I reward them with a word game in the last five minutes of an hour-long lesson. The kids love the game and ask at the beginning of the next lesson if they can play again. I never play this word game at the beginning of a lesson or they will balk at doing other kinds of reading work, but it is great as a reward.
This game is also a good game to play in the car on long trips or when a child is bored. It turns dead time into learning time.game of breaking up a big word into little words

  • Start by choosing a long word or a phrase. I try to relate the word or phrase to the season or to what we are studying. For example, “NEW YEAR’S DAY” or “JUNIE B. JONES” might be appropriate. After the first game, the child will want to choose the word or phrase, but you must steer him to pick an appropriate word or phrase for the game’s purpose.
  • The word or phrase should have ten to 15 letters but not many more or the game becomes too easy. Good words or phrases to work with contain several vowels, including the letter “E.” Bad words or phrases contain few vowels, do not contain the letter “E” and repeat many of the consonants.
  • I write the word or phrase at the top of a blank paper, often in all caps, so the child realizes capital letters are irrelevant.
  • Next, I explain that we are going to make little words from the big word or phrase, using the letters in any order. So for the phrase “NEW YEAR’S DAY,” I might write “ear,” “way,” and “weed,” and point out how each letter in the little words is part of the phrase.
  • I also point out that if there is only one “N” in the original word or phrase, then there can be only one “N” in the made up words. Also, if there is punctuation in the original word or phrase, it can be ignored or used.
  • The object of the game is to find as many small words as possible in five minutes.
  • Eventually you want children to discover word families, words whose letters can be moved to create other words (tea, eat, ate), words within words (heard, hear, ear, he, head), and how having certain letters (E and S, for example) makes the game easier. This shows the child is thinking about word patterns.
  • I help younger children find words, and show them word families that can be made by changing a single letter. Once they understand the game, they usually do not want help.
  • For older children, I compete with them, sometimes giving them a handicap.
  • At the end of five minutes, if there is not a competition, the game ends. If there is a competition, the child names his words aloud, and if he and I have duplicates, we cross them out. His score becomes the number of words he has without duplicates plus the handicap.
  • Additional points are given for words of five letters or more and perhaps for the word which is the longest and which seems to be the most clever use of the original letters.
  • I allow proper nouns, but I do not allow repeating the words in the original word. You can make your own rules depending on the ability level of the child. Some children will put an “S” on every noun.

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.

Cn U rd ths? Iz ths nvntid spln?

Yes, this is invented spelling. Invented spelling (a term that goes back to the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget) is a kind of spelling that little children use as they learn to write. It is not the same thing as phonetic spelling; it is bigger than that. Phonetic spelling is one of the stages of invented spelling for most children.

Invented spelling goes through stages. Dr. Richard Gentry, a researcher in spelling, says that children go through five stages in learning to spell.

Girl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister.

  • Precommunicative stage–At this first stage of spelling, children use alphabet letters but they seem unaware that a letter stands for a sound. Children are often still learning the alphabet, both upper and lower case letters. They might also be learning that English is written from left to right and from top to bottom. Dr. Gentry compares this stage to babbling.
  • Semiphonetic stage–At the second stage, children begin to learn that a sound can be represented by a letter. One or two letters might stand for a sound, syllable or whole word (U for you, or CT for cat). Dr. Gentry calls this stage abbreviated spelling.
  • Phonetic stage–At the third stage, logic takes over. Children use a single letter or a group of letters for every sound. They repeat the same letter patterns in different words, such as kwik and kwen (quick and queen). Spelling is not yet conventional, yet adults can readily understand the meaning of the children’s writing. At this stage children depend on their hearing for spelling.
  • Transitional stage–At the fourth stage, children begin to use traditional spelling patterns, depending less on the sounds they are trying to write and more on how the words look on paper. So instead of writing “feet,” the child might write “fete.”
  • Correct stage–At the fifth and final stage, children have learned basic spelling rules. They know about silent letters, homophones and homographs, and alternative spellings (to, too and two). Children might write a word to see if it looks right, not if it sounds right. Children have formed many rules which they can turn to for spelling, even if these rules have not been formally taught to them. At this stage, children depend on sight (how letters look, how words look) more than sound for spelling.

Moving from one invented spelling stage to another happens gradually for most children, but they rarely slip back to a previous stage once they have experience with the next stage. Some children fly through the stages in a year or two; others can get stuck at one stage for more than a year.

Research has led to this change of thinking about spelling. Until the 1970’s, most children were taught to memorize standard spelling words. Spelling was a separate part of language arts courses. But now studies have shown that spelling, like speaking and reading, happens in stages.

