Helping Your Child Learn to Spell
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Spelling, a basic ingredient of writing, continues to occupy a prominent place in public school education. The advent of the electronic speller and the computer spell checker, while making life easier for problem spellers, has not lessened the importance of spelling instruction. Poor spelling can create lasting impressions with negative consequences for both children and adults, including poor grades on reports, failure to obtain job interviews, and low ratings on job performance.
Learning to spell in the English language is a formidable challenge for many children. Because it has its roots in French, German, Latin, and other languages, the English language contains many words which are not spelled as they sound. These irregular words, which must be learned through memorization, can be exasperating to students. About 20 percent of the words in the English language are spelled differently from how they sound.
Some words are pronounced the same but spelled differently (for example, their, there, and they’re). Some letter combinations can be pronounced a variety of ways (for example, the ea in bead, great, lead, heart, and earth). Some words with foreign origins do not conform to the rules of phonics (for example, lieutenant). Is it any wonder then that so many children find spelling a tedious and difficult subject?
Spelling instruction has not changed much over the years. Because of the need to memorize the spelling of many words, notably those which defy the rules of phonics, the teaching of spelling necessarily involves drill and practice. Your child may begin bringing spelling lists home as early as first grade. Students may either be separated into spelling groups or receive spelling instruction as a class. Some teachers use spelling books while others draw their spelling words from the subjects the students are studying.
Many teachers continue to use the following time-honored approaches to teach spelling:
- teaching words that are most frequently written • presenting spelling words in a list
- teaching phonics and the structure of words (prefixes, suffixes, and roots)
- using a pretest-study-test method • having students correct their own tests and study misspelled words
- integrating spelling words into writing assignments
To be a good speller, a child must be able to discriminate the sounds of words which are spelled phonetically and visualize the words which are not. Children with poor visual memory skills have difficulty retaining the visual images of words and are prone to poor spelling. Spelling problems may also be caused by difficulty in hearing the differences in sounds, what is called auditory discrimination. A child who cannot hear the differences between, say, pin, and pen, will have difficulty spelling words phonetically.
If you suspect your child has auditory problems, consider obtaining an evaluation of his hearing by an audiologist. Also talk with the teacher if your child is struggling with spelling. Find out whether the spelling list is too difficult or too long for your child and needs adjustment. Ask how you can support your child’s spelling skills so as not to conflict with the teacher’s approach.
Do not worry about your child’s spelling errors in the early elementary grades. They are to be expected. Many educators now believe that young children should be allowed to write using their own spellings of words without being corrected. With most children, their “creative spelling” will eventually be replaced by accurate spelling. Tm will eventually become tim which will eventually become time. Placing too much emphasis on spelling mistakes at an early age will inhibit the child’s desire to write. Parents as well as teachers should be mindful of this principle. At the same time, if an older elementary child is consistently making the same mistake, correct it to avoid having him practice mistakes.
In working with your child, the following strategies may be helpful:
- Be patient and positive. Because spelling can be anxiety-provoking for children, try not to be impatient or short with your child. If he frustrates easily, try working with him in short segments rather than one long stretch. You may have unpleasant memories of spelling from your own schooldays but try not to pass on your feelings to your child with negative comments about spelling. If your child has problems with spelling, reassure him that good spellers are no smarter than poor spellers.
- Find a method of study which works for your child. You may have to experiment to find out which technique works best. Some children learn more effectively by writing down words which are dictated to them while others do better spelling the words outloud. The National Education Association recommends the following method of study for spelling:
- Pronounce the word slowly while looking at each part of the word.
- Say the letters in order.
- Spell the word to yourself while visualizing it.
- Write the word.
- Repeat if necessary.
A few do’s and don’t’s are in order here about helping your child with spelling. Do help your child understand word families. Do encourage him to proof his own papers for spelling errors. Don’t make him write spelling words many times. After a few times, the value is lost. Don’t bombard your child with spelling rules. He will only retain a few of them so be selective. The “i before e except after c” rule should be one you reinforce.
- Use a multisensory approach with a young child. If your child is having difficulty retaining spelling words, reinforce the visual image of the word through sight and touch. Have your child write the word in large print and then trace the letters with his fingers as he pronounces the letters. He should repeat this until he can do it from memory.
- Develop a spelling box. Write down words that your child misspells on 3 by 5 cards and place them in a box for occasional review. You can also record them in a notebook. Be selective, including words which are relatively common and your child is expected to know. You and your child might develop sentences to help him remember the correct spelling (for example, “You get relief when you lie down.”) You might highlight or color code the troublesome letter combinations and group words together which have similar spelling patterns.
- Get your child a dictionary. While a dictionary is an important reference book for your child to have, do not expect him to look up every misspelled word, especially if he is prone to spelling errors, or he will quickly become turned off to writing. Other references are available to help with spelling, including 50,000 Words Divided and Spelled by Harry Sharp, Webster’s Instant Word Guide, which list words in alphabetical order and helps children find correct spellings quickly, and How to Spell It: A Dictionary of Commonly Misspelled Words by Harriet Wittles and Joan Greisman.
- Play word games. A variety of word games popular with children promote spelling skills, including hangman, wordsearch, Scrabble for Juniors, Speak & Spell, Wheel of Fortune, Spill & Spell, and Boggle. You may want to modify the rules to make the game more rewarding and less pressured.
- Make use of technology. For many deficient spellers, the way to spell relief is technology. Most word processing programs feature spell checkers, which highlight and even correct spelling errors. The electronic speller solves the dilemma of a child having to look up a word in the dictionary which he cannot spell. To use this device, type in the word the way you think it is spelled and the electronic speller will most likely show you the correct spelling. These are not teaching devices as much as they are tools to check and correct his spelling.