Spelling tips

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Today’s tips have to do with spelling. I’m in the midst of putting together a comprehensive spelling guide, especially useful for home spelling study, but here are some tips to get you started. And if you would like to print out a copy of these tips, click here: Spelling Tips

Confusing, similar words: Some children have difficulty with picking out the correct spelling when several words they know are spelled in quite a similar way. For example, “then, thy, there, the, than, that” or the question words “when, why, how, where, who, what” are often confused, as are words like “was, saw” or “where, were.” If you notice this is happening, you can list the “confusing words” on a piece of paper, and make a game of it. Say one of the words, spell it aloud, say it again, then say it in a sentence, and say it yet again. Then have the child find it, circle it, and copy it, spelling it out loud as she prints it, then saying the word aloud. If she is having trouble finding the correct word, say the word very slowly, stretching it out, so she can hear the different sounds. If it is a word like “there” or “they” which are not spelled quite the way they sound, sound it out the way it is spelled, and then again the way it is actually said. You probably should start with no more than 3 choices, but can add extra choices as the child’s spelling recognition improves.

The “wh” question words: Practice the “wh” question words (who, what, when, where, why) by pointing at objects or people or creatures around the house (or wherever you are) and saying, for example, “Is that a who or a what?” or “Is that a when or a where?” Spell the question word out loud, followed by the answer word. Then write the question word and answer word. You can make lists of things/people/creatures under different question words, and the child can also sketch the answers.

Use sketches to help with spelling: For children who are graphically-oriented, drawing a little sketch can help. This works very well with homonyms. For example, for “there” you could do a quick sketch of a house with an arrow pointing to it, and for “their” a quick sketch of 2 or 3 stick people with a circle around it. Print the correct spelling under each picture. Then have the child do the same (sketch and print). You could follow up by printing a sentence like “There is their house,” and do a sketch of 2 or 3 people standing by a house. Draw an arrow from “there” to the house, and from “their” to the people. To get the “possessive” sense, you could also draw an arrow from the people to their house.

Their, there, they’re: Here’s a tip to tell the 3 their/there/they’re words apart. First, an apostrophe means that two words have been joined together and letter(s) dropped to make one word. So the apostrophe in “they’re” reminds us it is two words, “they are,” made into one word. Second, the word “their” refers to things that belong to people. When we talk about things that belong to us, we use the word “I” as in “I have a cat.” So when we are using the possessive “their” word, we use the spelling that has “i” in it that reminds us of belonging. And third – the left-over word “there,” is the “there” word that means place–and of course, a place can be here or there–and “here” is found inside of the word “there”.

Dictionaries — and personal dictionaries: How can you help your child spell a word he or she asks for help with? Of course, you can simply spell it aloud. Or you can “sound it out” by stretching out the sounds. But the fact is, you won’t always “be there” to help in these ways. So teach your child some alternative ways of getting help. There are many dictionaries available, including simple beginning dictionaries with good illustrations–but the fact is, dictionaries require some fairly strong basic skills. Start using dictionaries as soon as possible–both traditional book dictionaries and online ones. Also get a notebook and help your child make a personal dictionary, with 2 to 4 pages per letter (some letters will need only a page or two; others will need more). As the child encounters new words, have him write them in the dictionary, and if possible, create a little sketch to help him remember it better. A child with a bit more advanced skills may also write a sentence that uses the word.

Find the word on objects and signs: Another good way is to encourage the child to look around for something that might have that word on it. “How do you spell ‘shampoo,’ mom?” “Check the bottle by the shower!” “How do you spell ‘Tuesday,’ Dad?” “Check the calendar!” “How do you spell ‘graduation’?” “Why don’t you look at your sister’s graduation cards?” “How do you spell ‘Antarctica’?” “Check the atlas!” “How do you spell ‘supernatural’?” “Wasn’t that in the book you were reading to me this afternoon?” (and so on…). And of course, if all else fails, “Phone your grandma!”

