The interesting thing about teaching spelling is that it is just exactly the opposite of teaching reading. When students learn to read, they learn to decode the phonetic symbols that stand for the sounds of English words. On the other hand, when students learn to spell, they must learn to correctly encode a word into written form. Thus strategies for teaching spelling are thus closely related to teaching reading, but still look very different.
Some students are excellent readers, but poor spellers. Teachers who see this and who have tried very hard to improve students’ general reading and language skills with no spelling improvement might wonder what other strategies are available. The good news is that with the right strategies it is quite easy to teach most students spelling – even those whose spelling is currently atrocious.
The first strategy is to recognize that spelling is a very visual exercise. A student simply must be able to see in his head the right “shape” of each word along with its meaning. This will help him to avoid spelling “red” when he means “read” or “hi” when he means “high”.
Even with an imprecise visual memory of individual words, a student can read pretty fluently. If he’s learned phonics well, he’ll mentally hear the proper sound when he sees letters and from there interpret meaning. The cues provided by the differing spellings of the word do help his understanding, but he’s not consciously aware of that. But his imprecise visual memory of individual words comes out to bite him when the student is writing out a sentence from scratch. Suddenly faced with the decision whether to write, “hi” or “high” (or if he really panics, “hie” or “hye” or “hae”), he wracks his memory trying to remember what that word looks like.
With the use of teaching strategies that cement correct spellings into his visual memory, the student will no longer struggle when he writes. Numerous studies have demonstrated that certain spelling strategies are extremely successful at helping students to become better spellers. One is tracing the letters very large with hand or finger on a textured surface while saying the word. Another is tracing around the outline of the word. Finally, students should also quietly practice visualizing the word’s spelling. Sometimes practicing with alternate pronunciations can help (a student first pronounces the word correctly, then while looking at or visualizing the proper spelling, exaggerates the pronunciation to reflect every letter present, even silent ones).
The other extremely important strategy for teaching spelling is to maximize the use of study time: teach only those words that will help a student the most. These would be words that he both a) does not know how to spell and b) has frequent need to use in his present writing.
These strategies can certainly be incorporated into any classroom or homeschool with great effect. Maximize time by coming up with a personalized spelling list for each child. The “spelling notebook” idea is one way to do this – any time a student misspells a word in an assignment, it goes into his notebook. Also, give a somewhat lengthy pretest at the beginning of each week, but require students to study only the five or so that they themselves missed. During the rest of the week, assign a solid mix of the types of visual-memory activities sure to help the students develop a lasting ability to correctly spell those words. Memorizing spelling rules and mnemonics is helpful too, such as “I before E, except after C, or when sounding as A, as in neighbor or weigh.” Incorporate these wherever appropriate.
For more ideas, one of the best resources out there is Spelling Power. This program is head and shoulders above all other spelling programs out there. A teacher who uses the complete program is saved the labor of composing her own pretests or activities schedule. A teacher who prefers building her own can still gain a great deal of insight and good ideas from the Spelling Power manual. The author has boiled down all the best strategies for teaching spelling into one manual. And her organized system takes less than thirty minutes per day!
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