Building blocks for spelling

On the surface, spelling seems like an easy thing to teach. Give children a list of words to memorize for a quiz, and it seems to work! What about the kids who continue to struggle with spelling using this method, and whose writing is difficult to decipher because of copious spelling mistakes? Read on to find out that spelling is more than meets the eye. However, everyone can learn spelling using the five linguistic building blocks that form our written language.

Semantics

Semantics refers to the words or vocabulary of language and their meaning. In terms of spelling, there are homophones (e.g., there, their, and they’re) and homonyms (e.g., "The people left." and "Left is the opposite of right.") that encumber poor spellers. The meaning and context dictate the spelling, pronunciation, and use of each word. Narratives and connected language are the only way to teach these nuances of spelling and language. A couple of examples follow to illustrate how you might address semantics for spelling:

  • Read and discuss excepts from "Amelia Bedelia," "Dear Deer," or the "King who Rained." Ask students to explain the "mistakes," and write their own humorous narrative with homophones.
  • Regardless of the types of spelling words you are addressing, encourage your students to spell and write in sentences, paragraphs, and narratives. There are plenty of students who can accurately spell "Their," "they’re" and "there" on a quiz and then go on to write, "There going over to they’re friend’s house over their." (*Spell check would not correct these misspellings either.)
Morphology

Morphemes are the parts of words commonly known as prefixes and suffixes (e.g., re-, un-, -tion, and –ment). Each beginning and ending carries meaning and grammatical context for written language. As students enter middle school, their textbooks are packed with multisyllabic words with multiple morphemes. Struggling spellers will find these words difficult to pronounce, understand, and spell.

Morphology is typically learned implicitly through oral language, and it is up to the student to map it onto his written language. Often students who are poor spellers are also poor readers. Since complex morphology is learned through reading, decoding, and ascribing meaning to words with novel morphemes, poor readers are even more impoverished in their morphology for spelling and oral language.

There are myriad ways to explicitly teach morphology. Several suggestions follow:

  • Ask students to write word families with a given prefix or suffix. Then have them use what they know about the word meanings to infer the meaning of the morpheme. For example, show the words doable and likeable. Your students might tell you that the suffix means "able to" (able to do and able to like). They should be encouraged to expand the words they know in that word family. They may use the dictionary or find unfamiliar words in their textbooks to add to their lists.
  • Provide students with a set of "root words" and then ask them to make as many different words as possible by adding one or more prefixes or suffixes.
  • Give students a personal dictionary to turn in with their science, language arts, or history homework each week. The dictionary may have several columns including, "Unfamiliar word," "Prefixes/suffixes," "What I think it means," and "Dictionary Definition."
  • Assign students a short essay using words with a particular morpheme or ask them to use words from their personal dictionary. This context will allow you, their teacher, to ascertain whether they understand the morphology and know how to use it, and it will help students solidify their spelling knowledge.
Mental Orthographic Images

This part of spelling is often thought of as "sight words." Helping students to accurately decode and spell high frequency words in written language, and to do so automatically, will save them much time and energy. There are some spelling patterns that do not follow the phonics rules and therefore have to be memorized. These mental orthographic images may be taught through visualization, repetition, and active engagement. Several suggestions are offered for teaching these types of words:

  • Help students to visualize letter patterns by having them create colorful, meaning-based, word art. For example, in order to remember "yacht" your student may draw a shape of a boat with the "ht" leading up to the sail, and the "y" leading down to an anchor. Ask the student to close her eyes and make a "photograph" of how the word looks. If the student truly has a mental image of the whole word, she will be able to fluently spell it forwards or backwards.
  • Play with the words in a card game of "Go Fish," "Old Maid," or "Memory." This is especially helpful for kinesthetic learners.
  • Repeatedly practice a small set (no more than half a dozen) of sight words until they are mastered with 100% accuracy on several different days. Frequently recycle the words, so that they are not forgotten.
Phonics

Phonics, the sound-to-letter patterns of language, is what people traditionally think of when they begin teaching spelling. There are many phonics curricula available; however, it is important that they are explicit and work with one word family at a time. A word family is a group of words that not only share the same sound, but also the same spelling pattern. To illustrate, team, eat, and leaf are in the same word family since they all encode the "long e" sound with "ea." Feel and tear are in different word families, since in feel the "long e" is encoded with "ee," and in tear the "ea" is part of an "r-controlled syllable" and is not truly a vowel digraph (two vowels that make one sound).

