There are many ways to teach spelling. In many schools, kids are given weekly lists to memorize. Kids dutifully study each list, often copying words until they are committed to (short-term) memory. They get a high score on the spelling test. Yet, they forget their spelling words as soon as they receive another list. When a child is still a poor speller after years of memorizing lists, many parents wonder how to help a child with spelling problems.
Spelling Struggles Diminish Writing Quality and Reduce Creativity
When a child struggles with spelling, sentences can seem like a letter scramble:
Ter wus a butiful bitrflee in the tre.
A child’s spelling can be so peculiar, he cannot even read what he’s written:
Tur ws a batiful bitrfl in the tire.
If he cannot read what he’s written, he cannot revise. Since poor spellers cannot edit their own work, its no surprise that poor spelling is correlated with poor overall writing skills.
Poor spellers also carry a heavy cognitive burden: they have to think so much about spelling, they have little room to think about style, voice and idea generation.
Spelling and Self-esteem
The problem of chronic frequent spelling errors can compound, causing students to fall further and further behind. Ultimately, spelling issues can create self-esteem problems.
Students who misspell common words often hide their writing. They avoid writing notes to friends and dodge sharing their essays. Embarrassment prevents them from getting feedback. They may even think of themselves as dumb because their peers can spell and they can’t.
Some parents want to learn how to help a child with spelling problems just to improve the child’s self-esteem.
Would you Hire a Poor Speller?
Whether we like it or not, spelling is associated with professionalism. Think about it: if this post were fraught with spelling errors, would you even think about hiring me to teach your child? Probably not.
And spellcheck is not a solution. A student who struggles with spelling cannot identify the correct word in a list. He might write “potenl” for “potential” and see that spellcheck offers: patient, patent, potent—all which have no semantic connection to “potential.” If he picks “patent” for “potential,” his sentence might read: “I have a lot of patent in math.”
Entire essays can be nonsensical.
Spelling Can Improve with Leveled Phonics Instruction
Spelling errors are easy to improve. However, if the student is behind, it may take several months (to years) of targeted weekly practice.
To improve spelling there are only a handful of sound patterns a student needs to memorize. With these very common phonemes, students can spell large quantities of words accurately. Thus, they avoid the endless tedium of trying to memorize how to spell every single word in the English language (which is nearly impossible, unless you want to be on the 20-year track to becoming a good speller).
Students also need to memorize the 150 most common sight words (these are words that don’t follow phonetic patterns). Sight words are usually memorized in Kindergarten and first grade.
Lastly, if the student is more advanced, yet struggles to spell long words, they then need to shift over to memorizing a select few sight syllables.
Traditional Spelling Methods:
- rote memorization
- students are given weekly lists to memorize
- words are treated as a whole, rather than streams of common sound units
- the English language is viewed as irregular, confusing and impossible to master
- word lists are not leveled
- copying and reciting are encouraged
How to Help a Child with Spelling Problems Using a Systematic Approach:
- students do NOT memorize whole words
- students memorize phonetic units that can unlock endless words
- intensive phonemic awareness activities are used to help kids identify sounds in order
- a select few sight words (that break the code) are taught using a simple sight word dictionary
- even sight words are taught using a systematic, step-by-step approach
- word lists are leveled
- for more advanced students, common sight syllables like “tion” are introduced systematically and practiced extensively
- emphasis is placed on vowel patterns
In short, memorizing a handful of sound patterns and sight words/syllables is A WHOLE LOT MORE EFFICIENT than trying to remember how to spell every single word in our extensive language.