Helping Children Make Progress in Spelling (page 2)
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.
- Surround them with print. Label their desk, cubby, coathook, etc., with their names.
- 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."
- Pair them up with children who are more advanced writers. Give both partners the task of writing a report or a story.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
For the Early Phonemic Speller
Early phonemic spellers may be kindergarteners or even precocious preschoolers; normally they are children in the first half of first grade.
Early phonemic spellers have discovered that written messages consist of exact recorded words. The words are recorded by their sounds, by their phonemes. Children at this stage know several letters, and are beginning to realize that spelling can work by matching target sounds with letter-names that sound like them.
Early phonemic spellers are limited by an unstable concept of word—a limited ability to think of words as units of language, or to manipulate them in the ways necessary to spell them inventively. They also have difficulty with phonemic segmentation—the ability to break a word down into its constituent sounds so that the sounds can be spelled. Further, early phonemic spellers may not recognize or know how to make all of the letters.
Instructional goals for these children include the same general goals as for the prephonemic spellers. We should continue to surround them with print. We should read to them and encourage them to identify particular books that they enjoy, that they can learn by heart and recite while they turn the pages. Also, we should continue to have them experiment with writing by giving them plenty of opportunities to put down what they can by way of spelling out words.
We have some more specific goals for early phonemic spellers, too. One is to encourage them to develop a stable concept of what a word is. The way to do that is to call the children's attention to words in print as we—or they—are saying words out loud. James Moffett has a procedure for this, which he calls the Lap Method.5 You hold a child on your lap, read to her a book with which she is very familiar, and point to each word in the text as you read it aloud. Gradually, you can get the child to try to point to words as you read them, and read words as you point to them. But the goal is to direct the child's attention to a written word at exactly the instant that the word is being read aloud. With this kind of support, the information that links a printed word with a spoken word is brought into focus for the child. Aspects of this information are things like: a word in print is a configuration of letters bound by spaces on both ends; words are arranged from left to right; more than one syllable may be a single word; and individual letters may resemble individual sounds heard in words.
There are several successful variations of the Lap Method. One is done with a poem or a song that the child has memorized. The teacher and the child sit down with a written version of the poem or song, which is ideally four to six lines in length. They read each line chorally, as the teacher points to each word. Then the teacher points to a single word and asks the child what it is. The teacher points to the first word in the line, then the last, then one in the middle. It is not likely that the child will be able to recognize the words pointed to. Instead she will have to recite the line to herself and guess what each word must be by its order in the written line. This gets her thinking about words as units of writing and gives her practice matching a word in her head with one in print.6
Taking dictated experience stories, a part of the language-experience approach to reading and language arts instruction, also helps develop the concept of words in print. Dictated accounts are done either with individuals or in groups. After the children have undergone an interesting episode—perhaps an encounter with baby rabbits or a field trip to the post office—each, child is invited to dictate one sentence to the teacher as part of a group composition. A number of reading activities usually follow the dictation: The group reads all the sentences chorally several times; individuals volunteer to read words or sentences; the teacher points to a word in the line and asks a child to read it. In cases where the child knows by heart what the line says but cannot recognize the word, he is likely to work his way through the line, matching memorized words with units of print until he makes a match with the word in question.
The shared book method, as developed by Don Holdaway in New Zealand7 is nicely suited to helping young readers and writers learn about the relationships between print and speech. Holdaway's method uses big books, yard-high versions of children's books that are read in the children's presence by the teacher, who uses a pointer to touch each word as she reads. After several passes through the big book in the group setting, the children are handed standard-size versions of the book to read on their own. Holdaway and his colleagues began by creating their own big books out of whatever books were likely to be favorites with their particular children. Following their lead, commercial publishers now offer printed versions of big books for sale.
Many early phonemic spellers write their own names correctly, as well as the names of their friends, brothers, and sisters. Names can be used in learning activities to establish the concept of word. Write the child's name several times on a strip of paper without leaving any spaces between the words. Then ask the child to help you separate the names. The child spells her name first, pointing to each letter. When she comes to the end of one spelling, she cuts the name apart from the one that follows. When she has cut the names apart, she may paste them on another piece of paper, leaving spaces between them.
A similar procedure, involving whole sentences, is suggested by Marie Clay.8 Have the child dictate a sentence to you, write it down, and read it back to him. Then read the sentence with him until he can read the sentence by himself. As you read the sentence each time, point to the words. When the child is able to read the sentence by himself (he is able to do this by memorizing, of course, not by actual reading), write the sentence a second time on a strip of paper. Now cut the words off the strip, one at a time, reading the sentence aloud minus the severed word each time. As a next step, the child can match the cut apart words with those in the sentence that was left intact. A fairly easy task is for the child to arrange the cut apart words on top of the words to which they are matched. A more difficult exercise is to arrange the words into a sentence several inches below the sentence left intact.
Emily devised a similar activity when she was not quite four. She put pieces of thin paper on the covers of her favorite books and traced the titles.
Another specific instructional goal we have for children who are early phonemic spellers is that they grow in their ability to segment spoken words into individual phonemes. The most natural practice is to continue to spell the parts of the words of which they are more certain. Thus, their spellings may look like this at first: I W _T D_N _E P __ ("l walked down the path"). But in time, there will be fewer blanks left and more letters filled in as children gain practice in segmenting phonemes.
The final instructional goal we have for early phonemic spellers is that they be more willing to take risks. We have seen abundant evidence that making errors is a necessary part of learning to spell. We want children to pay attention to the print around them and see how it is put together and. how it works. But we want just as much for them to produce their own writing, in which they try out spelling the way they think it is. We want them to formulate ideas about written language and act on them; then they will know what to do with the information they gain from examining other people's written language.
Unless children take risks and unless they are willing to make errors, their progress as spellers will be slow and inhibited, and their delight in making their own messages in print will be small. Children who are willing to invent spelling for words usually become correct spellers in a reasonably short time—and they also become fluent writers in the process.
Whether or not a child is a risk taker depends on a number of factors—his personality, the expectations of his parents, and the atmosphere of his classroom all contribute. There are several steps the teacher can take to help a child gain self-confidence and take risks.
Talk to the children and praise them for what they know about writing. If some children have discovered that writing goes left to right across a page, they may be congratulated for this discovery. If some have discovered that words have letters in them, and that the letters are mixed, this is something that the teacher can discuss with them. And if some have discovered that words are spelled by matching letters with individual sounds, this is a realization worthy of an adult's attention. Having an adult express interest in these issues as the children investigate them adds to the children's sense of accomplishment and reassures them that their efforts are worthwhile.
Parents and teachers should both understand the value of encouragement, practice, and freedom to make errors in learning to spell. If the teacher encourages invented spelling at school but does not share her position with the parents, confusion may result. Parents may be alarmed that children bring home papers with uncorrected spelling errors, or that children enthusiastically produce writing with spelling errors at home. Unless the teacher enlists the parents' understanding and support, they are likely to say discouraging things to their children, with the best of intentions. They may even question whether the teacher is doing her job, mistakenly equating the teacher's encouragement of early writing and invented spelling with a lax attitude that leaves errors uncorrected.
© ______ 1993, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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