So how do kids learn how to spell?


When I told a class of second graders in New York City that I had seen a sign in Penn Station for "bananna" smoothies, they were surprised that a word that so many of them knew how to spell had been "messed up" by an adult. They wondered if the sign writer had forgotten to edit, and debated whether they'd buy a smoothie there; if someone doesn't know how to spell banana, would they know to include the right ingredients?

Teachers aren't always sure what they should be doing about spelling, and I'd like to suggest, and use this curriculum to show you, that we can help kids learn about our spelling system and how it works by engaging them in conversations and inquiry that draw on their natural interest in written language and build on what they already know. In other words, we're helping them to construct their own knowledge of how this important language system works.

An effective spelling curriculum should include a combination of reading, writing, and teaching. Spelling curriculum doesn't need to be—shouldn't be—long lists of words to memorize, tedious rules that don't work very well anyway, or twenty minutes a day of worksheets. There is room for helping kids learn the words they miss a lot in their writing, and for thinking about spelling patterns like why cake and kite start with different letters, but there's also room for exploring where our words come from and whether the words we see misspelled out in the world are that way by mistake (like "bananna") or on purpose (like Krispy Kreme).And one or two lessons or explorations a week is plenty of time to spend on spelling; it is, after all, only a small part of writing.

These spelling explorations work best in a classroom where students are reading and writing regularly, if not voraciously. Most of the words that we know how to spell are acquired through reading, not intentional memorization. (See Krashen, 2004, for a summary of the research supporting this.)

And volume of reading makes a difference. When you see a word in print once, you'll probably be able to spell it better than before you'd seen it (particularly if it's a long or tricky word), and the more times you see it, the more likely you are to be able to spell it correctly. This "reading effect" is why first graders fairly quickly go from spelling the word of phonetically (probably UV) to spelling it correctly, which doesn't happen so quickly with less common words. It's why I saw a third grader write LAUHG for laugh,when a few years earlier she probably would have produced LAF; you know she'd seen it in print even if she didn't get the order of the letters completely right. Every minute students spend reading books that contain words they don't know how to spell is a minute spent becoming a better speller, and kids should be reading at least half an hour a day.

You also need to write in order to learn how to spell. Writing is how you try out and put into practice your developing knowledge about how words are spelled, whether it's knowing the spelling of particular words or inventing the spellings of those you don't.

Teachers and the general public don't always realize how noncontroversial invented spelling is among researchers in the field. Even the report of the National Reading Panel and the book Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, both quite traditional on other matters, recommend the use of invented spelling by young children (National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998).Young children's spellings primarily represent sounds, then move beyond the merely phonetic by incorporating information about spelling patterns like long vowels and double letters. (More about this later.)

But learning to spell isn't just about being thrown into a room with books, pencils, and paper. Teaching plays a big part, teaching that focuses on getting kids thinking about spelling, helping them to care about it, and developing strategies for getting better at it. Teaching is what's often been missing from the typical spelling curriculum; instead, kids may be put through a program where they're asked to carry out worksheet (or similar) exercises with words, and then memorize them for a test. They're rarely even taught how to memorize them.

I'm not sure I've ever met a teacher happy with how her students are spelling, regardless of what program (or absence of program) she uses. I really hope that Spelling Strategies and Patterns will help you become, if not fully happy with how every child in your class is spelling, at least happy that you're helping all kids become better spellers and, ideally, having some fun teaching them about it.

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So how do kids learn how to spell?

I just asked this question and now I'm going to reframe it: how do children develop as spellers? Thinking about it this way acknowledges that it's a gradual process that goes on for a number of years.We see parallels with learning to talk, but it's different because, most linguists believe, human brains are hard-wired to learn speech in a way that they aren't for written language (Pinker, 1994). Everybody learns to talk well enough to be accepted by their speech community (with rare exceptions); not so for spelling. But given the right experiences and support, children can learn how to spell well enough to produce a correctly spelled final draft of a piece of writing by the end of elementary school if not sooner (which I think is an appropriate goal). And the bulk of it happens unconsciously, in a way that feels acquired (picked up on your own) rather than taught (told by someone else). I'll describe the highlights here, with a little more attention spent on typical developmental patterns in grades 3-5, the focus of this curriculum. Understanding how this development happens will set the stage for thinking about the role of the spelling curriculum in supporting the process.

