Workshop Wednesday: Building Blocks for Success in Spelling

Spelling, like math, is a subject that requires several foundational skills learned in sequential order, as shown in the diagram, beginning at the bottom and building up, one skill upon another. No one is born knowing how to spell correctly, but the individual steps to spelling proficiency can be somewhat tricky to identify by those who have already been reading for many years.

Skill #1 is the first building block: learning to recognize letters both by their names and by the sounds they represent. Since vowels can represent multiple sounds, depending on their combination with other letters, it is simplest to use their names and the short vowel sounds during the recognition phase. I preferred to teach my children upper case letters first, since that provides fewer opportunities for reversals (such as confusing b and d). Once the child knows the upper case alphabet well, the lower case letters can be introduced as the “little brothers” of the first set. Pairing the big brothers and little brothers together also helps avoid reversals, even when they don’t look that much alike—because kids easily understand the concept of siblings who belong together but aren’t identical.

Skill #2 is vital: correct pronunciation of each letter sound, leading to correct pronunciation of words as reading begins. A child must hear and speak the sounds correctly to be able to match those sounds to the appropriate letters. Some children may have already formed bad habits of mispronouncing certain sounds as toddlers (for example: difficulty with l’s, r’s, or w’s, lisping with a th-sound instead of an s, or dropping the initial s from sc-, sl- or sw-blends), but the visual application of learning the letters that represent those sounds can help straighten out the mistakes. However, if family members mimic the youngster’s incorrect pronunciation habits on a routine basis, confusion will follow, since the child who is learning to read won’t know which sound is correct! Take the time to instruct the child slowly and thoroughly so that he can learn to make the sounds properly. It is much better to learn correct methods in the loving security of home and family than to continue incorrect, juvenile habits into adulthood. Elmer Fudd’s manner of speaking may have been funny in cartoons, but if Elmer had been an actual person, his speech may have caused him to be taken less seriously in real life. Some local dialects can also twist the pronunciations of words away from their actual spellings, which is why television news reporters are encouraged to minimize regional forms of speech and learn to speak without a local accent.

Skill #3 consists of learning common patterns of letter combinations and the sounds made those combinations, known collectively as phonics. This level includes many different phonics patterns, from long and short vowels to vowel blends, consonant blends, and digraphs (the new sounds created by certain combinations, such as ch, ph, sh, th, and wh). Silent letters add another twist, but those are usually predictable, since they occur within specific combinations. (The ABC’s and All Their Tricks  is a wonderful reference book, explaining the origins of spelling patterns, giving examples of words using each pattern, and answering the spelling questions that had stumped my teachers throughout my education.)

Skill #4 comes after the phonics patterns are mastered: syllable division is the next logical skill to achieve. Knowing how words separate into predictable syllables helps the student tackle new, longer words and get the pronunciation correct, usually on the first try.

The #5 building block skill for spelling success is learning prefixes and suffixes and being able to recognize them from the root word. We kept our large dictionary handy that showed the meanings of the individual components of each word—a fascinating study. My students loved compiling lists of words that were all based on a common root and seeing how the prefixes related to the words’ definitions—instruct, destruct, construct, etc. We played the Rummy Roots card games to learn common Greek and Latin roots that have become part of our everyday vocabulary. The mastery of roots, prefixes, suffixes, and other syllables was proven by accurately reading the list of chemical ingredients on a shampoo bottle!

As my children conquered each of these skills, I encouraged them to “hear the sounds in order” in each spoken word, so they could then write those sounds in the correct order for accurate spelling. It takes careful listening to spell words correctly, and the visual skills attained through these building blocks will work together with the sounds heard to achieve success.

See also:
ABC Flashcards
Letter and Number Recognition
What Is the Missing Element?
When Children Mispronounce Words
A New Approach to Spelling-Word Lists

When Children Mispronounce Words

Every Mom’s living nightmare: your little boy has finally begun talking; he toddles out to greet the grandparents/friends/neighbors and show them his favorite toy truck; you prompt him (or he volunteers) to show off his newfound speech; he substitutes the “tr” at the beginning of the toy’s name with “fw” and you find yourself embarrassed beyond comprehension. I am using a boy in this illustration simply because girls more often have a baby doll as their favorite toy and “baby” is much easier to pronounce. Girls can have equal difficulty with pronouncing certain sounds.

If you have acquaintances or family members who jump at the chance to turn everything into an off-color joke, you know you want to avoid this scene at any cost. The poor child has no idea why everyone is suddenly laughing and pointing fingers at him, or worse, scolding him for committing such a grievous sin. He is confused because he thought he was doing a good thing — speaking. His parents had just been begging him to talk; now he did and got punished (or humiliated) for it. What a confusing world!