In addition, effective spelling curricula teach syllable types and how to segment words and blend written syllables by recognizing these patterns. Careful curriculum selection is a must. The curriculum should have the following components:

  • Be systematic.
  • Provide multiple opportunities to spell and master each spelling pattern before moving on.
  • Provide explicit instruction for how to segment and blend written syllables.

The following are activities to bolster phonics skills regardless of the curriculum you select:

  • Provide letter tiles for your students to manipulate as they are learning a phonics rule/word family. This assists students who struggle with handwriting and grapho-motor skills and appeals to the kinesthetic learner as well.
  • Allow your student to create and manipulate a flipbook with the targeted phonics rule/word family. Flip books can be made with spiral bound index cards. The student cuts away a portion of the card to reveal the syllable type (e.g., "long-e" as in "ate"). The cards he overlays may have a variety of initial graphemes, "g" for "gate," "l" for "late," and "d" for "date." Then the student may cut away the second half of the card and change the "long-e" syllable to "ame" for "game" "lame," and "dame."
  • Allow your student to create and manipulate a word wheel with the targeted phonics rule/word family. Word wheels are similar with a cut away window, but are formed from two paper plates on top of each other with a brad in the center to allow the student to move the wheel to form different words.
  • Get moving with young kinesthetic learners, draw a hopscotch form with a variety of letters and have the student say the phoneme (sound) each letter makes as he or she hops on it. For more of a challenge, add syllables to each grapheme (e.g. the phoneme + "ad" to form "bad," "mad," "lad," "dad," "sad," etc.).
  • Direct your students to make flashcards for each syllable type that is introduced, (e.g., open syllables, closed syllables, vowel teams, r-controlled, consonant-le, affixes—prefixes/suffixes, vowel diphthongs, and silent E). These cards can be used for syllable sorting, blending, and syllabicating for real and nonsense words.
  • Assign the students corresponding phonics-based reading materials. These are generally available at the library, if your school does not have a phonics-based series. The phonics-based readers will provide repetition and context for struggling spellers.
Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness, the ability to manipulate the sounds in language, is now regarded as an essential component of any reading or spelling program. It is an area that is categorically underdeveloped in students with dyslexia. With this in mind, it is important to ensure that students receive direct instruction in how to segment, blend, manipulate, and discriminate between sounds in words. Teaching phonological awareness is distinct from phonics. It is strictly auditory, while phonics relates to the written patterns that correspond to sounds. When selecting a curriculum, look for one that contains instruction in phonological awareness. It is a key building block for spelling. Several activities are described that can be done with words from your curriculum:

  • Ask students to generate rhyming words or to determine whether or not two words rhyme.
  • Identify words that have the same sound. This can be done for the initial, medial, or final part of single syllable words. A word of caution, ensure that the students are matching the sounds not the letters in the words. It may require some examples such as "phone" and "fan" that have the same beginning sound; whereas, "gnat" and "got" do not have the same beginning sound.
  • Select several words and ask the students to count the sounds in the word, rather than the letters. Explain that sometimes more than one letter can make a single sound. For example, "ough" makes the "short-o" in "thought" (which only contains 3 sounds).
  • Add or delete sounds in words. Word chains that gradually change one sound at a time to make a new word are a good way to do this.
  • Encourage young students to segment/count syllables in words and older students to segment/count the phonemes, or individual sounds, in words.
  • Challenge your students to manipulate or alter one or more sounds in a word. For example, swap the "k" and the "t" in "Kate" to result in "take."

You have now been introduced to the essential building blocks of spelling. Multiple modes of engagement should be encouraged for auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners. Repetition is key for mastery, and with the exception of phonological awareness which is strictly an auditory activity, students must practice spelling in the context of written language (not in single word spelling lists and quizzes). While spelling is complex, it does not have to be a mystery. All students, not just struggling students, will benefit from explicit, step-by-step instruction in semantics, morphology, mental orthographic images, phonics, and phonological awareness. Success starts here!

How do you teach kids who struggle with spelling and whose writing is difficult to decipher because of copious spelling mistakes?
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