Online dictionaries and spellcheckers: Teach your child to use online dictionaries. They only need to type in the first couple letters of the word, and a choice of possibilities will pop up, from which the child can choose the one they think is right–and then check the dictionary meaning to make sure they’ve made the right choice. Also, if you are having your child use computer software writing programs, most such programs will mark incorrectly spelled words (for example, Word uses a squiggly red line under the incorrect spelling), and it is a simple manner to learn how to use the “Spell Check” to see the alternative possible spellings. Of course, it is important to emphasize to your child that they still need to check that they’ve made the right choice–and spell checkers are notorious for missing a lot of misspelled words simply because if the chosen spelling is in their dictionary, they accept it–which can cause a lot of havoc, especially with homonyms! (If your child has difficulty with homonyms, you’ll want to check out my 2 homonyms booklets in my “Easy to Learn” booklets series, available in my store at Teachers Pay Teachers . )

Long vowel words: Most children learn the “short vowel” words quite easily, but the “long vowel” words can be much more difficult because there are so many ways to create a long vowel sound. One of the most common “long vowel” rules says: “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking and says its name, while the second vowel stays silent.” For children struggling with this concept, write two vowels that follow this rule (for example, “ea” or “ai”). Make the letters themselves (in very bold print) the “body” of a “stick character” with legs below, arms stretched out and holding hands in the middle, and a head on top. In the head, put dot eyes, and in the first one a wide open mouth, and in the second one a mouth closed tight. Ask, “What do these vowel friends say?” Help the child to figure out that they say the name of the first letter. Then add other letters before and after the pair to make words. (“bean,” “hail,” etc.).

Spelling games: Children often love to play spelling games such as “junior” versions of Scrabble and Boggle, or to just “write” words with magnetic letters, chalk on the sidewalk, letter tiles, and so on.

Invented/nonsense words: While it is good to encourage your child to spell words she has been learning, it is also fine for her to combine random letters and try sounding them out. Have her sound the “word” she has created. Ask, “Does that sound like a word you know?” If she says, “Yes,” ask her to say the word, and together try to figure out what sounds are missing or need to be changed to spell the word correctly. If she says, “No,” ask her to imagine what her “invented” word might mean — and even to illustrate it. Creating “nonsense words” is fun for young learners, and also they often lead young learners to figure out “spelling rules” for themselves (like the need to include vowels!). Another thing that can be done with “nonsense words” the child has created, is to have the child make up a story; after they have dictated the story to you, they can substitute some of their nonsense words for real words in the story–then read it aloud. Not only will they find it amusing, but they will also quickly realise the importance of correct spelling.

Create an “I Can Spell” notebook: Is your child discouraged because he finds spelling difficult? Encourage him by quickly adding a lot of words to his “I can spell” list! How? First, start a notebook of “I Can Spell” words. Every time he learns to spell another word, he can add it to the notebook. To avoid repetition of words, divide the notebook into a couple pages per letter (just one page for uncommon letters like q, x, y, z … A 40-page notebook will then be long enough for this purpose). Start by having him write in the words he knows, then adding other words as he learns them or thinks of them. Which reminds me….

Word families! Add a LOT of words to the “I Can Spell” notebook by teaching “word family” words. Choose a word he knows (for example, “cat”), and then quickly and easily teach him lots of other words in the family, starting with 2 or 3 letter words–at, bat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, tat, vat … then building the list with longer short vowel words and some long vowel words — flat, slat, / batter, clatter, matter, platter, / chat, that, what, / date, fate, gate, late, mate, rate, / plate, state, spate, skate, slate. (Note that in this list of words, I’ve continued with the “at” group … but also added more complex groups: blends and digraphs (fl, sl; ch, th, wh); double the final consonant and add “er” (batter, etc.); using silent e to create a long vowel (date, etc.) and then adding blends to the beginning of those (plate, etc.). Start simple, and build on the original word in various ways … and suddenly the “I can spell” list has grown very large. And at the same time, the child has learned several new spelling rules!

Watch for and record difficult words: As you listen to your child read, mark down words that your child has difficulty reading. Also, mark down words that your child spells incorrectly in her daily writing. Use these words to practice both reading and spelling.

