Casting a Good Spell on Spelling

In the diversity that marks our educational system, one primary grade activity is unique. It is the weekly spelling assignment. Regardless of philosophy, almost all primary grades across the nation faithfully carry out this activity.

While it has some variations, it basically it involves a list of 20 words with an associated daily assignment up that ends on Friday with the “spelling test.” So on Monday, the task may be to write each word three times, on Tuesday it may be use the dictionary and record the definition of each, on Wednesday it may be to write a sentence for each of the words and Thursday may be the review for the test.

Ironically, it’s long been known that all this effort does not lead to improved spelling—though it does lead to lots of family quarrels as children resist the “boring” demands. The failure of spelling assignments is familiar territory to many parents. Over and over, I have heard them comment as follows, “You know, it’s strange. Rob gets 100 on practically every spelling test—but then when he has to use the same words in real writing, he misspells them all the time.”

Fortunately, there are actions we can take to turn this around. Consider, for example, the activity that requires the children to “use the word in a sentence.” In other words, they have to write sentences containing the words of the spelling list. The children’s response to this task is predictably negative and many try to handle it by writing the shortest, most formulaic sentences possible.

One child I knew tried “I like…” as his solution. That led to sentences such as “I like ice cream.” “I like animals.” and “I like umbrellas.” It didn’t do much for his language or his spelling, but it was a quick way of handling matters—until the teacher objected and asked for more variation. That unfortunately led to endless fights at home as the parents pressured him for better output and he did not have a clue as to how to meet their demands.

Here’s one solution that can be put in place for the “sentence creation” demand.

1. The parent (not the child) creates a clear, relatively complex sentence that contains the word, but does not contain an ending. For example, for the word “umbrella,” the adult might say “When the umbrella broke, the man …..” or “The umbrella was small enough for a child to …”

2. The child completes the sentence. This is not a guessing game. The sentence has enough information so that the child clearly senses what a reasonable response might be. And there are many. For example, for “when the umbrella broke, the man…” possible answers include “got wet” “tossed it away” “got another one.” If the child cannot come up with an ending, the adult can offer an appropriate fill-in. Over time, as the child sees what is needed, he or she will take over the responsibility of providing the fill-ins.

3. Next, the child says the whole sentence. If there is a problem, the parent says the whole sentence and the child repeats it

4. Then the child has to write the sentence. If the child has trouble writing, the adult can write or type a model. The words are shown one at a time, then covered up and the child then writes the word. If there is an error, the entire word is blackened out and the child is given another chance (of seeing the model and then writing after it is covered.)

When this pattern is followed on a regular basis, amazing things happen in a number of areas related to school success including:

language (the children learn to listen to and express sentences that are more complex than usual and this helps reading comprehension)

memory (the children have to use memory to combine the two parts and this aids attention) and

writing (the children gain practice in accurately writing sentences that are longer and more complex than the ones they normally produce.)

As this illustrates, to achieve success, there is no need to indiscriminately abandon current practices that are far from optimal. Instead, what is needed is the introduction of appropriate modifications and with these, some remarkable changes can take place.

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