Ah, the weekly spelling list. Traditionally sent home on Mondays, the list contains words that the child is expected to know how to spell on Friday. It’s a list that even the busiest parent can accommodate since the words can be rehearsed and recited virtually anywhere, from the carpool lane to just before bedtime. But the traditional spelling list has also become a source of contention. Some argue that spelling is an obsolete skill in the age of spell-check while others insist that increased online communication makes it more vital than ever. Meanwhile, parents muddle on, helping their children practice the words the way their parents helped them: rote memorization.
But is the constant drilling really helpful? A wealth of new research gives us insight into spelling instruction that actually helps kids learn to spell—and read.
It’s still important
Despite the rise of spell-check, spelling remains an important skill for children to master. Spelling correlates with a child’s ability to hear and translate sounds within words, which is an important component of reading. If a child can’t break a word apart into its individual sounds (something teachers call “phonemic awareness,” which is a precursor to phonics), reading is going to be difficult. Proper spelling programs help kids learn to do just that.
Furthermore, spell-checking programs look at the misspelled word before generating a list of possible corrections. Not only does the spelling have to be close enough to generate such suggestions, but students must also be able to choose the correct form of the word. While new technology means that we may not run to the dictionary as often as we used to, spelling instruction will probably never disappear entirely.
Practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes permanent
Think about your own experiences with spelling words. How were they taught? Did you write the words five times each? Hand in weekly spelling sentences? Fill out workbook pages?
Practicing with the words is important, but perfect practice is even more important. If your child misspells a word and you have him write it ten more times, chances are pretty good that he’s going to misspell it all over again. What’s getting reinforced? The misspelled version of the word. That kind of learning is hard to undo once it’s taken root. Practice has to be accurate in order for proper learning to be reinforced.
Spelling isn’t silent
The English language is made up of 26 letters and 44 sounds. Some languages have more, some less, but all letters or groups of letters produce corresponding sounds. Some of the sounds are very similar to one another. Think of the sounds for the letters F and V. Similar right? The difference between the two sounds is that the sound of the letter F is produced when the voice box is turned off; the sound of the letter V is produced when the voice box is turned on. (Go ahead, try it. Feel the difference?) This isn’t a rare phenomenon: it happens with numerous sounds in the English language (i.e., P and B or T and D).
Now think about kids taking a spelling test in which the room is supposed to be quiet. A child may whisper the word “van” during the test and feel the /v/ sound instead of the /f/. The resulting word sounds more like “fan” which would be counted wrong on the test. The word must be vocalized so the voice box is allowed to produce the /f/ sound at the beginning of the word.
The research-based, 21st century way to learn spelling
Instead of rote memorization or endlessly rewriting the word (incorrectly), researchers have discovered a series of steps to help children learn to spell correctly. What’s the best part? They’re easy enough that parents can use them at home! Have your child:
- Say the word out loud. They should feel the way their mouth moves with the word and listen for all the sounds in the word. (Think of the word “shadow.” They should hear sh-a-d-ow.)
- Use the word correctly in a sentence.
- Spell the word out loud while tracing the letters in the air. This helps the child visualize what the word looks like.
- Write the word on a piece of paper. Check the word and correct any errors. Don’t wait until the end to check all the words at once. Mistakes discovered right away can be remedied before incorrect learning takes hold.
What about sight words?
Sight words are the most common words in the English language and are among the first words students learn to read and spell. About 25% of sight words don’t follow the normal spelling patterns common in English. Think of the word from. If it followed the rules of English, it would be spelled frum. What do you do with those words? These words do need to be memorized.
- Have the child say the word out loud.
- The child should write the word. Check for accuracy.
- Direct the child’s attention to the part of the word that doesn’t follow the rule. In from, have them look at the letter O.
- Point out the parts of the word that do follow the rules (the f, r, and m). Draw a heart over the O and tell them, “This is the part we learn by heart.”
- Practice reading and writing the word until the child reads and writes it correctly ten times each.
Parents often tell frustrated children to “use their words” to help them get what they want. If we encourage children to “use their sounds” and adopt research-based study methods, kids will read and spell better. It may make the weekly spelling list a little less portable, but the payoff is huge.