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From scribbling to spelling

If we define spelling as using letters to attempt to write words (to the best of one's current ability), young children begin to write before they begin to spell. Pencil and crayon get applied to paper (hopefully not to walls!) and scrawls turn into scribbles, in the sense of marks that are starting to take on first the shape (linear) and then the characteristics (letter-like forms) of written language. (See Harste, Woodward, and Burke, 1984, for some great examples of what this looks like.)

How does scribbling turn into spelling? There are two components of the transition to spelling: learning letters and using letters to represent sounds. Typically children learn the letters of the alphabet either before they start school, in kindergarten, or a little of both. They learn both the names of the letters and what they look like, and begin to learn the sounds they represent. With the slightest encouragement, they begin writing with invented spelling by figuring out what letter might represent each sound in a word. Young kids may start by writing just the initial consonant of a word, then include more of the consonants, then the vowels. What matters is not how correct the words are—how can they be correct, since the child hasn't seen many words in print yet?—but the active thinking about how written words are constructed. I've written about this at length in my book You Kan Red This! (Wilde, 1992), but a single example will make the point clear. A five-year-old who spelled caterpillar as CADRPALR included all the sounds, given that a /t/ between vowels sounds like a /d/, and that vowels before /r/ tend to not be heard as separate sounds. Since phonics is the relationship between sounds and letters, this child has proven himself adept at phonics, and has the foundation for further development, which of course goes well beyond phonetic spelling.

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From phonetic spelling to standard spelling

There are obviously a lot of differences between phonetic spelling and standard spelling, particularly as words get longer. A young speller can get dog right pretty easily, since the letters fit the sounds, but the writer of caterpillar has to know that it starts with a c rather than a k, that there are two different vowel letters before the r's even though you can't really hear them, and that it has a double l. And this is just one word!

Fortunately, it's easier for our brains to learn how to spell pretty well than it would be to program a computer to do so. (Some researchers tried to program a computer to turn sounds into spellings using rules and didn't do very well; with 203 rules, the computer spelled only 49.9% of 17,009 words correctly; Hanna Hanna Hodges, and Rudorf, 1966.) Humans have both the ability to remember the spellings of a lot of individual words and to form intuitions about spelling patterns based on all the words they've seen. Here's what goes into moving toward more correct rather than merely phonetic spelling.

First, many sounds can be spelled in more than one way. This is true for both consonants (coat, koala) and vowels (feat, feet).We get better at using the right letter or letters in two ways: we see them in particular words and remember them, and we develop an awareness of how spelling regularities work. A young child might think that GACIT works just fine as a spelling for jacket, but an older child, like an adult, knows that it just doesn't look right unless you use a j for the first consonant sound and have a k in there somewhere for the second one. There are rules underlying the spellings of both of these sounds, and those rules are included in this curriculum, but the rules are only a formalization of what we've picked up intuitively about the spelling system. If you aren't sure about this, see if you can state the rules for spelling the /j/ and /k/ sounds. You probably can't, but you still knew that GACIT just couldn't be right. Once a child has picked up a sense of these rules, you won't see that spelling from her, even though she may spell the word JAKIT before she gets it right.

Another aspect of spelling that writers need to learn is that there are patterns that go beyond the spelling of individual sounds. When do we double letters (and is there a reason why)? What changes do we have to make in a root word when we're adding a suffix to it? How do I know if a word has a silent letter? Again, much of this knowledge is picked up intuitively, but there's enough pattern and regularity for teaching to also have a role.

