Monday, September 1, 2008

The Truth about Spelling

Over the last year, I've shared the story at conferences and workshops about how God led me in how to teach my son to spell.

Since then, I've received many queries about the program that I used. In essence, I did not use a program, but a procedure. In the hopes that it will help your struggling speller, I will lay out the procedure here:

Reading and spelling are two different skills. If you try to use the procedure you learned for reading with spelling (phonics) you will be a horrendous speller. Children should be told early and often that words are not spelled phonetically as they are read, spelling is a memory skill.

Let me explain:

When you see the word "beleive" - you probably don't think "I before E, except after C." Rather, you immediately note that the word doesn't look right. It doesn't match the image you have of the word in your head. It doesn't take long before you realize that the e and i are trasposed, but the fact is, you knew it was misspelled because of a picture you had in your mind.

Charlotte Mason taught that a child learned to spell by “taking a picture” of the word and imprinting this picture into the mind. Some children do this naturally, while others need to be taught how. The truth is, you can actually teach your child to become a natural speller. Once they learn how to photograph words in their mind, they'll begin to naturally do it.

You see, your child should study the word in question until they can actually “see” the word in their mind’s eye - with their eyes closed. The word must be memorized in the same way that the face of their mother is memorized. Then, the child will always know when the word is misspelled and what the correct spelling should look like.

Charlotte Mason was adamant that a child should never have a chance to gaze upon a misspelling when learning a word. The chance that they may memorize the wrong spelling is too great. We want to take great care what "pictures" are being imprinted on the young learner's mind.

This is where spelling programs fail; they allow the child to guess at the spelling and look at their misspellings over and over again. This runs the risk of cementing a wrong spelling into the child’s mind for years and years to come.

If your child is still a poor speller at the end of 4th grade, I suggest you have your child memorize the most frequently used words in the English language. Once these words are memorized, the child will be well on their way to good spelling.

Here is the suggested procedure:

a. Print each word in large font.
b. Have the child study the word, spelling it out loud and staring at it.
c. Ask them to imagine taking a picture of the word to imprint in the mind.
d. Have them close their eyes and imagine the word.
e. Study it again. (Active learners should draw it in the air with their finger).
f. Next, spell it out loud once by looking, and once without looking.
g. Look at the word again before writing it.
h. Cover the word and have the student write it from memory.
i. If it is written wrong, mark it out quickly and study it again before you try again.

Do not do spelling for longer than 15 minutes. Once your child has worked through the list of common words, have them use this same procedure with whichever spelling program you prefer. Some spelling programs do not allow the students to see words before writing them. I believe the children should be encouraged to study and memorize words, and then test them on the words later.

About spelling rules: they are helpful when you are in a jam. So, don't totally skip them. But, using the procedure above will increase your child's spelling more quickly than rule memorization since the rules have so many exceptions.

I hope that helps!


For the list of the most common words in English, visit this website: