Spotlight on Spelling (Part 1)

Aid or Hindrance to Good Writing?

by Sharon Haag1

After their first cross-cultural experience, the children at a Field Training Course were asked to write about their impressions and feelings. A ten-year-old wrote the following:

I love my father.
I love my mother.
I love my little brother.

Puzzled, the teacher probed to understand why he had written something so unrelated to the topic — especially since he had been articulate and on track during oral discussion. She discovered he was terrified of writing! The focus of all his previous writing experiences had been correctness — and those sentences were ones he knew he could write with every capital letter and punctuation mark and every word spelled correctly.

The tragedy is that this child’s fear and dislike of writing are not unusual. Many of us had similar experiences with early writing instruction. The goal always seemed to be to practice the mechanics of writing rather than to communicate ideas. A few positive comments on the content might be given, but the majority of feedback consisted of pointing out spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammatical errors. Whether the next step was to receive a grade or to correct all the errors and recopy the piece, the experience was rarely enjoyable.

What is the goal of teaching spelling, punctuation, and capitalization anyway? Isn’t it so that students will learn to communicate effectively in writing? Too often, however, our methodology kills any joy or desire to write, and children like the ten-year-old boy above do not understand the goal of writing. I am not saying teachers should ignore spelling and writing mechanics (they are necessary aids to accurate and effective communication), but I believe the emphasis should be on the joy and usefulness of communicating through writing, with a balanced and positive approach to teaching the mechanics. [Though the focus of this article is on teaching spelling, many of the principles apply to teaching other mechanics and strategies of writing as well.]

Why is spelling so difficult for some and not for others? How do I help a struggling child? What do I do about misspellings in children’s written work? How can I help children maintain joy in writing and at the same time promote accuracy in mechanics?

Philosophy to Methodology

The hows and whys of the method you choose for teaching spelling depend on what you believe about the importance of

  1. correct spelling,
  2. children’s abilities regarding spelling, and
  3. principles of good teaching.

I will state what I believe about these issues, based on both personal experience and research into the topic. Then I will list some guidelines and practices that flow from my beliefs. If you don’t agree with these presuppositions, you won’t agree with the methods I propose. If you do agree with the philosophy, I hope the practical suggestions will be helpful to you.

The only reason for teaching spelling is to equip children to communicate effectively in writing.

The reason for working with children on spelling is not so they can score well on weekly spelling tests, get good grades in spelling, or win spelling bees. Many children manage to do all those things, yet their spelling in written work is atrocious! Of what real-life value is that kind of spelling program?

I believe children should be writing daily. This gives them opportunities to apply what they are learning through the spelling program. At the same time, it gives the teacher, through analysis of what children spell correctly and incorrectly in their written work, clues to the direction the spelling program needs to take.

The desire to communicate well through writing should be the greatest motivator for learning to spell. Spelling should be a facet of the writing program. Emphasis, however, should be stronger on the content being communicated than on perfect spelling.

Teaching spelling in a writing program does not require perfection in every attempt.

If you want children to develop freedom and joy in writing from the earliest ages, you cannot teach it the same way you teach math. Math is usually taught by beginning with the simplest, smallest pieces and proceeding logically through more complicated elements and processes, building one upon the other. You do not require a child to perform a math task for which he has not already mastered the elements necessary to succeed on the more advanced task.

However, if the focus of your writing program is to be on fluent and rich communication, you cannot limit children to using only the words they already know how to spell correctly and only the writing rules they can use perfectly. In addition to using what they know, they must be allowed to experiment and make “mistakes” when they want to communicate something that is beyond their present skill level.The emphasis should be on the joy and usefulness of communicating through writing, with a balanced and positive approach to teaching the mechanics.

In this sense, you encourage them to learn to write in the same way they learned to talk. You welcome and enjoy whatever attempts at communication they can manage at a particular time, without correcting every error they make. You model and expose them to the standard forms at a pace and in ways that do not discourage them, going from the simpler to the more complex. You applaud their efforts to communicate, even if they don’t measure up to an adult standard.

One thing many people are uncomfortable with in this type of writing/spelling program is that children need to be allowed to “invent” spellings for words they want to use which are beyond their knowledge or skill level at the time. The fear is that the invented spelling will become ingrained and the habit difficult to break. Marlene McCracken, whose first grade children end the year with notebooks full of multiple-page stories, uses the following method to help children learn frequently used, phonetically-unpredictable words correctly:

She posts a list of five “doozers” at a time (words like they, you, because, are) which children must copy correctly from the chart whenever they need them. Once they are consistently using one of them correctly, she puts it in a box called the doozer graveyard and adds a new one to the list. If the children go back to spelling one of the doozers incorrectly, it comes out of the graveyard to haunt them! You get the idea, though you may want to use different terminology.

Using such a method prevents her students from cementing-in wrong spellings of commonly used words, but she still encourages them to invent spellings for other words they don’t know. What is the value of this? Why not just give the children the correct spelling for every word they don’t know and have them copy it correctly in their writing?