Then, to be a good speller, you just have to learn a lot of words! Just taking some longer words from a single section of a primary-grade dictionary, we see railroad, reindeer, restaurant, and rhinoceros and realize that their spellings are far from predictable. Since we're familiar with the words, their spellings may seem set in stone, but to a child hearing them without having seen them in print—and perhaps not realizing that railroad is a compound and that rhinos aren't related to dinosaurs—RALERODE and RINOSAURUS might seem like perfectly reasonable spellings. There's also the problem of confusing words that sound the same or similar, a difficulty even for adults.

What all of this comes down to is that to be a good speller you have to both know a lot and be very picky. Fortunately, it doesn't all have to be taught formally. There's room for the occasional memorization of word spellings, but we didn't learn most of the words we know how to spell this way; we just picked them up.

A useful framework for thinking about the growth from phonetic spelling to standard spelling is that it's developmental, in the sense that it's a gradual process that occurs largely unconsciously through seeing words as we read. As we read, we pick up and internalize both the words themselves and the spelling patterns they incorporate. Spellings get better (realizing that double letters exist) before they become correct (putting double letters in the right words). But there's still, obviously, a role for teaching, which is what this curriculum is all about. That role is twofold: encouraging kids to explore the patterns that they're already starting to internalize, and supporting them as they develop the strategies that help them fine-tune their spelling as they write.

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Spelling's easier for some kids than others

Most kids who read a reasonable amount are going to end up being pretty good spellers, particularly if their natural development is supplemented by the kind of teaching I've suggested in this curriculum. But two groups of students need to be mentioned here because their progress is likely to be slower and more frustrating.

Some kids just aren't good at spelling, and this group covers a wide range. In some cases, spelling is pretty well the only issue; these are the students who just have a hard time getting words spelled right, even though their literacy may be perfectly okay in other ways. This is the kid—or adult—who may love to read and be a perfectly competent writer yet is still (often self-described) a "terrible speller." Countless teachers have told me that their husbands are like this (though it's not a gender thing)! The best way to think about these spellers is that they have less natural ability to remember the spellings of words and are less likely to be able to tell from looking at a word if it's spelled correctly.

These students will benefit from instruction, and especially from instruction in spelling strategies. It's not their fault, but they can still work at their spelling and, with conscientiousness, spell well enough when they need to. At the other end of the weak speller continuum are those students whose literacy in general is less advanced than that of their classmates. They may be in Title I or special education, or they may just be the weaker students in the regular classroom. Spelling is just one of our concerns about them. These students, too, will benefit from instruction, but sometimes lessons that are clicking for the rest of the class may go over their heads, requiring one-on-one follow-up.

I've included suggestions for working with less successful spellers, as well as a few lessons particularly for them, throughout this curriculum. I also think it's important to keep two principles in mind in working with them. First, reading is the single most important contributor to their becoming better spellers. These are often students who aren't reading much, and if we're wanting to improve their spelling, getting them to read more should be the highest priority. Second, we shouldn't over-focus on their spelling. It's natural when a student's spelling is so much weaker than that of others the same age to think she should perhaps be memorizing word lists, particularly because spelling is such a visible deficit, but this would be misguided. There's certainly room for memorizing a small number of common words (see Strategy 7 on one-second words), but these students' spelling development needs to come primarily like those of other children does, through reading.

The other group of students we need to mention here is English language learners. It's impossible to generalize much about this group because there are so many variables. Are they native-born or immigrant? How old were they when they began to speak English, and how long ago was that? How similar is their language to English? Does it use the same alphabet as English? Does the teacher speak their language? Are they literate in their home language?

However, there are two generalizations that we can make. English language learners' development in spelling is likely to be behind that of the native English speakers in their classroom, and their spellings may reflect influences from their first language. Other than that, their development will be similar, and this group will include naturally stronger and weaker spellers just like everyone else. When a teacher knows the child's first language, she can better understand the specific differences she's likely to see in his spelling. I've included examples from Spanish in many of the pattern lessons, since it's the most common second language in the United States. But helping English language learners improve their spelling goes hand in hand with their continuing knowledge of English, and just as with everyone else, it comes primarily from reading. I remember when I learned French in college, spelling was tricky, and it was useful to learn a bit about the rules and patterns of French spelling, but I learned to spell words mainly through seeing them in print.

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