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

Workshop Wednesday: Macaroni as Manipulatives

Have you ever found yourself wishing you could afford hundreds, or maybe even thousands of letter or number manipulatives? Head for the pasta aisle in your favorite grocery store—a bag of alphabet macaroni contains both letters and numbers! The pasta is low-cost, so if you have several children who would each enjoy their own supply, you can buy several bags. Letting each student store his macaroni in a large zipper bag will help to make clean up simple and easy.

I sorted through a bag just to see if all the letters and numbers were represented, and yes, they were. My adult-sized fingers found the task a little tricky, but a set of tweezers made it simpler. Children’s small fingers are much more suited to this assignment, and tactile learners will really love digging in. Muffin pans, egg cartons, or cookie sheets are great receptacles for sorting!

Let your students play with the uncooked macaroni at first, and see what activities they devise for themselves. If they need a little encouragement or a starting place, suggest sorting the letters, forming spelling words, making random words (like “magnetic poetry” but without the magnets), or writing sentences. If they’d like to save their work, the words can be spelled out on a line of white glue on a piece of cardstock or an index card. The glue will be invisible when dry, and the cardstock can then be cut into appropriate sizes, creating miniature word-cards (add small magnets to the backs of the cards for even more versatility; a steel cookie sheet makes a good lap desk). These cards can be arranged into sentences, poetry, or lists of rhyming words or spelling patterns, and saved in a zipper bag for another day. Be serious, get silly, have fun with nonsense words, or use the letters to form the answers to lesson worksheets, and the learning will take on a whole new dimension. Don’t stop with just phonics, spelling, and grammar, however. Use these letters to practice spelling place names for geography, complicated scientific words for science or chemistry, or important people, places, and events for history. The letters can easily be scooted apart to break words into syllables or prefixes, suffixes, and root words—a great method for word study, and it adds a memory link for better recall later.

The tiny pasta numbers can be used for sorting and matching or set up as math statements by writing operation symbols on paper, leaving blank spaces for the numbers. Select specific numbers or grab random pieces for a new twist on math problems. Younger students will enjoy the challenge of putting the numbers in order or experimenting to see how many different numbers can be formed from just a few digits. Keep the pasta dry and away from toddlers and the family dog, but rest assured that a new supply is readily available in case too many pieces get stepped on, eaten, or sucked up by the vacuum cleaner!

Workshop Wednesday: ABC Flashcards

Anyone want to upcycle some of that ubiquitous cardboard packaging that passes through our homes and turn it into teaching/learning tools? You’re on! Let’s make some flashcards!!

DIY flashcards from upcycled cereal boxes

This week’s photo actually shows three related sets of alphabet flashcards that measure 3” square. Call these approximate measurements, because no one needs to waste precious time obsessing over the precision and exactness of something we’re making for free. I collected cereal boxes, brownie mix boxes, popsicle boxes, tissue boxes, pudding cup boxes, and pretty much every flavor of thin cardboard box that was large enough to cut up into something else. Confession: I made these with a paper cutter, but only because I saved up and treated myself to one. During most of our homeschooling years, I used a ruler and scissors for projects like this, and the results were just as good.

Open the boxes flat and start measuring and cutting. Again, don’t let perfectionism sidetrack you with thoughts of non-90-degree corners or less-than-perfect sides. Your students can learn from playing with these cards even after they are rescued from an eager-to-play-fetch-with-anything puppy. When you have a decent supply of cards cut from the cardboard, grab your Sharpie marker and write on the blank sides. Here we have one set with upper case letters (upper left), a set with lower case letters (lower center), and a set with both upper and lower case letters in pairs (upper right). I have also made sets with numbers 1-100, states and capitals, and many other topics that I hope to address in future Workshop Wednesday posts. (Anticipation!)

