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.


  1. Proper English ~ God sure does trust me! While growing up (in the South) my mother insisted upon gramatically correct English. She tought my brother and me to speak without an accent. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but it comes in handy from time to time.
    Flash forward 25 years. I am married to an English man. That image in your head is not my husband. ‘Ain’t’ is very prominent in his language skills. Subject-predicate disagreement is a way of life for him! And, to top it off, he HATES me correcting him, which I started doing when my children began speaking like him. (Imagine that, a grown man not wanting to be corrected in front of his children. Ugh. I really am stupid.)
    Now, when he gives us an example of improper grammar, I say, “Kids, ‘we were’ ” (not ‘we was’). This one seems to be working for now. When he starts getting mad again, I will have to leave my mind open to God for another way to correct the children. :)

  2. To Angie:
    I wouldn’t bother with correcting the kids, especially if they are young. They WILL learn to speak correctly from hearing you speak and reading. When they are older, you can point out to them that they will be judged better if they speak correctly. They may simply be “bilingual” with slang and proper English.
    My brother grew up speaking the local patois with friends and speaking correctly at home. He can switch back and forth. My son speaks proper English, but can speak “street” when he wants to.
    If it were me, I would prioritize teaching them to respect their father, with almost the whole of society teaching to disrespect him, over their manner of speech.

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