Some children develop difficulty with pronunciation later on when they begin losing baby teeth and gaining adult teeth. Simple physics can explain this one: suddenly the child has some very large teeth in a still small mouth. It is the same principle as putting a family of six into a sedan. They do fit, but it is a tighter squeeze than if they were in a roomy minivan. Imagine those family members rapidly growing from T-ball players to football-team-starters and you will see my point even better.

Children will often outgrow speech difficulties as they gradually “grow into” their teeth, but we can also help them in the process by extending patience and loving instruction. Illustrate the letters and sounds present in the word and make sure the child knows how the word is supposed to sound. Get out the dictionary and look it up together — that way Webster is the authority of record, not just Mom. Lovingly coach the pronunciation practice, do not become the Dictatorial Tyrant of Corrections who inflicts fear of public speaking into anyone within earshot. Instill confidence in the child that he is not destined to a life of sounding like Elmer Fudd: he can and will learn to speak correctly, it will just take practice, and you will be there to help him every step of the way.

When my children had difficulty pronouncing words, I tenderly explained to them how it is important to be able to pronounce words correctly, since that is where most people get their first impressions of us: from our speech. Then I wrote out the word and we discussed all of the sounds made by the letters, including (when necessary) how some letters may make different sounds in other words, but sound this way in this word. Next I had them practice saying the word correctly, assuring them that I was not making fun of the way they pronounced it, nor was I “picking on them,” but trying to help them learn a difficult but necessary task. Usually, the faulty pronunciation was rooted in haste — the child had “heard” the word incorrectly, began pronouncing it incorrectly, and got into a bad habit. I had further reinforced that bad habit by not correcting the problem sooner, and I apologized to my child for my neglect. Now we were taking the time and effort to fix it, and things worked out well. We repeated this process — successfully — many times over, with no hurt or embarrassed feelings.

My son used to pronounce the word weapon as “weapond.” I showed him that there is no “d” on the end, and explained that it should not sound like “second.” It took several gentle reminders for him to begin catching and correcting himself, especially because he was usually enthusiastically telling me about his favorite subject!

Before he began reading, he had a few other mispronunciations. Those are more difficult to correct, just because the non-reader cannot appreciate the illustrated word and is limited to hearing the correction. My son consistently referred to the girl in the backyard: the contraption we used in the summertime to cook hamburgers and hotdogs. With patience, kindness, and a lot of practice, I was able to help him switch those sounds around and put the “r” right after the “g,” giving us a barbecue grill.

Another slightly defective word was not fully correctable until he learned to read the letters: he always said “shore” when he meant “sure.” It caught the attention of many church ladies who uttered a doting AWWWWW whenever he answered “Shore” instead of “Yes,” especially since he tended to draw the word out into nearly two syllables. Once he began to understand that letters have sounds and make up words, then I could convince him that there was a correct way to pronounce each word, and his insistence of “But I say it this way” was not an acceptable alternative.

I did have to point out to my children an adult appearing on a local TV news program who spoke with a slight speech impediment. I did not do it in a way that ridiculed the man, but rather asked my children what their impressions were of him. They understood immediately, and said that someone should have helped him learn to speak correctly when he was a small boy, so that he would not still have that juvenile speech pattern as an adult.

It is important to stress with beginning readers to read the sounds in order. In their anxious desire to read, children tend to rush through the words, guessing at what a word may be. Slow them down, encouraging them to take their time and be sure of what letter sounds are in the word, reading and pronouncing those sounds in the order that they appear in the word — that is reading, not guessing.

Practice with the child on difficult sounds such as “r,” “l,” or “s.” Assure the child that you are helping in his best interest, and do not allow any family members to poke fun at him. I am personally appalled at parents who dwell on the “cuteness” of a child’s mispronunciations and, rather than correct the ignorance, begin using the faulty word themselves. What a disservice to the child — I will not teach you the correct way to say the word, I will just repeat your mistake back to you every day for the rest of your life! Children recognize that they live in an adult world, and they want to be seen as being grown-up; they do not want to see grown-ups acting like children. Therefore, we should help them learn to say and do things the way they will need to say and do them in an adult world, not sentence them to spending any extra time trapped in childhood when they should be maturing. Yes, it may be cute when they are 2 or 3, but it is not doing them any favors to have them still using babyish speech at 12 or 13, or 22, or 33.