Spelling Wars: One Family’s Journey

by Pam Gentry2

At first, I tried compiling spelling lists from each child’s daily writing. Whatever was misspelled in writing would appear on a list at the end of the week. The child “studied” spelling words each day by looking the words up in a dictionary, copying them into a personal spelling dictionary, and writing the misspelled word correctly several times on a separate sheet of paper.

My younger children were at a loss to use a dictionary because their spelling was so far off. “I could look it up if I knew how to spell it!” was a common complaint. Spelling was a gruesome, boring task as the child tried to conquer a mountain of words at the end of the week. Tears were many—and the kids stopped writing. They lost fluency as they tried to control the number of spelling words that would be added to their torture.

Conventional Approach

So we turned to conventional spelling books with weekly lists. I sighed in relief as the kids worked through their workbooks. This was much easier, I thought. It didn’t take much of my time to assign pages in a workbook. I was freed for a few minutes while they worked on their own. The kids liked knowing there was a set task to do.

But there was a dark side to this method. I found little or no carryover from spelling lists to daily writing. Also, I was frustrated with the series we were using. It followed a phonics-based approach but presented many alternative spellings in one lesson. In addition, the books tried to teach elements of grammar, which detracted from focus on spelling patterns. I wanted something more prescriptive.

Scientific Spelling

While on furlough I came across Help Your Child Be Scientific and Successful in Spelling.3

This is an approach designed by a specialist in children’s language difficulties. It teaches spelling from a solid phonics foundation with flexibility to focus on spelling errors in the children’s writing. So began phase three of the Gentry war on spelling and the Six-Step Plan.

  • Step One: Child writes freely on an assignment relevant to a subject area or writes in his journal.
  • Step Two: Child edits his writing and circles all words for which he is unsure of the spelling.
  • Step Three: Child makes corrections by the following process:
    a) makes a “best guess”
    b) looks to another printed source
    c) asks Mom
  • Step Four: Mom monitors spelling errors to see what patterns the child is struggling with and chooses a focus for the following week.
  • Step Five: On Monday of the following week, mother and child discuss the spelling pattern in focus by looking at the error, identifying the correction, and composing a spelling list for the week composed of words from this pattern.
  • Step Six: Child studies the spelling list using various activities and culminates the week with a spelling test.

This strategy was highly effective. My child who was struggling with spelling finally began to show some results in her writing. Improvement was slow but measurable. However, I was back to planning more. I also wanted something more structured for my other student who was still in the beginning stages of spelling.

Spelling Through Phonics

At this point, I was introduced to McCracken and McCracken’s  Spelling Through Phonics. McCrackens’ strategy is to teach spelling patterns through daily ten-minute instruction periods combined with reinforcement during the writing process. The McCrackens begin their program in first grade and follow through third grade. After third grade, most children who follow this program have settled into the “mature” spelling phase and are confident spellers. Those who still struggle can review the third grade words or focus on spelling patterns with which they are having problems.

I have been trying this approach with Matthew (grade 3) by going back and beginning with the first grade words. He is systematically building an intrinsic understanding of how English spelling works. I am pleased with his increased confidence in spelling, and I wish that I had known about this at the beginning of the battle.

As Anna’s misspellings showed consistent problems with various vowel spellings, I devised a modification of McCrackens’ strategy to give her a firmer foundation. Had I used an approach like this from the start, I don’t think the spelling wars would have raged as fiercely or as long.

A Final Note

Along the way I discovered an excellent spelling aid which has given the kids much more independence in editing their spelling errors. A Spelling Dictionary for Beginning Writers, by Gregory Hurray.

Meaning clues are included for homonyms, but the page is uncluttered with definitions so words are easy to look up. The back of the book includes suggestions on how to use it in teaching spelling. These days I rarely hear “Mom, how do you spell _____?” The word is almost always in the book. Recommended for grades 2-6, most useful for grades 2-4 and older students who still have frequently misspelled words.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. I don’t think I’m the only one who has been perplexed by my children’s “creative” spelling. I have tried a number of different approaches while maintaining the conviction that my kids need to write freely every day.1 For a discussion of various approaches to teaching spelling, see the two-part article, “Spotlight on Spelling” — Spotlight on Spelling, Part 1 and Spotlight on Spelling, Part 2.

  2. Suzanne Carreker. Help Your Child Be Scientific and Successful in Spelling. Houston, TX: Neuhaus Education Center, 1992. [Current title is Scientific Spelling]. Address: 4433 Bissonnet, Bellaire, TX 77401-3233,