S-t-r-e-t-c-h out the words: Some children have difficulty with spelling due to hearing difficulties and/or personal speech difficulties. This means you will likely need to provide extra help. For example, if your child is taking a spelling test, or is writing a story or writing answers to questions, allow him to tell you when he needs help spelling a word. But instead of simply spelling it, s-t-r-e-t-c-h it out so he can figure out the letters and sounds himself. Also, for combinations like “ch” and “th” don’t say t-h-a-t or c-h-i-p; rather stretch out the sounds: th-a-t; ch-i-p — and help your child remember what says “th” or “ch” or whatever.

Tips for oddball words: There are words with very odd spellings, which you may simply have to dictate. And then there are odd letter combinations (like the “long a” sound spelled “eigh” in weigh, eight, etc.). A good method is to write a list of the words that have that sound/spelling combination, and practice them together–your child is more likely to remember that particular spelling that way than just practising a single word.

Combine pronunciation and spelling practice: Children who have difficulty with word pronunciation often reflect in their spelling the way they say the word.In that case, you can combine pronunciation practice and spelling practice at the same time. Keep an ear open for words your child mispronounces, and compare them to how she spells them. Then gather more words that use a particular “problem” sound, and make it into a combination spelling and pronunciation lesson. For example, a child may pronounce (and spell) some “th” words as “f.” Or your child may drop endings in her speech (-s, -ed, -ing) and thus also in spelling.

Lots of alternative spelling practice activities: Don’t just do spelling by writing dictated word lists. Try some of these, too:

  • Do oral spelling (spelling “bees” with other children or family members are always fun);
  • Write the words in sentences;
  • “Write” the words with letter magnets, tiles, chalk, etc.;
  • Play games like Scrabble;
  • Some children are helped by having you draw the “shape” of the whole word before they try to spell it (as in “shape”: short letter, tall letter, short letter, short letter with tail, short letter);
  • Divide the words into groups that follow a particular spelling pattern or rule;
  • Always provide a sentence when you dictate the word so the child knows exactly which word you are saying;
  • Make crosswords or word searches;
  • Find the words in a piece of prose or a poem;
  • Write the words on slips of paper, along with a few “frequently used/sight words” and have the child organise them into sentences, and then write the sentences (and illustrate them if he wishes).

Create memorable sentences: One way to remember difficult-to-spell words is to create memorable sentences that begin with the letters of the word. A well-known example is “because”: Bunnies eat carrots and usually see everything. While there are a number of well-known examples you can use with your child, they’re even more likely to remember sentences they’ve created themselves.

Create fun tricks: Here’s a fun “trick” to remember the word “great”–which looks like it should have a “long e” sound but actually has a “long a” sound: gr = hungry lion “grrrr” – before eating: “grrr…eat” / And after eating: “gr…eat!”

Copying and dictating: A good way to practice spelling, is to have a child copy a short story or poem, being careful to spell (and punctuate) carefully. Then dictate the piece to the child. When the child has written the dictation, have her self-edit, comparing it to the original, and finding any misspelling and other errors, and finally practice them individually (for example, by copying each word several times, writing the words in sentences, making up spelling memory tricks, etc.)

Crazy stories: Another activity is to make up stories using spelling words. The crazier/funnier the story, the more the child is likely to remember the correct spellings of the words later.

Write stories and leave blanks for the spelling words: Yet another method is for you to write stories, leaving blanks for the spelling words. Read the story with the child, have him choose, say, and orally spell the words for each blank (from the spelling list). Finally have him, individually, go back through the story, write the words from memory, and then check his own spelling, and make corrections if possible. (Make sure the story is simple for the child to read).

Rhyming word families and poems: A really easy way to teach lots of spelling words is of course to use rhyming words in which just the first one or two or three letters are different. This teaches recognition of “word families” and differentiation of initial letter sounds, or blend sounds. It also provides a list of words that can easily be used to create fun and easy rhyming poems. Children love to help create these rhyming ditties, which will also help them remember the spelling even more. If you add “actions” or put a “tune” to the poem, the learning becomes even more efficient and memorable. An example of a silly poem: “I have a lazy cat/Who sits all day on a mat/He eats lots of this and that/And now he’s really fat!” (And it can be sung to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”!)

