This article presents a series of focus areas that comprise a comprehensive approach to helping children become better spellers. Traditionally, the weekly spelling test has been the primary vehicle for driving spelling instruction. The main problem with weekly spelling tests involves the issue of transfer. This simply means that students can study hard and earn high scores on the tests, yet continue to spell these words incorrectly in their daily writing, when it matters most. Instead of emphasizing scores on weekly spelling tests, teachers and parents are better served by addressing the following aspects of spelling instruction with children.
1) Encourage kids to immerse themselves in the language. By far, the number one way to help children become better spellers is to have them participate in a wide variety of authentic reading and writing projects. Research has shown that children who read at least 30 minutes per night encounter more than one million words over the course of a school year. Seeing these words spelled correctly in books provides strong modeling that increases kids’ spelling proficiency.
2) Build a foundation with high frequency words. Many schools have students learn the “High Frequency 100” or “High Frequency 500.” These lists feature the words that are used most commonly in books. I have heard that as many as sixty or seventy percent of the words we use in our daily writing can be found on these lists, and because of this fact, students need to invest time learning them. Ask around at your child’s school if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the high frequency words.
3) Invest time helping children learn common spelling rules and patterns. If you notice that children struggle in their attempts to spell words that include the “i before e except after c” rule or the “ight” or “ough” patterns, spend some time going over examples of these rules and patterns in action. Because learning a single rule can help kids spell as many as 10-15 new words correctly, mastering these features of the language delivers plenty of bang for our buck.
4) Hold kids accountable for spelling “accessible” words correctly. In my classroom when a word is written on the board or on a worksheet students are using, they are responsible for spelling that word correctly. This type of accountability encourages kids to pay extra attention to their spelling. I don’t, however, hold kids accountable for every word all the time because it can disrupt the flow of their writing, create a block, and cause them to play it safe with easy words rather than attempt to use new, more colorful words. There is a time and a place for thorough editing, and that leads to our fifth area.
5) Ask kids to edit selected projects for spelling at the end of the writing process. The beginning of a writing project (the drafting stage) is all about creativity, fluency, and free expression. Concerns about spelling can get in the way of these priorities. Once the drafting and revising stages are over, editing for spelling using a dictionary is important. I don’t want to burn my students out on using the dictionary, so I have them use one only at the conclusion of our major Writing Workshop projects. At home, parents can edit for spelling with their kids at the conclusion of nightly journal writing time or other writing projects that are part of the regular homework.