Bonus Tips:

  • I favor teaching letter recognition with upper case letters first, since reversals are less likely; then introducing the lower case letters as the “little brothers” of the capitals. Kids get it, even when the big brothers and little brothers don’t look exactly alike. Learning to group the larger and smaller letters as pairs is another method for avoiding reversals.
  • Making multiple sets of letters will allow your students to spell out vocabulary words, play word games, or leave traces of their newly-acquired knowledge all around the house as they spell out the names of every lamp, vase, and throw pillow.
  • If your students have mastered letter recognition, you can make 3×5” word cards and practice turning sounded-out words into sentences.

Learning Style Activities

Visual learners will appreciate flashcards with color, so you can either use colored markers for the main information or let your visual student draw designs on the edges and corners of the cards with colored pencils or fine-point markers to jazz up the natural gray or brown of the cardboard.

Auditory learners will love to read each letter aloud, no matter what activities or games you play with the cards. Switch things up by asking them to say the sound of the letter instead of (or in addition to) its name.

Tactile learners have already grabbed your new supply of flashcards and are spreading them out on the floor or table, rearranging the letters into words. That’s how you can confirm that you have a tactile student: their hands and fingers are into everything, learning as much as they possibly can about texture, heft, and balance. Please don’t scold them for grabbing and touching—it’s how they learn best. A tactile learner who is forced to keep his hands in his lap is like a visual learner wearing a blindfold. Seriously.

Kinesthetic learners will adore playing games with these cards, especially if you spread things out. Drop the stack of upper case letters on the floor in the living room. Drop the stack of lower case letters on the kitchen table. Now shuffle the “pairs” cards and place that stack in a neutral location somewhere between the other two piles of cards. Ask your student to look at the top card and run to find the matching letter cards from each of the other locations and bring them back. (Beginning students may need to take the pairs card with them for reference.) Grouping all three cards together will prove he brought the correct ones. Your energetic student can repeat this activity until he is worn out enough to sit down for reading time or some other lesson that requires seatwork.

Combine all learning styles into challenging activities that will help your students learn from all situations and all styles of teaching. Let your imagination run free with ideas and adaptations for your own students, living quarters, and academic needs. If the weather is agreeable, take the cards outside and combine relay races with spelling or vocabulary words. Mud puddles can’t destroy your prized set of flashcards, since replacements are easily made from the next empty box. You may soon find yourself rescuing cardboard boxes from the recycling bin and calling them your “homeschool supplies” as you think of more and more uses for homemade flashcards!

A New Approach to Spelling-Word Lists

I despise the way spelling is taught. I managed to get through the spelling workbooks that I had in school only because I was a word puzzle aficionado. When it came time to teach spelling to my own children, I became terribly frustrated. They did not instantly share my fascination for words or word puzzles. In fact, they found spelling workbooks to be very confusing and incredibly boring.

I remember spending hours as an early reader compiling my own lists of rhyming words and noticing that foot and boot appeared the same, but did not sound the same, which generated more lists. Writing all the possible combinations of certain sounds led me to a deep understanding of phonics rules and their applications. Exploration of prefixes and suffixes took me even further.

The public school method of test and retest used in the books we tried simply did not teach how to spell. Over the years, we abandoned the workbook pages and came up with our own methods for a spelling class. I emphasized prefixes, suffixes, Greek and Latin roots, and spelling patterns. Too often, the published spelling curricula grouped together words with nothing in common, ignoring the obvious patterns to be found.

I think that focusing on those patterns is an excellent way to learn spelling. Public school teachers have been told repeatedly in their college training classes that there are too many exceptions to too few rules. I disagree. I found a marvelous book called The ABC’s and All Their Tricks, which shows the patterns, the words sharing those patterns, and explains the origins of those patterns. It is a wonderful reference work — which finally explained to me how “w” can be used as a vowel.

Your lists of words can follow phonics rules or come from pre-prepared lists, such as the weekly lists found in spelling workbooks or from grade-level-specific lists. Another possibility for the avid reader is to compile his own list of unfamiliar words from his regular reading. Encourage your student to look up those words in the dictionary for origin, meaning, and pronunciation, and then incorporate them into your own customized spelling and vocabulary study program. My son expanded his own vocabulary by routinely browsing through the dictionary looking for new words.

