Perhaps the best-known way to teach spelling is through weekly spelling tests, but tests should never be considered a complete spelling program. To become good spellers, students need to learn about the English orthographic system and move through the stages of spelling development. They develop strategies to use in spelling unknown words and gain experience in using dictionaries and other resources. A complete spelling program includes the following components:
- Teaching spelling strategies
- Matching instruction to students’ stage of spelling development
- Providing daily reading and writing opportunities
- Teaching students to learn to spell high-frequency words
Students learn spelling strategies that they can use to figure out the spelling of unfamiliar words. As students move through the stages of spelling development, they become increasingly more sophisticated in their use of phonological, semantic, and historical knowledge to spell words; that is, they become more strategic. Important spelling strategies include the following:
- Segmenting the word and spelling each sound, often called sound it out
- Spelling unknown words by analogy to familiar words
- Applying affixes to root words
- Proofreading to locate spelling errors in a rough draft
- Locating the spelling of unfamiliar words in a dictionary
Teachers often give the traditional sound it out advice when young children ask how to spell an unfamiliar word, but teachers provide more useful information when they suggest that students use a strategic think it out approach. This advice reminds students that spelling involves more than phonological information and encourages them to think about spelling patterns, root words and affixes, and what the word looks like.
Two of the most important ways that students learn to spell are through daily reading and writing activities. Students who are good readers tend to be good spellers, too: As they read, students visualize words—the shape of the word and the configuration of letters within it—and they use this knowledge to spell many words correctly and to recognize when a word they’ve written doesn’t look right. Through writing, of course, students gain valuable practice using the strategies they have learned to spell words. And, as teachers work with students to proofread and edit their writing, they learn more about spelling and other writing conventions.
In addition to reading and writing activities, students learn about the English orthographic system through minilessons about phonics, high-frequency words, spelling rules, and spelling strategies.
Teachers use two types of word walls in their classrooms. One word wall features “important” words from books students are reading or thematic units. Words may be written on a large sheet of paper hanging in the classroom or on word cards and placed in a large pocket chart. Then students refer to these word walls when they’re writing. Seeing the words posted on word walls and other charts in the classroom and using them in their writing help students learn to spell the words.
The second type of word wall displays high-frequency words. Researchers have identified the most commonly used words and recommend that students learn to spell 100 of these words because of their usefulness. The most frequently used words represent more than 50% of all the words children and adults write!
The table below lists the 100 most frequently used words.
- do don't
P, Q, R
Teachers choose a five- to eight-letter word (or longer words for older students) and prepare sets of letter cards for a making words activity (Cunningham & Cunningham, 1992). Then students use the cards to practice spelling words and to review spelling patterns and rules. They arrange and rearrange the cards to spell one-letter words, two-letter words, three-letter words, and so forth, until they use all the letters to spell the original word. Second graders, for example, can create these words using the letters in weather: a, at, we, he, the, are, art, ear, eat, hat, her, hear, here, hate, heart, wheat, there, and where.
Students use word sorts to explore, compare, and contrast word features as they sort a pack of word cards. Teachers prepare word cards for students to sort into two or more categories according to their spelling patterns or other criteria (Bear et al., 2008). Sometimes teachers tell students what categories to use, which makes the sort a closed sort; when students determine the categories themselves, the sort is an open sort. Students can sort word cards and then return them to an envelope for future use, or they can glue the cards onto a sheet of paper.
Teachers use interactive writing to teach spelling concepts as well as other concepts about written language. Because correct spelling and legible handwriting are courtesies for readers, they emphasize correct spelling as students take turns to collaboratively write a message. It is likely that students will misspell a few words as they write, so teachers take advantage of these “teachable moments” to clarify students’ misunderstandings. Through interactive writing, students learn to use a variety of resources to correct misspelled words, including classroom word walls, books, classmates, and the dictionary.
Proofreading is a special kind of reading that students use to locate misspelled words and other mechanical errors in rough drafts. As students learn about the writing process, they are introduced to proofreading in the editing stage. More in-depth instruction about how to use proofreading to locate spelling errors and then correct these misspelled words is part of spelling instruction (Cramer, 1998). Through a series of minilessons, students can learn to proofread sample student papers and mark misspelled words. Then, working in pairs, students can correct the misspelled words.
Proofreading should be introduced in the primary grades. Young children and their teachers proofread collaborative books and dictated stories together, and students can be encouraged to read over their own compositions and make necessary corrections soon after they begin writing. This way, students accept proofreading as a natural part of writing. Proofreading activities are more valuable for teaching spelling than are dictation activities, in which teachers dictate sentences for students to write and correctly capitalize and punctuate. Few people use dictation in their daily lives, but we use proofreading skills every time we polish a piece of writing.
Students need to learn to locate the spelling of unfamiliar words in the dictionary. Although it is relatively easy to find a “known” word in the dictionary, it is hard to locate unfamiliar words, and students need to learn what to do when they don’t know how to spell a word. One approach is to predict possible spellings for unknown words, then check the most probable spellings in a dictionary.
Students should be encouraged to check the spelling of words in a dictionary as well as to use a dictionary to check multiple meanings or etymology. Too often, students view consulting a dictionary as punishment; teachers must work to change this view. One way to do this is to appoint several students as dictionary checkers: These students keep dictionaries on their desks, and they’re consulted whenever questions about spelling, a word’s meaning, or word usage arise.
In English, alternate spellings occur for many sounds because so many words borrowed from other languages retain their native spellings. There are many more options for vowel sounds than for consonants. Spelling options sometimes vary according to the letter’s position in the word. For example, ff is found in the middle and at the end of words but not at the beginning (e.g., muffin, cuff), and gh represents /f/ only at the end of a syllable or word (e.g., cough, laughter).
Teachers point out spelling options as they write words on word walls and when students ask about the spelling of a word. They also can teach upper-grade students about these options in a series of minilessons. During each lesson, students can focus on one phoneme, such as /k/, and as a class or small group they can develop a list of the various ways the sound is spelled, giving examples of each spelling.
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