Help! My Child Can’t Spell

Spelling is a regular part of the language arts curriculum through eighth grade. So why don’t all children learn to spell? Most learn to memorize the words long enough to pass a weekly test. It’s the fact that many of those same students don’t retain correct spellings long enough to use them in daily written work that causes one to question the worth of those high scores.

Fortunately, there are strategies that will help students hang on to those correct spellings. In any area of difficulty, there are two standard “rules of thumb” that help a student overcome the obstacles: simplify and use as many senses as possible.

Spelling lists organized by a sound pattern can be confusing. Instead of finding a way to link words, the student is left with the feeling that rules aren’t much help—there are too many possibilities (“Do I use el, le, or al?”Is it ee or ea?”). Simplify spelling lists by grouping several words with a pattern the student can both see and hear. The pattern serves as a link and the student can recall a word later by reminding himself of another word in the same list. (“Oh, it must end in le – I remember it was with bottle.”)

Incorporate the senses of sight, sound and touch by having the student look at the word, say the word in syllables, and then repeat and write (copy) each syllable. Next, he can use a highlighter to color any part that doesn’t look the way he thinks it should. (The ei in their, for example.) Any word that is especially difficult to remember can be written with his finger on his arm or in a tray of corn meal (to more fully incorporate the kinesthetic approach). When he practices the word from memory he should continue to say and then spell each syllable.

Next, have the student add prefixes and suffixes to the word, if possible. Using this as a regular activity will help him understand words by helping him find patterns and links which aid long-term memory. Many words now become part of families rather than isolated units. Many poor spellers do not realize that by knowing how to spell happy, for example, they can also spell unhappy just by knowing how to spell un. Spelling is also aided because the rules for adding prefixes and suffixes are learned by regular use rather than forgotten because they were only used for an occasional lesson.

Finally, after a few days of various practice exercises, test the student. Dictate a sentence which allows him to understand the meaning of the word by hearing it in context. Then, stretch his memory by having him write the entire sentence. It is easier to remember how to spell a word when it is the sole focus of attention than when the mind is occupied with writing a complete thought, which is, after all, how his spelling skills will be used. It also provides practice with basic punctuation and capitalization skills.

The Natural Speller provides everything necessary for teaching and learning spelling for all grades. ($38.00) The 45 minute audio-cassette of the workshop “Strategies for Teaching and Learning Spelling” includes the information in this column along with additional examples, teaching strategies, and suggestions for increasing vocabulary.

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