My personal preference for learning a list of words would be to print out the chosen list (the time period for learning the words should be based upon your student’s ability) and post it in a prominent place where it will be seen multiple times throughout each day. Study the spelling patterns and then use repeated observation to cement the correct spelling into the brain. The student can use those words as the basis for exploring various art mediums: alphabet rubber stamps, calligraphy pens, or paper collage (cut and paste letters from newspapers and magazines). Bring out the letter tiles and cards from various table games and assemble all of the words from the current spelling list. If you have students who share my love of word puzzles (bless them!), challenge them to create their own puzzles — making the puzzles will teach much more than simply solving a puzzle will.

Daily observation can teach much more than we realize. Frank Gilbreth, the real-life father of Cheaper by the Dozen fame (stick with the book or 1950’s movie), painted information on the bathroom walls for his children to absorb while they performed their daily bathing and brushing rituals. After completing Morse code charts, Dad painted silly coded messages in various places around the house, fully expecting his children to translate them — and they did.

Repetition and drill by themselves are painfully boring, but when used creatively can become an enjoyable way to learn without wasting endless hours in rote memorization. Use what you have around your house and come up with clever new ways for your students to study the words they are learning.

Teaching Spelling (and Grammar) Through Reading and Listening

Before your children learned to walk, they spent a lot of time observing. They saw you walking around, starting, stopping, stooping, bending, turning, reversing, hopping, skipping, jumping, running, etc. That formed the basis of their knowledge of how upright ambulation is supposed to occur.

The same principle can be applied to learning grammar. The foundational knowledge of sentence structure, subject/verb agreement, pronoun use, verb tenses, etc. will be learned by example through listening to other people speak correctly. Conversely, if poor speech is modeled, it will become the standard.

Once again, apply the principle to learning spelling. Choose reading material that uses correct spelling. (I know that seems like an odd remark, but there are popular children’s books today that pride themselves on their “creative” spelling.) I encouraged my students to pay attention to the spelling of words as they read. My challenges to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary often resulted in races and traffic jams in front of the bookcase. We discussed other forms of the words and their roots. I challenged family members to strive for correctness in emails and computer chats — I have noticed that the better my spelling and grammar are in my emails/chats, the better the spelling and grammar are in the responses that I get. Quality begets quality.

I am not advocating total disregard of grammar curricula; in fact, I put a strong emphasis on learning the correct grammar rules. I do believe, however, that any grammar program should be supplemented with heavy doses of observation and experience through personal reading.

Our hometown newspaper is valuable only in that it provides a wealth of misspellings, punctuation errors, and butchered grammar. (I do not subscribe; it is too frustrating. The shopper is delivered free twice a week whether you want it or not.) In case your local papers suffer from the same problem, you have my sympathy: it is very difficult to teach your children correctness when ineptness is published regularly by so-called professionals. However, we did manage to utilize the errors in our own “Can you spot the mistakes in this ad/article?” game. (I have also been known to shout at the television news readers, informing them of their mistakes.)

Part of the blame for poor grammar/spelling lies with allowing computers to do our proofreading for us. A machine cannot read for context nor determine the difference between their, there, and they’re. If I type “than” when I really mean “then,” my computer is oblivious. Spell-checking programs are wonderful — as far as they go, but please discuss with your students why it is necessary to proofread their work. Besides, we humans are so impressed with what our computers can do, that it gives us a tremendous feeling of superiority to know that we can still do some things better ourselves.

Perhaps it is just my hyper-picky nature, but I pointed out spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors to my students whenever I found them. We used these moments as impromptu mini-lessons to discuss what was wrong, what it should have been, and why. My students’ grammar and spelling skills improved dramatically with their reading ability and with the amount of time they dedicated to reading. The more they saw the correct forms modeled for them, the better they could remember how it was supposed to look when they tried to write for themselves.