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by Matthew Leitch, 13 October 2004, updated 19 November 2009
If your child (from about 6 years old) does not learn to spell new words quickly and easily it may be that he/she hasn't yet found a good way to learn new spellings. You can help your child develop good spelling skills and maybe make a big difference.
Let's take a look at how to learn spellings, and then at ways to nudge your child in the right direction.
The two key skills needed to learn to spell a word are (1) noticing the key facts about how the word is spelt, and (2) finding reasons that bind those observations together.
When your child tries to recall how to spell a word he/she has two sets of clues. One is the meaning of the word. The other is how the word sounds when pronounced normally.
To use the meaning of the word the first thing your child needs to do when looking at a word for the first time is to split it into the chunks that make it up. These are not usually individual letters, though the younger the child the smaller the lowest level of chunk is likely to be. Here are some examples:
STARTING splits into START | ING and for the very young perhaps into ST | ART | ING
INDEPENDENT splits into IN | DEPENDENT and then to IN | DEPEND | ENT and then to IN | DE | PEND | ENT
WOMAN splits into WO | MAN
The most obvious chunks are the prefixes and suffixes. In the above examples the prefixes were IN and DE, and the suffixes were ING and ENT. There are dozens of prefixes and suffixes in English and they appear often, so if your child knows how to spell them and what they mean then that's a big part of spelling solved already.
Other important chunks in words carry the special meaning of a word and often crop up in different words with related meanings. If you know other languages it is easier to see these, but even children can benefit from noticing when the same chunk appears in more than one word. For example:
MARITIME contains MARI, which appears in MARINER.
INDEPENDENT contains DEPEND, which appears in DEPEND, DEPENDS, DEPENDING, DEPENDENT.
DEPEND contains PEND, which appears in APPENDIX, PENDULUM, PENDING, and PENDANT.
Without help your child will not know that the chunk 'PEND' comes from the Latin pendere, which means to hang. Think about this for a moment, using your imagination, and you can see that the idea of hanging is present in all these words.
However, even without knowing the origins of words it is possible for children to notice more obvious connections, as in MARITIME and MARINER.
The next things to notice have to do with alternative spellings. English is, broadly, phonetic. The way we say a word tells a lot about how to spell it. But it doesn't tell us everything.
There are alternatives for most words, including silent letters, letters that might or might not be doubled, and other alternative ways to make the same sound. There are even words like "yacht" that seem to break all the rules!
Children must learn to notice which spelling alternative is used for each word. Here are some examples:
WAIT could also have been spelled as WEIGHT (which is a real word) or as WHEIGHT, WATE, WHATE, WAYTE, or WHAYTE
NECESSARY could also have been NESSESSARY, NECCESARY, NESSECEREE, and so on.
BUDGETING should surely be BUDGETTING but could also have been BUJETTING
If a child does not notice which is used then, in a spelling test at school, he/she will have to guess which it was. If you have a child who does spelling tests at school you may have seen the kind of errors made. Some will probably be of this type. English is a difficult language in this respect.
A very common problem comes from something that adults hardly ever notice. When words are pronounced many vowel sounds are just pronounced as a short, nondescript 'uh' that could be just about any of the vowels. This is called a neutral vowel sound. For example:
DEPEND is pronounced almost like D'PEND
The way NECESSARY is pronounced gives no clue as to the second and third vowels, which are E and A.
Neutral vowels are subtle, so it is useful to help children spot those neutral vowels so that they can take special care to notice which vowel is used in the spelling.
So, having noticed the chunks in the word, and which spelling alternatives have been used your child now has to find ways to cement these observations into a long lasting memory. A simple but useful skill is to say literal pronunciations of the correct spelling. This often helps long enough for the spelling to sink it. For example, to remember the spelling of YACHT there is no substitute for saying YA-CH-T to yourself a few times!
Another powerful technique is to find good reasons for spellings being the way they are. These reasons might be the true reasons based on word origins (which is ideal) but could also be plausible reasons your child has invented or learned. The reasons don't have to be sufficient reasons. Anything that makes a particular spelling seem to be what you would expect will help. Here are some examples:
STATIONARY versus STATIONERY. The first is an adjective made by adding -ARY, as in primary, secondary, and imaginary. The second is formed from the name of a type of shopkeeper with the -Y added, as in bakery, haberdashery, jewellery (UK spelling)
WHEN, WHY, WHAT all conform to the pattern of being question words that start with WH-
RITE has the same origins as RITUAL
NECESSARY begins with the prefix NE for not and the suffix ARY for an adjective, and has the same core as CESSATION, which is related in meaning to CEASE.
RECEIVE fits the rule 'i before e except after c, and except when it sounds like 'ay' as in weigh, and except for the word their.'
WHITE is not a question word, which makes its silent H surprising
As the last example shows, noticing when a pattern is broken by an exception can also make the exception easier to remember. Do not worry if your child seems to forget background information that makes spellings reasonable, such as the origins of words. The extra information will make a richer, more interesting memory even so.
Useful information on word origins is provided by the Online Etymology Dictionary.
I have three children and they're all different. You know your child and will have to use whatever combination of inducements and levers you think will work best. Once you have their attention there are two things you must do: (1) demonstrate the skill, and (2) help your child practise.
Children copy their parents, but it's hard for them to copy your thoughts if they can't see and hear what they are. As you demonstrate the skill say your thoughts slowly and clearly in language your child can understand. Mark the words and letters clearly and slowly and make sure it is very clear which letters you are looking at, grouping, and so on. Mark them out with a pencil.
(I hope the skills described in the previous section were no surprise to you and that I've just analysed out something you had but probably hadn't itemised before. If you yourself struggle with spelling and found the skills a revelation then this will help you too.)
Once your child has seen plenty it is time for them to have a go. Use questions and prompts to help your child along, and get them to say and draw what they are thinking so you can see what is going on in there. Ask questions like "Are there any silent letters?", "Can you see a magic e?", "Could that be spelt a different way?", and "Why do you think that is?"
Some words are easily confused with each other. When you come across confusibles, pinpoint them and exactly why they are easily confused. That is half the battle. Then find good reasons for each spelling, as in the STATIONARY versus STATIONERY example above.
Do not introduce bizarre visual imagery as it can easily confuse understanding.
I hope this helps you and your children. Learning spellings can be a chore or a simple task done in a few minutes. Which would you prefer for your child?
(Before you rush to e-mail me with spelling mistakes in this article please note that I am English and therefore may use different spellings from those popular in the USA, Australia, and so on.)
About the author: Matthew Leitch has been studying the applied psychology of learning and memory since about 1979 and holds a BSc in psychology from University College London. Until recently he worked as a consultant in risk management and systems for a leading professional services firm.
Contact the author at: email@example.com
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