How do we learn to spell? Can most adults who are able to spell at proficient levels in developed countries thank their teachers for the weekly spelling lists they helped them to memorise each week (with parents drilling them each day at home)? The evidence would suggest NOT, as it would be impossible. It is difficult to know how many words an adult can spell, but if we accept estimates that an average person has a vocabulary of 100,000 (see Stockwell & Mincova, 2001), then we could estimate that many adults can spell a minimum of 50,000 words correctly. Now let's assume that each child has continuous spelling instruction using list based processes for 12 years across the typical 40 week school year. At 10 words per week (a common number) they could learn 4,800 words in their educational career. At 50 words per week (i.e. 10 NEW words learned each day) they could learn 24,000 words in their school career. Even if there were no loss of the ability to spell these words (which does not match our understanding of how memory works), they would learn less than half the number of words that the average adult can spell. While spelling bees can be fun, and can heighten the awareness of the need to spell, and while list-based memorisation of spelling words is good for learning irregular words that don't conform to general rules, it falls well short of what we need to be good spellers.
What's required to be able to spell?
The only way that children will learn to be effective spellers is by being immersed in a rich language environment that supports them as readers, offers them many varied opportunities to write and encourages an environment where it is natural to explore words and 'play' with them. There are many skills that children need to learn that eventually they can apply as part of writing for varied purposes. Here are 10 basic skills that spellers need.
1. Understanding basic alphabetic concepts – knowing that written symbols (graphemes) stand for individual phonemes. For example, that the letter 'b' represents the initial sound in ‘but’.
8. Using context and meaning – writers have to use knowledge of the world to choose the right word to use in a sentence. For example, choosing ‘bough’ to write in the sentence “I cut the bough of the tree”, not “bow”.
9. Using associations or connections between words - some refer to this as using analogy to spell. In essence it requires the child think about words mentally and use associations between words to remind them how to spell (more later on this).
10. Using syntax and grammar – writers need to apply knowledge of language syntax to make some spelling choices. For example, using “there” in “I put it over there”, not “their”.
While the above represent the major skills that we use to learn, recall and spell 50,000 plus words, how are they acquired? Many of the above skills have their foundation in everyday language and literacy practices. As we read, we also acquire some of the skills we need for spelling, such as alphabetic concepts, phonological awareness, sound/symbol relationships, whole word recognition skills, syntax and the use of context to predict meaning. Similarly, the act of writing also provides an opportunity to learn spelling skills as they write. Even as we read to toddlers we are pointing to words and language devices that in a sense is the beginning of spelling awareness (not just reading). But as children grow older, there are a variety of strategies that teachers and parents can use to support spelling development. I will share just 6 below.
1. 'Have a go' strategy
This is a strategy for trying to spell unknown words as part of the writing process (ideal for children aged 6 years and older). Teach your child (or children) to apply the following strategy when they need to spell an unknown word.
- Ask yourself, have I seen it before?
- Say the word out loud and try to predict how many syllables you can hear.
- Ask do I know any other words that sound almost the same?
- How are those words spelt?
- 'Have a go' (Aussie vernacular for trying to do something) at the word.
- Ask yourself, does the word look right?
- Have additional attempts at getting the word right.
This is a strategy that you can teach children of any age (who have started to write) to acquire new words. It has three simple steps.
Step 1 - When you need to remember how to spell a new word look at it, say it out loud, examine the number of syllables, any unusual grapheme/phoneme relationships etc.
Step 2 - Cover the word
Step 3 - Try to write it from memory
3. Here is a collection of self-help strategies - children as young as 6 can be taught to try to learn new words.
- After covering the word try to picture it in your mind.
- Uncover the word and trace the letters, cover and try again.
- Look at the new word, break it into syllables. After studying the syllables cover the word and try to write it.
- Look at the new word and try to memorise the most difficult part of the word (e.g. the 'ght' in sight).
- Check your writing environment for the word, or one like it (wordlists, other writing, dictionaries etc).
Many young children will benefit from an approach that presents words in sets that have similar phonological elements. For example, you might present your children with a group of words ending in 'ight', that begin with 'thr' etc. You can have fun forming the lists with your child (or children), writing them down, then trying to remember them. There are many good spelling games that support this type of approach (you can read more about these games here).
5. Morphemic (meaning-based) strategies
For some words a meaning-based approach will help writers. This starts with the parent or teacher pointing out a morpheme within a new word, explaining the meaning, then analysing a set of words.
For example, a word like 'unexpected' can be broken into two elements, 'un' and 'expected'. Discuss with the child or children what 'expected' means and then explain the meaning of the prefix 'un'. Have the child think of other words that fit this pattern and then write them down. Depending on the age of the children you might even go further with an example like this and break it into 'un', 'expect' and 'ed'. In this instance you would also consider how the suffix 'ed' changes the meaning of the word.
For older children you might also consider exploring Latin roots to aid spelling. For example:
- 'mare' meaning 'sea' as used in marine
- 'pedis' meaning 'foot' as used in pedestrian
- 'gress' meaning to walk as used in 'progress' and 'transgress'
- 'tract' meaning to 'draw', 'drag' or 'pull' as used in 'attract' and 'contract'
- 'hyper' meaning 'excessive' or 'excessively' as in 'hyperactivity'
Mnemonics are devices that help us to remember things. It is a strategy that some people use to remember how to spell words that they get wrong habitually. A mnemonic simply help to remove confusion or narrow options for spelling. There is a down side to mnemonics though. If you use them too much you tend to reduce the use of other key spelling strategies, reducing your confidence and risk-taking as a writer. A simple example of a mnemonic applied to spelling is one used to help us know the difference between 'affect' and 'effect'. It is based on the word 'raven' used as an acronym:
R - remember
A - 'affect'
V - verb
E - 'effect'
N - noun
There a variety of online resources that aim to help children learn more about spelling. Many are simply ways to memorise lists of words but this is one strategy for learning new words. An advantage of online resources is their appeal for young children and the instant feedback that children receive. One useful site is Kidsspell.com (here) that offers varied wordlists, a free spellchecker and thesaurus, games to play etc. You can also find sites that allow children to apply strategies like the ones I have described online (see for example application of 'look, cover. write' on this site). You can find other games and activities at 'Games aquarium' (here) and others on the Kent Junior High School site (here). But remember, spelling is much more than learning lists and playing online games.
In an age of spellcheckers some argue about whether spelling is as important as it once was, but this of course is nonsense. Spelling is an integral part of reading, writing, speaking and listening. It is learned as we use language for real purposes. But it isn't simply 'caught'; there is an important need for teaching. Most of this 'teaching' does not occur through memorising lists of words, but rather as we draw children's attention to variations in the English language, simple rules for spelling, strategies for getting words right, tools for seeking correct spellings (I haven't even mentioned being able to use tools like dictionaries), as we offer them new knowledge about how our complex language works, and as we simply use and 'play' with words.
Other links and resources
The Tasmanian Department of Education has an excellent web resource that offers a range of practical strategies to use to help spelling (here)
'Guide to English Spelling', David Appleyard (here)
My previous post on'Twenty Fun Language & Thinking Games for Travellers' has some relevant activities that could be adapted (here).