Helping Children Make Progress in Spelling (page 3)

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

For the Transitional Speller

Children who are transitional spellers are adept at breaking out phonemes for words and finding letters to spell them. They are moving beyond the intuitive one-sound, one-letter spelling of the previous stage. They have begun to take note of the way standard spelling works and are trying to gain control over the patterns they perceive in standard spelling.

Transitional spelling emerges gradually from letter-name spelling; it is certainly not a gear-shift change. Letter-name spellers are learning to read, and as they read, standard spelling patterns make their way into the children's spelling. When we see many of these standard spellings—ch, sh, and th digraphs; vowels with their correct short sound; silent letters; and the like—we say that these children have become transitional spellers.

As we observed in Chapter 5, the patterns of standard spelling are many and complex. It takes time, curiosity, and much exploration for a child to master these patterns. Children need to be led gradually to learn the patterns at work in standard spelling, and it is best if they learn these in the context of meaningful writing, though isolated activities are sometimes helpful.

Inductive approaches often work well for helping children learn spelling patterns. In these, children compare the spellings of several words in light of their pronunciation, meaning, part of speech, and origin. Then they are led to formulate their own generalities about the patterns that appear to be at work.

Word sorts are teacher-made or homemade activities that help children notice and form concepts about spelling patterns. Word sorts are a categorizing exercise in which children are led to group words together that share a common feature. This exercise gets them thinking about spelling features of words, and it works with words the children already know.

The procedure works as follows. The teacher or the children write down a collection of words on small pieces of tagboard. If the teacher is using the language-experience approach, the words used are those in the children's word banks. If he is not using the approach, then he or the children can jot down fifty words or so from the children's sight words on word cards. It's important for all of the participants in an activity to know the pronunciation and meaning of every word used.

With an individual or small group of children, the teacher starts off the activity by dividing the cards among the participants. Then he puts a card in the center of the table. He asks the children to read it and to put any words they have in hand that begin with the same sound on the table below the guide word. (Sometimes the teacher uses a picture of an object for a guide word, so the children cannot depend on a visual match between the first letters of the guide word and the words in their hands.) The teacher makes sure that the participating children have several cards in hand that match the guide word, as well as some that do not.

Besides working with beginning sounds, the activity can be centered on long and short vowel sounds; other vowel sounds, such as diphthongs and R-controlled vowels; grammatical endings, such as -ed or -s; words that end in a v sound; words that undergo phonological changes; words with similar prefixes and suffixes; compound words; and many other features. The activity can be directed toward any word feature—including similarities of meaning and nuance—that the teacher intends. In fact, word sort activities often bring to light interesting word features of which the students and the teacher may have been unaware.

Word sorts have the potential for helping children to construct concepts about spelling patterns and enabling them to display the concepts they already hold.9 Children at this stage of spelling profit from games and exercises that play on the spelling patterns of words. There are many games that play on children's recognition of allowable sequences of letters—letter sequences that typically spell words. Boggle, Perquackey, and Spill 'n Spell are games of this type. In all three, the players roll out letter cubes and try to identify English words within a specified time limit out of the letters that surface. Word hunts, Hangman, and Password are more games that encourage children's efforts to think of spelling patterns in English. All are worthwhile, both in the classroom and at home.

Beyond exploring spelling patterns, should transitional spellers be taught to spell? The answer is certainly Yes. As Ruell Allread remarked,10 children can learn a great deal about numbers and quantities from playing with different sized cans and sorting buttons—but the day will surely come when they must memorize the multiplication tables. There are correct spellings that must be learned. This fact does not take away from invented spelling. On the contrary, when children have been encouraged to use invented spellings, have written prolifically, have developed a curiosity about words, and have discovered many of the spelling patterns of English, they will surely learn correct spellings more easily than children whose learning has been controlled by teacher or textbook. But if these children are to spell correctly, they must still be challenged to learn correct spelling.

How should spelling words be taught?

From second grade on, select twelve to fifteen words each week for the children to learn. Which words? Many teachers prefer to choose words from the children's reading, writing, or science activities. The advantage to this approach is that children certainly benefit from studying the correct spellings of words they will read and write anyway. But there are disadvantages, too. Topically chosen words may be of only momentary usefulness—children may read and write them only while the unit is being studied. Surely children should study those words they will use the most in the long run. Another drawback is that fifteen topically chosen words may show fifteen different spelling patterns, which won't call attention to spelling patterns at all and will put a heavy burden on memory.

Some sort of compromise seems best. Choose three or four words from children's reading and writing, words they will use a lot and that build on spelling patterns that seem useful to learn. For each of these words, think of two or three other words that share the same spelling pattern. These, too, should be words that children use frequently. This method should give you nine or ten spelling words. If this seems like too much work, use a basal speller; most spellers choose their words by the criteria we have just set out.

You can round the list out to fifteen by asking the children to nominate words that they want to learn that week or adding words that you've seen children misspelling. You can personalize the list by having each child choose five words each week to learn. (Just make sure these words are spelled correctly before the students set about learning them!)

Use the test/study/retest method. On the first day of the week, call out the words on the list and have each student attempt to write the correct spelling. Then call out the correct spelling of each word, and have the students strike through any incorrect spelling and write the correct spelling beside it. Or, have the students pair up and call out the words to each other.

Advise the students to study the words they misspelled for a retest at the end of the week. If some students spell most of the words on the list correctly the first time, or if they get them all wrong, you should substitute harder or easier words as appropriate. If you're using a basal spelling series or borrowing words from one, choose lists from a different grade.

Have students study their misspelled words using the multisensory study technique. This method was modified from Grace Fernald by Bradley and Bryant.11 Advise the students to study the words using these eight steps:

  1. Look at the word and say it aloud.
  2. Read each letter in the word.
  3. Close your eyes, try to picture the word, and spell it to yourself.
  4. Look at the word. Did you spell it correctly?
  5. Say each letter of the word as you copy it.
  6. Cover the word and write it again.
  7. Look at the word. Did you write it correctly?
  8. If you made any mistakes, repeat the steps.

Use all of the interesting techniques you can to have children practice writing these words correctly. Computer software companies have programs that motivate children to practice spelling words, and some can be programmed to use your word lists. Software that can generate crossword puzzles using your spelling words is also available. Check with your librarian or media center director.


3.  Elizabeth Sulzby, "Writing Development in Early Childhood, Educational Horizons 64 (Fall 1985): 1,8-12.

4.  For more information on little books, see C. McCormick and J. Mason, "Intervention Procedures for Increasing Preschool Children's Interest in Knowledge about Reading," in W. Teale and E. Sulzby, eds., Emergent Literacy (New York: Ablex, 1986).

5.  James Moffett and Betty Wagner, Student-Centered Language Arts and Reading (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978).

6.  Darrell Morris, "Beginning Readers' Concept of Word," in Henderson and Beers.

7.  Don Holdaway, Foundations of Literacy (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1978).

8.  Marie Clay, The Early Detection of Reading Difficulties, 2d ed. (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1979).

9.  See Charles Temple and Jean Wallace Gillet, "Developing Work Knowledge: A Cognitive View, Reading World (December 1978); Jean Wallace Gillet and M. Jane Kita, "Words, Kids, and Categories," in Henderson and Beers; and Elizabeth Sulzby, "Word Concept Development Activities," in Henderson and Beers.

10.  Allread made this remark to Charles Temple in August 1991.

11.  Peter Bryant and Lynette Bradley, Children's Reading Problems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

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