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Teacher to Teacher: Helping Children Become Better Spellers – What Parents Can Do

By Lynne R. Dorfman

As educators and parents, we realize the importance of spelling words accurately. Research indicates that spelling words in isolation does not transfer into daily writing habits. Even though the Friday spelling tests are popular, the time invested into memorizing word lists for spelling purposes does not really translate into time well spent. Parents like to help their children with schoolwork, and studying for weekly spelling tests is something most parents feel comfortable with in contrast to helping their children with math homework (since the new math programs develop math concepts and skills in a very different way than parents and grandparents remember).

If we give our parents a weekly or monthly suggestion to work on to help their children build spelling awareness and insight, then we may be able to substitute help with weekly spelling lists for something much better – the frequent and simultaneous use of real strategies that will help our students become better spellers. Rather than rote memorization, spelling should be viewed primarily as a process of conceptual learning. In reading and writing workshop and across the day, we teach students to spell in a variety of ways. We want our students to use their phonemic awareness, phonics-based classroom instruction, environmental print (word walls, etc.), tools such as dictionaries (on-line as well as print versions such as, thesauruses, spellcheckers, and knowledge of patterns to engage in written response.

In addition, we want our students to rely on a growing understanding of root words and their affixes gained in word study work in core reading time and guided reading groups as well as work embedded into content areas. Furthermore, our students should use their clear mental images of words often found in the stories, poems, and textbooks, and chapter books they are reading as well as their own written work to strengthen long-term spelling memory.

Here are some strategies that are doable and effective for both teachers and parents. Please remember that the strategies in this post are recommendations. Every child is different, so some strategies will work better for some children than others.  A spelling tip each week or each month can be posted on the class website or go home in a monthly letter to parents from teachers or the building principal.

  • When your child asks how to spell a word, do not automatically spell it for him. Ask him to think about the sounds in the word, the letter patterns of other words that are similar, and the meaning of the word. Ask your child to write the word using what he knows about the sounds and their corresponding letters, the patterns, and word parts (prefixes and suffixes).
  • When you are helping your child learn to spell a word, associate it with a word he already knows how to spell, especially rhyming words – How do you spell fright? It rhymes with the word light.  Use light to help you spell fright.
  • When spelling a word, encourage your child to say the individual sounds (not letter names) as he writes the corresponding letters. We say sounds and we write letters.
  • Don’t dismiss spelling as something that can be corrected by simply using spellcheckers. While we encourage students to use any editing tool available to them including peers and adults, they also need to try their best to give all their written work a careful, final edit! Sometimes, it is easier for students to edit as they go along, sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph rather than to wait until the end. A two- or three-page story is a lot to edit all at once!
  • Read with and to your children and ask them to read with you or to you. Reading daily at home builds vocabulary and spelling strength. Poetry is a wonderful option since it is easy to find the time for a poem or two each day. The rhyming pattern for each poem will help children recognize patterns.
  • Point out how words that are related by meaning often use the same base or root (moist and moisten or false and falsify).
  • The IPAD is an excellent tool for spelling practice. There are several spelling apps that allow children to have fun while learning to spell or improve their spelling skills. Also, some children who are resistant to traditional writing are sometimes willing to write on an IPAD.
  • Children can’t learn how to spell everything at once. Look for the words your child will use almost daily and help your child continue to check the spelling of these words as they edit their homework.
  • Keep a notebook at home with a page for each letter of the alphabet. Your child can record the words he most frequently uses and needs to spell correctly such as because, family, people, does, and when.
  • Encourage your child to think about the sounds, patterns, and meanings that dictate why words are spelled the way they are.

minneapolis-2015-lynne-paul-mary-and-me-5Lynne R. Dorfman is a Co-director of PAWLP and an adjunct professor at Arcadia University. She is eagerly awaiting the second edition publication this spring of her first book, Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, co-authored with PAWLP fellow Rose Cappelli.  Currently, she is writing Welcome to Writing Workshop with Stacey Shubitz. Lynne enjoys her role as President of Eta chapter of ADK and working with women educators who tirelessly raise monies for charities.

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