Helping Children Make Progress in Spelling

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

When children learn to spell, there are at least two kinds of learning going on: discovery learning and memorization. 

But most children will not learn to spell correctly by discovery alone. Many children, first of all, need guidance to discover spelling patterns: they need words presented to them in groups, and they need to hear us comment upon the spelling patterns. Secondly, children need to be encouraged and taught to memorize the correct spellings of many words. Why?

Children need to have a store of correctly spelled words in mind from which they can infer spelling patterns, for one thing. For another, it is often unclear which pattern a word will follow: the word "read" could be spelled by many different patterns, including REED, REID, REDE, or REYED. Knowing these patterns helps, and the patterns can be learned by discovery; but knowing which pattern applies to a particular word requires some memorization. Also, memorizing is surely needed to learn irregularly spelled words such as "of," "was," "woman," and the like.

In the following sections we will suggest strategies for teaching spelling to children at each level of spelling development. We will concentrate on methods that nurture discovery learning and also offer explicit instruction where necessary.

For the Prephonemic Speller

Prephonemic spellers, you will remember, are children who string letters or letterlike marks together to look like writing, but whose letters bear no relation to sounds. Prephonemic spelling is common in kindergarten and early first grade. (Some children who have already discovered something of how letters represent sounds may revert to prephonemic spelling or scribbling when they are in a hurry to fill a page with print.3 We are assuming in this discussion that each kind of spelling described is the child's most advanced way of spelling at that time. If you are not sure, ask the child to spell some one and two syllable words as best she or he is able.)

Prephonemic spellers may not know:

  • that what we record when we write a message is a particular set of words.
  • that words can be broken down into units of phonemes, and that these (roughly) are what letters spell.
  • how to write many letters or know the letters' names.
  • a strategy for matching letters with sounds.

On the other hand, they do know that marks are made on paper with pencils, crayons, etc., and that some people use these marks to record and retrieve messages. So let's encourage them every way we can to use their own marks in those ways—involving them in writing workshops and in sharing time, even if they record and retrieve their messages with scribbles or prephonemic strings. But let's also help them learn how alphabetic writing works.

  1. Surround them with print. Label their desk, cubby, coathook, etc., with their names.
  2. Model the act of writing for them, talking to yourself as you write:

    "I'm going to write, 'Jon's desk.' What sound do I need first? 'Jon' begins with /juh/. I'll use the letter J for that sound. The next sound I hear is /ah/. I'll spell that with an O. Then I hear an /en/. I'll spell that with a letter N."

  3. Pair them up with children who are more advanced writers. Give both partners the task of writing a report or a story.
  4. Teach them letters. Show them letters on cards, preferably with each letter embedded in a picture of an object whose name begins with that letter (C as the handle of a CUP, or S as a SNAKE, for example). Use alphabet books. Teach them the alphabet song. With the whole class, feature a letter each week. Read poems that stress that letter sound. Ask children to bring in pictures of objects that begin with that sound, and give them lots of practice writing the letter and associating the letter with the sound.
  5. Read big books to them, and occasionally point to each word as you read. Point to beginning letters, from time to time, and comment on their sounds.
  6. Make little books for the children.4 Little books, with a picture on each page and a two- or three-word caption, are easy for children to learn to reread by themselves. Encourage the children to do so, pointing to the words as they do.

Prephonemic spellers can get support at home, too. Here are some suggestions we can make to parents for things to do at home:

  • Read aloud the road signs the family passes that have words on them: "stop," "yield," "speed limit 55," "school zone," and so on.
  • Read words that are flashed on the TV screen, such as show titles and cast of characters.
  • Read labels on items around the house such as toothpaste, cereal, spices (salt, pepper, mustard, catsup), and foodstuffs (flour, sugar, and so on).
  • Write letters and other messages to, for, and with your children. For instance, parents can encourage children to dictate a message, write it down, and read it back. Then the parent can go over the message with the child and see if he thinks it is right. The beginning writer will not know, of course, but by raising the question the parent suggests to the child that it is reasonable for him to concern himself with the print. Then the children can sign the dictations to make them theirs. Ask children to label their art work, and then explain why they used the letters they did. Label rooms or things around the house (or for teachers, around the classroom).
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