Teaching Spelling — Your Opinion Sought*

*your informed, considered opinion, that is

Victoria, nearing 6 1/2, is a fine reader, and once again I have dodged a bullet. I have no idea how to teach a child to read, I am suspicious of phonics except for children who are struggling to read, and I have no experience.


She cannot spell. At all. With Violet, I have never done any spelling work, formal or informal. I guess the Word Within the Word is as close as we come, but she has some kind of supernatural instinct for spelling, and always has.

I have often heard that you should not correct young children’s spelling, as that experimental spelling is part of their language learning process.


Victoria would like to be able to write. She enjoys writing letters and wants to write stories, and is somewhat hindered by her inability to spell. That is, she is quite asynchronous in her language abilities — her expression and her reading are far beyond her spelling. That does not always bother her, but sometimes it does.

So, do I intervene? And how?

I am wondering about doing some kind of simple spelling practice, but then leaving the rest of her writing alone, unless she asks for a specific spelling for something she is writing.

Were she in school doing “language arts” at some level approximating her current reading level, she would definitely be doing spelling. Then again, I think Violet had spelling words in kindergarten — which was interesting, because some of the kids could barely write. So school practices are not the most helpful guide!

I have always had a vague belief that reading is the best kind of spelling lesson — and that is probably true.

But what do you think? If you are going to do some kind of specific spelling work, when and how do you start?


Filed under Gifted Ed, Our Philosophy (such as it is)

9 responses to “Teaching Spelling — Your Opinion Sought*

  1. as you know, I have an opinion on everything, so I might as well answer this. 😉

    I truly believe the best way to teach spelling is to have the child read lots and write lots, using invented spelling if necessary, but also doing copywork.

    (For copywork, I would write little bits of a story onto lined paper and have the child copy them, one at a time, into a lovely book, illustrating each one as they go, until they have their own story in a book. It’s also nice to have the child dictate their own story and then writing it down for them, and having them copy it bit by bit as described above.)


    sometimes kids feel happier being guided more directly. So if you want to approach spelling as a discrete subject, its about memory. What does Victoria enjoy? Does she like basic memorising to a goal? If so a regular list (based on word endings, eg, light sight might) would be good, perhaps with a star reward at the end of the week. Does she like stories? Once when I suddenly freaked about spelling I wrote little stories about a King Seagull for Rose and she would illustrate each one and practice memorising key repeated words in the story. (That lasted about two weeks!) Does she respond well to flash card games?

    teaching her the basic words and the words she reads alot will encourage her progress.

    sorry for the long answer.

  2. I like Sarah’s suggestions. I was going to suggest checking out the Bravewriter approach which would put off the formal writing instruction until 10. BUT recommends copywork, you jotting down what she wants written, etc. So valuing writing and getting her used to the process but not really pushing it.

    I think maybe copywork might help with making the connection between reading and spelling by drawing her attention to the individual words, punctuation, etc. You could even talk a bit about some of those things as you do it. Not too much but maybe key things you want her to notice.

    As for correcting, you could offer to help her with SOME of her written things (say, if they are letters to others that need to be understood). Maybe ask her to identify where she thinks there are problems and help a bit and then suggest that you fix other things so “grandma knows what you are trying to say”. I think the key is to be low-key about it and ensure that it is normal at her age not to have all the complicated bits of the written language worked out. English isn’t really a straightforward language after all.

    I agree that school ways aren’t a very helpful guide.

  3. I don’t like spelling lists and programs, generally. I think the best way to work on spelling is through looking at a child’s writing. Although I might have thought she was a little young for it, it sounds like she’s motivated to write and that she’s writing a lot, so I’d go ahead.

    Sit down with her and a page of her writing. Ask her to find her spelling errors on that page. If she can find them, FABULOUS. Ask her if she knows how to correct those words. If not, give it to her. You can use funny pronunciations or notice words within words to help her remember. If she can’t find them, you can give her some hints: “There are five misspelled words in the first paragraph.” Your hints can get more or less specific depending on how hard this is for her.

    And since she is so young, you’ll want to watch her carefully to see that this doesn’t have a negative effect on her interest in writing. You want to be sure she’s still using her whole speaking vocabulary when she writes, not editing to avoid words she can’t spell. And of course, you don’t want her to come to dislike writing because she doesn’t want to be fussing with spelling.

    Good luck, hope this helps.

  4. inneedofchocolate

    I’m pondering the same question with my 6yo. She’d like to be able to write – mostly notes to help her remember things she wants to come out and tell me at night when she’s supposed to stay in bed 🙂 But also stories to go with pictures she’s made and other things but she gets frustrated because “I don’t know how to spell all those words”. I’ve been reluctant to do a formal spelling program with her b/c I think she’ll find it boring and it will be something we have to struggle over. She loathes copywork so I’ve backed off on doing it. I think she hates it because to her it’s just handwriting practice. I’m wondering if typing copywork would have the same effect as handwriting it or if there is something in the act of actual writing it down that is beneficial (other than handwriting practice). She enjoys dictating stories to me but I can’t always be available to write things down for her when she wants me to. I’ve thought about trying something similar to what Lizabeth suggests – having her do her best to write down something she’d like to write and then looking at the words she struggled with and making those into a spelling list. We may try that next week. Obviously I don’t have a good answer either. Let me know if you figure out something that works for you!