Invented spelling has certain benefits.

  • Children can write meaningful sentences before they can spell or even read.
  • Children can use a more advanced vocabulary if not constrained by spelling.
  • Children don’t need to concern themselves with the standard way of spelling.
  • If children compose in a “flow” way of thinking, they can write long passages without stopping for spelling and thus losing their concentration.
  • Children can encounter spelling in an experimental way—the way they learn to speak, for example. They can try something, see if it works, figure out why and build on their own knowledge base.

For more information, check out Dr. Gentry’s book:  Gentry, J. Richard. (1987). Spel . . . is a four-letter word. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

How to use spelling tests to reinforce CVC words

Years ago, I would cut  pictures of CVC words from various sources, paste them on index cards, sort them by vowel sound.  Then I would use them as spelling tests for beginning readers. (Now Mrs. A draws the pictures, including those below.)  This low-tech approach still works great with beginning readers and spellers.

Six drawings of short A CVC words

These drawings are samples of a packet of 12 pages of CVC drawings that can be downloaded for a small fee.  Click on the pictures for more information.  

Why use pictures for the spelling test instead of just dictating the words?

  • When the child is in charge of the pile of pictures, she can spell at her own pace, jotting down words she knows quickly and slowing down for words she is unsure of or for words she writes incorrectly and needs to repair.
  • Young children are people in motion, so the more parts of their bodies they can use to learn, the better. Taking off the rubber band, shuffling the cards, flipping them into a second pile as they are used and rubber-banding them again are fun.  Making learning fun is so important for children of any age, but especially for preschoolers.
  • Some children delight in erasing and will write a word incorrectly just so they can erase it. Spelling is a new experience for them, but it can take time, time when a tutor or mother might grow impatient. But since the child is working independently, the process can take as long as the child wants.
  • While the child is working independently, I can observe where she might need more help or prepare the next lesson, a better use of my time than dictating.
  • ESL students who might be shy about moving at a slow pace gain privacy by controlling the time it takes to complete the test.

One time I gave a preK student a short A test which he finished with pride—his first spelling test! When he found out I had more cards—more tests—he begged me to let him take the cards home and use them for the next week.  His mother later told me that  he took the spelling tests every day. What an eager learner!

Teaching CVC words ending in double consonants

When a child is learning to read, the child is learning to spell as well. Since most one-syllable, short vowel words (CVC) have three letters, all of which are pronounced, these words are usually easy for the child to spell. If you use letter tiles or cards with individual letters written on them, reinforce spelling as you and the child move the tiles around to form new words. At this stage, merging reading and spelling is easy.CVCC twin consonants

Another set of words are almost as easy to learn to spell. These are words which end with the double consonants of l, s, and f and z. If you take the time to point out to the child the double final consonants in these words, the child will learn to spell them easily. Be sure to tell the child that these double consonants are pronounced as a single sound. What are some common CVC word families with double ending consonants?

  • –ell: bell, dell, fell, hell, sell, smell, spell, tell, well, yell
  • –ill: bill, dill, fill, hill, kill, mill, pill, sill, still, till, will
  • –oll: doll
  • –ull: dull, gull, hull, mull, skull
  • –ass: ass, bass, class, glass, grass, pass
  • –ess: bless, dress, less, mess
  • –iss: bliss, criss, hiss, kiss, miss
  • –oss: boss, cross, floss, loss, moss, toss
  • –uss: fuss, muss
  • –aff: staff
  • –eff: Jeff
  • –iff: cliff, miff, sniff, stiff, tiff,
  • –off: off, scoff
  • –uff: bluff, buff, cuff, fluff, gruff, huff, muff, puff, scruff, scuff, snuff, stuff
  • –azz: jazz, razz
  • –iz: fizz, frizz
  • –uz: buzz, fuzz

It is important to point out to the child that even though most of the time l, s, f and z are doubled at the end of short words, sometimes these letters are not doubled. So as not to confuse the child, list just a few exceptions to this doubling rule (pal, gas, bus, yes, us, and plus), using words that the child is likely to encounter.

Also point out that a few common words that don’t end in l, s, f and z double the final consonant even though most other words do not. Add, odd, egg, inn, and mitt are some examples that the child might read and use. When the child understands the concept of syllables, you can explain that this rule of doubling the l, s, f and z usually applies to one syllable words only. Many times children try to write “until” as “untill” (proving they have internalized the rule), so it is worth pointing out the correct spelling when the child is ready to learn two-syllable, short vowel words. –Mrs. K