For one thing, that approach puts the focus back on correct spelling, to the detriment of emphasizing what the child wants to say. Often a child will choose a simpler word and just leave out something he doesn’t know how to spell. Asking for and copying unknown words usually slows down the writing process to the point that children lose their train of thought and lose the excitement of communicating their ideas.

Secondly, the process of a child’s “inventing” how to write a word forces him to think about spelling patterns and principles and to apply them. It calls on the child’s reasoning processes in a way that copying does not. Kids learn to spell by inventing spelling! [Some people are more comfortable with the term temporary spelling rather than invented spelling.]

And thirdly, through the child’s invented spellings you as the teacher can see what patterns and principles the child already knows and is using, and what he needs to be taught. This gives you the direction you need for effective future spelling lessons!

Learning to spell is a developmental process; i.e., a child’s spelling ability progresses through predictable stages.

When children are involved in a writing/spelling program that focuses on enthusiastic communication rather than on “correctness,” they are far less likely to develop a fear or distaste of writing, and their spelling ability progresses through predictable stages:2

  1. Precommunicative Spelling— when kids first use alphabet symbols to represent words. They may string letters together to represent something they want to say and may even copy certain words, but they do not yet grasp the symbol-sound relationships.
  2. Semiphonetic Spelling— when children know that letters represent the sounds in words and they can use the letters they know to write those sounds. At this stage, however, they only partially perceive and reliably represent the sounds in words. The letters may be in correct sequence, but they omit some of the major sounds (e.g., writing crts for carrots, camr for camera, librte for liberty).
  3. Phonetic Spelling— when children spell words the way they sound. All the surface sound features are represented, including vowels (even though the words may not have standard spelling). At this stage, they have constructed a systematic, sophisticated, and perceptually accurate mapping of words. They often overapply a “spelling rule” they’ve learned (e.g., a silent e in every word with a long vowel sound).
  4. Transitional Spelling— when children move to greater reliance on visual memory and are developing a sense of whether a word “looks right.” They display new knowledge of the conventions of English spelling (vowels in every syllable, vowel combination patterns, inflectional endings, frequently occuring English letter sequences, etc.).
  5. Mature Spelling— when kids grasp the basic patterns of the English spelling system. They have mastered accurate spelling of prefixes, suffixes, contractions, compound words; can distinguish homonyms; have mastered many irregular spellings; can think of alternative spellings and visualizes the word in the mind’s eye; are beginning to recognize word origins and to use this information to make meaningful associations.

If children receive good instruction and do a lot of writing, they typically reach the “mature” level by age eight or nine. After that, improvement is an expanding and refining process.

People are born with certain abilities that make spelling in English either easy or difficult for them; some will never be good spellers.

People who have a strong visual memory seem to be the best English spellers. They just know if a word “looks right.” They notice visual details. To some extent, visual memory can be improved, but I’ve never heard of a case in which a person born with poor visual memory has been able to develop a good one.

For children with poor visual memory, copying or writing a word “ten times” does not ensure they will learn and retain it long-term so that they can apply it in their writing. They need to involve thinking and reasoning and to use memory strategies to help them spell. I believe there are only a few spelling “rules” with wide enough application to be worth memorizing (see end of article).

Another ability needed in order to spell well in English is flexibility. A child needs to accept that there are various ways of spelling English sounds and be willing to try the different options. This is where teaching the different patterns is key: if a child does not know the various options, it is extremely difficult to use even spelling aids efficiently.

Poor spellers are not ignorant; they are not simply careless or lazy. Spelling, like athletic skills or musical ability, comes much more easily to some than to others. Those for whom spelling is difficult need to be helped in ways that will encourage, not discourage, them. They can learn spelling principles and strategies that will help them spell better, and they need to learn to take advantage of the spelling aids that are available (dictionaries, spell checkers, proofreaders).

Skills and strategies to enhance spelling ability can be taught.

  • Having children correct their own errors immediately seems to help develop visual memory.3
  • Phonics and sequencing skills help spelling.
  • Learning the common patterns of English, as well as prefixes, suffixes, and root words is helpful. Usually practice is needed in distinguishing between homonyms.
  • Personal study techniques are helpful to develop and use for learning phonetically unpredictable words. For a person with a strong visual memory, just looking at a word, covering it and visualizing it, and then writing it from memory a few times is usually sufficient.
  • For those who struggle with spelling, most experts recommend using a memory approach that involves multiple senses.
    For example:
  • Look carefully at the word as you say it aloud.
    • Write the word, naming each letter.
    • Read the word aloud again.
    • Check to make sure you have spelled the word correctly.
    • Cover the word and write it again, saying each part as you write it.
    • Check your spelling.

Most other rules are not consistent enough to memorize. A better approach seems to be learning words in “families”—i.e., with others that follow the same pattern.

Part 2 continues with principles and strategies.

  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.
  2. J. Richard Gentry. Spel… Is a Four-Letter Word. Heinemann Educational Books, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1987.
  3. Gentry, p.28