It’s not uncommon for young children who are just beginning to write to spell words phonetically, which means spelling them the way they sound. For example, they may spell “people” as “pepl.” This initial exploration into writing is not cause for alarm and on the contrary, should be encouraged! As children age and are exposed to more teaching and experiences with writing, they typically begin to improve their spelling. But what do you do if spelling is just not coming along?
Children can increase their success with spelling as they build their knowledge of the sounds letters make. You may hear this referred to as “phonemic awareness.” For example, the word “cat” has three sounds: c-a-t. You can also support children with spelling by teaching them about blends, such as “st” and “cl” and digraphs like “th” and “sh.” Knowing how these letters work together to make sounds will help children understand how to spell.
Try using rhyming words to help struggling spellers. This will help them see patterns in words. Start with a word they feel confident writing. For example, if they can write “dog,” can they also write “log,” “hog,” and “fog?” Rhyming words can help children gain confidence as they turn that one word they can spell into a whole list of words!
Children who are having difficulty with spelling may need some direct teaching about spelling rules. Think of the many rules our language has – and all the words that break the rules! Children will have more success if they know things like “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” and “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” (Think of words like “rain,” “seat,” and “boat” for that one!)
Learning how to break words into parts may help a struggling speller. Young children can learn to ask themselves, “Is this going to be a long word or a short word?” Clapping the syllables will help them decide. As children get older, they can work on spelling longer words by focusing on one syllable at a time. For example, “afternoon” may seem difficult to spell, but breaking it into three parts may be less overwhelming.
Similar to focusing on syllables, children can also use chunking to help them spell. Chunking can involve separating a root word from an ending such as “ing” or “ed.” In the word “looking,” they can start with spelling “look” then add “ing.” Chunking can also be used to identify parts of a word that the child already knows. For example, in the word “chips,” they may know that “ch” makes the first sound, and use that as a starting point before stretching out the remaining sounds. Children can also learn to think about little words they know how to spell that are inside larger words, like knowing that “is” is part of “his” or “bat” is part of “battle.”
Anchor Charts and Dictionaries
Children can be taught to refer to lists or charts containing words they use frequently in their writing to assist them with spelling. In the classroom, this may be a chart on the wall, like a “word wall,” with commonly used words like “the,” “and,” and “play.” When students are writing, they can use the chart to help them spell those words. With time, the goal is for them to no longer need the chart and to write the words independently. You can try a similar approach at home. For example, if your child is learning to write names of family members, have them on a card for him to practice copying.
Children may also benefit from having a personal dictionary to use. Unlike a traditional dictionary, which can be large and overwhelming, a personal dictionary contains only words commonly misspelled in the child’s writing, with space to add more. The child can refer to his dictionary to help him spell words correctly until he can do so independently.
Strategies for Older Children
Older children may benefit from using technology to help them with their spelling. With some support, they can learn to use spell checking tools to edit their work. As well, children who have great ideas but struggle with spelling may have more success using voice-to-text software. They can dictate their ideas out loud and not worry about getting hung up on spelling. Lastly, having a friend or classmate read over their work to help them with editing may be helpful.
We don’t want to discourage our struggling spellers from writing. Young child can be encouraged to write their name and the names of other important people like parents, friends, or siblings. Ask them to label the pictures they draw and in these early stages, encourage invented spelling. As children get older, they will start writing short sentences. Look for authentic writing opportunities for them to participate in, like writing a letter to a relative or adding items to the grocery list.
What are Some Spelling Games Children Can Play?
Struggling spellers may also be reluctant spellers, so finding games to help them with spelling may encourage them to keep trying. Play hangman together or look for iPad apps that are fun but also focused on writing.
How Can Children Continue Practicing Their Spelling?
Children can practice spelling in a variety of ways, beyond just paper and pencil. Have them use whiteboards, chalkboards, or sand trays to write words. They can also build words using magnetic letters on a cookie sheet. Keep in mind that spelling activities for young children should be short sessions, around five to ten minutes.
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