  5. Mariposa

    I don’t know the solution, but when my dd was that age she wrote journals, e-mails, notes, stories, and poetry. I didn’t correct spelling in journals or notes to us. I would look at it, and sneak in those words for spelling, but she is a natural speller like Vi. Oh, she also enjoyed making crossword puzzles with Scrabble, playing against herself by picking letters from the bag. My daughter still likes picking her own copy work from books she reads.

    However, we ended up doing spelling because it lagged behind reading. The person we saw said they should be closer together. She was 7, and at the end of grade school, but it was her weakest subject. He also said it teaches a study skill. It is boring, but she can make it fun if she wants. We use Word Within a Word vocabulary lists too. But every week I add a few words for example, she misspelled “major” this past week.

    She is still allowed to write with no formal assignments except for online literature. Even her mentor plays with words and experiments. I don’t know if she would write so freely if I had taught her lessons. Even with MCT we just read, discuss, read essays from books we own, and experiments; she learns basics without assignments.

    Personality and confidence are important too. A sensitive child might not want to be corrected. Ami began editing her papers last year. She does not edit everything she writes, only what she wants to share, and some she puts away and pulls out again. If it is something she wants to share and it still needs work I type questions above that particular paragraph. She handles that.

    I would do what fits your daughter’s personality first, and adapt. Is she sensitive about abilities or mistakes? She also has a big sister that excels.

  6. This is my first time to visit your blog – I popped over after seeing you on the sidebar at VooDooMama. My daughter is almost 9 and was an early reader – she could read at least 100 words before she turned 3 and started reading books at 3.5. (Before that, she’d only read individual words – I think she was scared of ‘books.’)

    Anyway, she still is an advanced reader, but her spelling is actually slightly below grade level. I realized that since she taught herself to read, we’d never covered phonics. This year, we’re covering phonics and her spelling is skyrocketing! So, that would be my suggestion – that you give phonics a try.

    I also think copywork is a GREAT idea and something I always have good intentions to do, but rarely do. So, I don’t know if that would have helped my dd’s spelling or not.

  7. Reading aloud with her reading along with you. With Zoe, I just tell her how to spell things when she asks. But a good spelling program might be worth a try, just because you try it doesn’t really mean you are committed to anything that she (or you) hate or that you feel isn’t working.

  8. Rich

    I remember one day when an engineer came into my office to fix my computer and I marveled at the complex set of steps he went through, without referring to a manual. His response to me was: how do you write a program without having to look things up all the time?

    Well, the answer, of course, was that the details relevant to our specialties stayed in each of our memories because of frequent use, and not because of intentional memorization. That suggests to me that a key to learning to spell is trying to spell. Also, there is recent research suggesting that people retain facts significantly better if they guess the answer (wrong) before being told what the right answer is.

    Clearly I’m the outlier here because we’re unschoolers. (Also our child is older, and 2E to boot…with motor deficits that have left him unwilling to even try handwriting any more.) He sends me electronic notes; if there are misspellings I usually try to use those words, correctly spelled, as part of my answer. The rest of the time, I supply spellings whenever I’m asked…although as you might imagine from what I said above, I encourage guessing first. And I can tell that he’s acquiring skill because he no longer insists on my reciting the letters o-n-e a-t a t-i-m-e.

  9. My oldest, the only one of my kids to spend any time in school, did four years of memorizing spelling words and acing tests, and has been a terrible speller. At almost-16 she’s a lot better, though, and I chalk it up to writing, even more than to reading.

    A friend of mine told me that what he had learned, in trying to address his own daughter’s spelling problems some years ago, was that a good reader will read the first and last letters of a word, know what it is, and zoom on — in other words, they’re not putting together the spelling of the word as they read. So he had his daughter write — she writes lots of letters every week, apparently — and worked on the practice of *making* correctly-spelled words.

    I’m also a devotee of copywork. My second child, who only went to one year of kindergarten, spent about four straight years doing a lot of copywork, and while it didn’t do much for his handwriting, he is an excellent speller, by 12-year-old standards, anyway. Some of that may just be *him,* and the fact that he’s a very differently-oriented person from his sister, but I do think that he benefited from the copywork approach, and I’m currently doing the same thing with my younger two (7 and 5), as well as getting them to write letters, little stories, etc.

    We do do a lot of reading, of course, though I think in practical, “skill-acquisition” terms, what reading “does” is to create an ear for the sound of good sentences, good prose, rather than the more micro-type skill of spelling.

    (I haven’t dropped by here for a long while, btw, and I love the new look of your blog. It might be a year old, but it’s new to me, and it’s very nice.)

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