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Friday, November 16, 2012

Why Can't My Child Spell?

Spelling is like anything in life and every school subject there is.  Some kids are born with an understanding of words and their sounds, and other kids have to work very hard to understand the relationship. 

Good readers are good spellers.  Why?  They see the words often in the books they read, developing their vocabulary, and seeing reoccurring letter patterns over and over.  They may not even be book readers, but they are readers...of cereal boxes, bill boards, signs, menus, etc.  My daughter does not read many books, but she reads EVERYTHING else.  She's also a good speller.

Poor spellers typically don't enjoy reading as much, if at all.  If they do enjoy reading, it's usually more of a take it or leave it attitude.  They don't read the cereal box in front of them; they play the game on the back. They don't read the billboards, but they may notice the art on it.  They may read, but more often, they don't.  Take it or leave it.

I have a BA in Speech Pathology and an Elementary Education certification for grades 1-5.  The reason I had an interest in both of these things is because I was the reader in my family.  My brother and sister, on the other hand, were not.  I was the kid left on the bus hiding behind Charlotte's Web.  My brother and sister hated reading.  There was nothing fun about it.  It was work and it was HARD work.  It made them feel stupid when they tried because other kids could do it, but they couldn't.  My sister would later be diagnosed with dyslexia in a higher grade.  My brother would be diagnosed with dyslexia in 1st grade.  In 1980, kids were not often diagnosed with much, but it was obvious. 

Because of this huge difference between my siblings and I, it made me extra sensitive to others who struggle, and it still does today.  My heart goes out to them, and I want them to be understood.  The following is my theory and my theory only based on my education and experience in my classroom.  This is not any scientific data, but I think I can help.

How do I help my kid learn to spell?

1.  DO Know this.  A poor speller does not mean a child is not intelligent.  Know it, believe it, and drill it in your child's brain.  It's a skill.   Every kid has a weak subject.  This just happens to be theirs.  They can overcome it, but it takes work.  Some of the smartest people I know are awful spellers.

2.  DO NOT believe "Who needs to learn to spell?  That's what spellcheck is for?"  You have to get close for spellcheck to recognize it, and if you use a homophone spelled correctly, it will not catch it.  Grammar Nazis like me will know the difference when they are an executive later in life and have to put out memos for the whole company, or worse, hand write memos for others.  We want our kids to be their best.  They don't get there by making excuses or being lazy.  (Was that too harsh?)  They also go through many years of school and college where they will be graded on such things.

3.  DO NOT MAKE YOUR CHILD WRITE THEIR WORDS 5, 10, 20 TIMES EACH!!  This may BE the reason they cannot spell.  It is also the reason they hate spelling.

4.  Do NOT call out spelling lists in the car to a struggling speller.  You CAN do this to an achieved speller.  The already use the strategy I will get to in a bit.  Struggling spellers must ALWAYS write the word.  Did I say ALWAYS?  Good.

5.  If your school does not already offer a list of spelling rules, find some.  Our school uses the Spalding Method of writing, but there are other methods that offer the rules.  Google it.
This is a link I just found for the 29 Spalding Rules.  It is overwhelming at first.  Don't be scared.  You can do this.  You already know some of them!  So does your child!

6.  Know the sounds that the letters make.  In PreK, kids are taught that X says /ks/ and Y says /y/.  Then they are taught the word "xylophone".  Where's /xs/?  They are taught x-ray.  This X says /eks/, /not /xs/.  X only says /ks/ in the final part of a syllable.  The list should be "fox, box, mix".  For Y they learn "yarn, yellow, yak"  Those all say /y/ as they were told.  Then they get in 1st grade and learn "baby, my, by"  Where's /y/?  Y only says /y/ in the beginning of a syllable. 
THEY NEED TO KNOW UNITS OF SOUND, NOT LETTERS.  Spalding uses these phonograms.  Learn them in order.  After # 45, it gets complicated.  Learn those when they present themselves in a spelling list word. 
These are the videos on you tube.  There are cuter ones, but I teach 4th grade.  You can google that, too. Save these on your computer desktop for easy access for your child to work alone.
Phonograms 1-26
Phonograms 27-45
Phonograms 46-58
Phonograms 59-70

7.  Review these cards (mastering one set at a time and only the first two sets) nightly if you have a struggling speller.  Total immersion is best, not just when we feel like it.  It takes very little time to review.  Once your child has mastered 1-45, they can start finding them in words.  These flashcards are also available in a student set for around $13, I think, at  Find the "store" tab.

