Spotlight on Spelling (Part 2)

by Sharon Haag1

Part One Overview:

I believe an effective spelling program is one in which skills are taught as part of the whole curriculum as children write in all subject areas throughout the day. They can write notes to themselves or others, make lists, make signs, plan stories. Their writing activities should serve real purposes — not just as practice of writing skills.

As they write, children should be encouraged to focus on the ideas they want to communicate and spell the words they don’t know by using the phonics and word patterns they’ve studied (and copying from their current list of non-phonetically predictable words). The teacher should hold them responsible for applying what they know and make note of their errors because those show what they need to be taught. So, each child’s spelling lessons should be individualized to his needs.

What Published Materials Can Help?

The question then is: Are there published spelling programs that follow this philosophy and can help me know what to expect of a child at different age levels? I need a guide that tells me what skills and strategies my child needs to learn when I don’t have time to lay out a progression myself.

In accord with the above philosophy, I believe that, first of all, you need to be sure you are providing a good writing program so that the concurrent spelling program is effective. Many of the newer language arts/reading programs include integrated writing programs. If yours does not, or if you do not feel you have an effective writing curriculum, you might want to consider one of the following.

1. Integrated Language Arts

For those who prefer their writing assignments to come from what children are studying in other subject areas, various purposeful writing activities can be incorporated into daily lessons. For example:

  • Caption pictures that show the steps in doing or making something.
  • Make a list of the things learned in science today.
  • Write up what happened when an experiment was tried.
  • Write a summary paragraph about a book read, one that would encourage someone else to read it.
  • Take the part of a character in a story.
  • Write a friendly letter or business letter to another character.
  • Keep a journal to send to grandparents about interesting things the student has been doing.
  • Do a newspaper write-up to send to friends in the home country.
  • Research and write a report about a topic of interest.

Some excellent handbooks are available to provide guidance in teaching activities similar to those above:

Writers Express (grades 4-6)
Write Source (grades 6-8)
Writers Inc (grades 9-12)
All are available in softcover (about $26.50 USD) or hardcover (about $31.00 USD) each.(Total program is available for K-12 including Teacher’s edition and many other resources; instructions and explanations are written directly to the students in a lively, readable style. The Write Source)

Elements of this program:

  • Sections on the process of writing (from selecting a subject to proofreading a final draft
  • The forms of writing (from personal journals to poems, tall tales, and research reports)
  • The tools of learning (study skills, research skills, listening and speaking skills, test-taking skills, spelling skills)
  • The proofreader’s guide (capitalization, punctuation, and spelling rules)
  • An almanac (historical timeline, the metric system, reading maps, etc.)

2. Structured Spelling Program

For those who prefer a spelling program which allows children to write freely from the beginning while still learning the spelling conventions in a structured and progressive manner, a directed instructional program may be selected. One such program:

Spelling Through Phonics

Ages 5-8; $25 USD (One copy is all a teacher needs.)
Available from

Elements of this program:

  • Explains Robert and Marlene McCrackens’ philosophy of teaching spelling (see Part 1 of this article), including integrating spelling with a writing program.
  • Gives checklists of spelling skills expected at each of what the book refers to as “grades K-3,” including the nonphonetic words children should be able to spell. *Remember that different children are ready for what is labeled “K” through “3” at different times. You can determine where your child’s current level is by using the checklists and going on from there. The advantage of this program: you are not stuck with a grade-level book that may not fit your child. Instead, you can spend your time effectively teaching only what your child really needs to learn.
  • Delineates a practical approach for teaching phonics and spelling skills that is fun (a game-like approach). The book does not explain how to handle the common words that children want to use frequently but which are not phonetically regular ( the “doozers” described earlier). Instead, strategies for dealing with such words are explained on a video.
  • Provides lists of words containing each of the sounds and patterns children need to learn, along with a suggested progression for teaching them.

What about “mature” spellers?

After children have learned the basic patterns and rules of English spelling in a structured program such as the McCrackens’ (usually around eight or nine years of age), my preference is to go to a totally individualized program, pulling from their written work the things each child needs to work on, using the strategies already learned for studying those words.

One author suggests teaching kids to categorize the words they need to work on into three groups: regular, rule-based, and irregular. Regular and rule-based can be learned by focusing on the word family or the rule which applies. Irregular ones simply need to be memorized, using whatever strategies work best for each child.

Children this age often become fascinated with the study of word origins and common roots. This not only helps their spelling, but it also increases their vocabulary and reading comprehension.

At this stage an important skill children need to be using is proofreading. Hopefully, they will have been doing this at younger ages as well. With time, more and more of the responsibility for finding and correcting errors should be transferred to the child.

Children at this stage also need to learn to use spelling aids—dictionaries, published lists of frequently misspelled words, personal lists of troublesome words, word processing spell checkers, and writing handbooks at an appropriate level (see information on the Write Source handbooks).

What about traditional grade-level spelling books?

About now, you may be wondering what is wrong with using the traditional grade-level spelling books. If your children like those materials, if they are showing through their written work that they are transferring that knowledge, and if they are learning to communicate well through writing, the spelling books are fulfilling the purposes I believe are important in a spelling program.

If, however, your children struggle with spelling and do not like writing, or if they already know most of each week’s words, I think spelling could be taught more effectively and efficiently using an individualized approach with a good writing program, as explained above.

Grade-level spelling books with weekly lists were designed to help teachers in classrooms teach spelling to thirty children at once. But parents teaching only a few children, free from the need for large group control and management, can teach more efficiently by focusing on individual needs.

Grade-level spelling books are typically aimed at the middle third of children in a grade level. Additionally, the problem most deplored by teachers is that, even though children may spell correctly on spelling tests, they often do not do so in their written work.

I see the following difficulties with grade-level spelling books used in the typical way:

  • The goal of spelling is seen as getting good grades on the weekly tests rather than on using what has been learned in actual writing.
  • Weekly lists may not be appropriate for your child (they might be too hard, or they might be too easy—a waste of time)

Too often children spend so much time on spelling workbook pages (and capitalization, punctuation, and grammar pages) that they don’t have time or energy to do much real writing. I would rather give children more time to write, analyze from their writing the kinds of instruction they need, and give them mini-lessons in those areas.

Proof of their mastery of the concepts should be in whether children apply those concepts in their next pieces of writing—not in whether they’ve done the workbook correctly.

Correcting Errors

Many teachers and parents who want children to write freely struggle with how much to correct in their writing. Along with the clear emphasis that what children express is more important than how they spell, here are some guidelines from Gentry’s and McCrackens’ writings:

  • Insist that children use what they know. If they make errors with concepts you know they have learned, have them make those corrections. If you have a list of “doozers” posted, students should be held accountable for spelling those words correctly.
  • Analyze other spelling errors and categorize them according to the patterns, or rules, they need to be taught. Present those lessons at a time apart from their writing sessions.
  • The bottom line: don’t correct errors to the extent that kids become fearful of spelling.

Remember, an effective spelling program 1) is integrated into the whole curriculum, and 2) facilitates writing rather than making children fearful of it.

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

  1. Sharon Haag grew up as a third culture kid (TCK) along the northern border of Mexico. She received her K-8 teaching degree through Biola University and an MS in school counseling and School Psychologist’s credential through Cal State Long Beach. She joined SIL in 1974 and taught TCKs in southern Mexico, piloted the Field Education System (FES – a support program for homeschooling families) in Guatemala, and was an itinerant teacher in Cameroon. She later worked from the United States supporting homeschooling families overseas and doing educational evaluations and consultation. She is now retired.