Weekly lists of spelling words are a regular part of the homework routine in many schools. For those children who struggle to learn their words for the ‘test’ at the end of the week, this can become a stressful time in households. The effect on self-esteem can flow over into other areas of the curriculum. So why do some children find learning spelling a chore and how do we help them succeed?
A question is raised that with the invention of spell check on devices, is it still important to be able to spell accurately? The simple answer is that being able to spell effectively is still important for carried reasons. The process of learning to spell is cognitively demanding, complex and significant to the academic success of students. Many people and children themselves often judge their ability and intellect by the way they spell.
Oral language is the building block
Success on spelling occurs long before children bring home a list of words to learn. There are several precursors to learning to spell in primary school. Developing the oral language skills are an important component in the process of learning to become a successful speller. Phonemic awareness is the ability to manipulate sounds and can be developed well before children learn to write. Children should be able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meaning. Separating the spoken word “cat” into three distinct phonemes requires phonemic awareness. It is critical at an early age that children listen to and say rhymes and identify rhyming words. Syllabification is another important skill that assists children to hear and isolate sounds.
Word learning and promoting active spelling strategies
There are two aspects to learning to spell effectively. Children need to be involved in word learning strategies and active learning strategies. Word study of spelling patterns and individual words alongside building the strategies for constructing words as they write are fundamental to developing spellers that are confident and successful.
Historically there has been an over emphasis on teaching students how to learn a word by predominately using look/ say/ cover/ write/check method, which relies on a rote learning approach for isolated words. For many, this approach alone simply doesn’t work. Children need to think and talk about spelling patterns rather than just ‘do’ rote spelling activities. Word learning strategies such as word sorts provide children with ways to identify patterns in words and compare and contrast words. Discussions about what children notice about the sounds and letter combinations and patterns that they can see in groups of words help show generalisations about the English language. Word sorts look at a group of words that have a common pattern. For example, when studying long a vowel, children will sort words that have the pattern a-e, ai, ay in the word and look for similarities with these words. Word learning in the form of word sorts, card games, word hunts, crosswords etc reinforce the patterns identified during the discussions about words.
Equally important for a child to learn are active spelling strategies that successful spellers use as they write. Segmenting or stretching a word into parts, identifying syllables, identifying base words and finding small words within words are some important strategies for children to explicitly learn. They need to ask themselves questions such as –
- Is there a rhyming word I know?
- What is a small word inside this word?
- Does this look right?
- Is it like another word I know?
- If I know (eg. day) then I know (eg. tray).
Once children have these strategies, they can confidently attempt unknown words during the writing process. These metacognitive processes are essential for the transfer of spelling into a piece of writing. Learning a list of words in isolation will not guarantee the word will be used correctly when writing.
Finally, the learning of spelling requires regular engagement in the study of words. Writing a list of words three times once per week does not build a competent speller. Short regular sessions have been proven to assist with the retention of word learning and the ability to spell new words. If children spend 10 minutes per day involved in a variety of these learning activities, they can become confident and successful spellers.
Learning to spell doesn’t start in Year 1 with a list of words for homework. Your child can experience and have fun with words prior to school when your read and talk to them. Remember all those nursery rhymes to share and read regularly to your child. Build your child’s curiosity with language. Once they are learning spelling formally in primary school, support them with regular practice to build their knowledge of words and become great spellers!
Written by: Cheryl Malcolm – Year 1 teacher and Lead Teacher Clayfield College www.clayfield.qld.edu.au
This article was published in Issue 26 of our print magazine, February/March 2018.