8.  The spelling list.  Your spelling lists will typically focus on a rule, like the magic e that makes the vowel say its name.    Spalding lists are different, but you need to adapt this to your child's spelling lists at school.  Underline silent e twice always.  Spalding gets more involved in this, but you'll be fine just using this rule with your child.  "If the letter does not say the sound it should make, underline it twice."

9.  Help your child to mark their spelling list.  Underline phonograms with more than one letter.  See if there is a rule(s) that matches each week in your list.  Learn the rule as it presents itself.  For example if the words end in Y, there are two rules possible.  Words do not end in i, so we use y.  In one syllable words, Y says long /i/.  If the word is more than one syllable, Y says long /e/.  You will have lists with "ai" and "ay", and "oi" and "oy, etc.  Mark (underline) these phonograms and any others that are more than one letter.

10.  Sound out the letters as the letter "should" sound, not the way it does in speaking.  For example, "vote"  sounds like /v/ /o/ t/ /e/, say the e.  Then read it the way we say it "vote".  "Cheese"  would be /ch/ /ee/ /s/ /e/ "cheese".  "ee" is a phonogram. Do this nightly. Read the list once they way we write it all the way through, then read the list once just reading it normally, without sounding.  The more they SEE the word, the better they know it.  This takes very little time as well.  If you are a last minute studier, quit reading, none of this will work.  You have to be honest about the amount of effort that goes into this.  It seems liks a lot at first, but soon they will do ALL of this on their own, without you.

11.  Take a practice test nightly.  Now, they write it.  This is the more time consuming part.  Now, you have to "teach" them to use the sounds to spell.  You can call a word out and separate the syllables.  Tell them to listen to each sound in the syllable.  A syllable has one vowel sound in it.  Not one vowel, one vowel sound.  "Nice" has one vowel sound /i/, one syllable.  Sound it for them as they should learn to sound it.  Have them sound each sound out to you as they write each phonogram always. "dozen"  would be "doz" "en".  /d/ /o/ /z/ /e/ /n/.  Sound the short e here.  The more you do this with them, the more they will naturally go to that strategy during the test (and homework)

12.  Be patient!  They are learning.  The spelling grade may slip at first, but the trade off is that they are learning to spell.  After a bit, they will use the strategy more, and grades will come back up.  They will not memorize words anymore, they will spell them.  They will spell all other words, as well, much better because they have a strategy.

Memorizing has worked for us?  Why can't I just keep doing that?
A kid who memorizes the order of letters, mixes the letters up and misses them on tests.  They also can't spell that same word 2 weeks later when it's not on the spelling list.  After middle school, there are no more spelling tests, and your kid still won't know how to spell.  They've put a band-aid on the wound and it never fixed itself.  You must plan for the future in everything.  One day, they will be expected to soar.  You have to give them the tools.  Without the proper tools, they will not be as successful as their peers.  If my child needs glasses, I get her glasses.  If my child can't spell, I help them to learn how to spell.  Glasses are quicker, but you get the point.  I didn't say it would be easy.
Do not depend on your school.  Textbooks design lists this way.  They are only following what they are supposed to teach.  Since most kids can memorize a list, they let them, give them spelling homework so they write them nightly, and move on to bigger and better things, like reading and math.  Oh, by the way, your poor speller is also struggling in reading which is not just something they need in reading.  They need it for every test they take.  They can memorize answers, but if they can't read the words, they can't figure out the correct multiple choice answer.  They probably bomb every math word problem, too.

My child leaves out vowels where you can clearly hear the vowel?  What do I do?
YOU can clearly hear that vowel, but they do not.  This is my conclusion for it.  Vowel sounds are made with your mouth open.  Your tongue touches nothing.  In the word "cat"  I hear and FEEL the sound in my mouth /k/ and /t/.  The short "a" gets lost because it feels like a transition from /k/ to /t/ rather than a sound that takes up space in a word.  Working on vowels is key for these kids.  Pick up a game of "Vowel Bingo"  They'll love it and it builds the skill very well.

My child puts random letters where they obviously do not belong in his schoolwork?
He's guessing.  Pure guessing.  He has too little an understanding of the letter sounds.  If it's not a memorized spelling word, he cannot spell it.  Sure, he makes straight A's in spelling, but his intelligence is fine, remember?  He can memorize the order of the letters!

This is a seriously long post.  I apologize.  It was much smaller in my head.

Lesson:  I have a lot to say about spelling.