Include proper nouns from the start: Children are often given spelling lists for the first year or two that only include lower-case words. Then they find it really difficult to start adding capitalized words (proper nouns) later on. It is a good idea to include proper nouns in your spelling lists right from the start. If you’re doing a “word family” list, it is usually easy to include at least a couple nicknames (am, bam, Cam, dam, ham, jam, Pam, ram, Sam). You can also include more “difficult” proper nouns that the child sees often–names of family members and friends, names of stores or churches or schools, months, days, name of your city or town, and so on. Because children see these words frequently, they will not find them very hard, they will get practice with capitalizing proper nouns, and of course they will be learning to spell some very frequently used words from their own life. If you plan to use the spelling list to have your child create a story with the spelling word, you are also providing characters, places, and times for the story.

Don’t overwhelm your child: Maybe your child has been having difficulty with spelling because he is just being pushed too fast, with too much work and not enough time. Try going through the assignment, or test, or list of spelling words, and pick out the most important spelling words. Then have your child try the assignment. You may well find that by requiring less work in the same time period, your child will do much better. And gradually you can add more questions/work in future. It is better to learn a few words well, than to do a lot of words in a big rush and do them all poorly (or to do only the first few words, which are usually the “easy” ones, and not get to the words which really demonstrate that the child does know the skill).

Copywork and self-question comprehension work: It can be helpful to have your child do “copywork” on a regular basis, being sure to go slowly and write neatly. This helps children learn to spell better as they copy, pick up correct punctuation and capitalization, and develop good writing skills by copying well-written pieces, whether prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction. Copying slowly and carefully also encourages focusing, and can help to improve comprehension and thinking skills. (Another related activity involves, after having the child copy the piece, asking the child to create his own questions about it. By creating his own questions, the child actually is developing deeper comprehension and inference skills. Talk together about different kinds of questions–for example, “what/who/when/where/which” questions are usually “fact-oriented” such as “What kind of animal is in this story?” … while “how/why” questions often require more thinking/inference, such as “How do you think the police officer figured out who committed the crime?” or “Why did the main character have to work so hard while other characters hardly did any work at all?”)

Use the child’s own vocabulary for spelling words: Another way to expand a child’s spelling ability–and at the same time build her creative writing skills–is to use the child’s own vocabulary in her written work. Read together a double-spaced piece your child has written–or tape-record your child telling a story and then type it up. Together, try to make it more interesting by circling plain nouns and verbs and replacing them with more specific, interesting words; and by adding describing words (adjectives, adverbs, and phrases with extra details). Use the “old” and “new” words to make a “spelling list.” Because the child has written or dictated the original story, and has come up with the new words, she will feel “ownership” of those words, and be more willing to learn to spell them correctly. As she wrote them as part of a story, they will have more meaning for her. And of course, she will at the same time become aware of how to make her story-writing more interesting.

Watch for “missing words.” Some children, in their writing, often leave out the “small words” that are actually some of the most-frequently-used-words (sight words). If your child does this, make a list of the missing words. First have your child read the story aloud as he wrote it, then have him figure out where the “missing words” go and write them in (you may need, at first, to draw blanks where words are missing), and then have him read the story aloud again. As some children (and yes, adults, too!) will read the original as they “thought/planned” it, rather than as they actually wrote it, you may need to read it aloud to the child the way it is written, so he can “hear” that words are missing. The fact is, we ALL do this to some extent–reading what we planned to write, rather than what we actually wrote–which is why even very good writers need someone else to edit and find the mistakes! This is good self-editing practice–and also provides confidence for children who “skip” words they have trouble spelling.

Word order: On the topic of “small words,” some children actually do have a difficult time figuring out where small words should go in a sentence. Some children leave out small words when they speak, but others do it only in their writing. Either way, a good exercise is to mix up the word order of a sentence (start out with sentences from stories your child is familiar with, or even have him dictate a sentence, but then you write it in mixed up order). Be sure to capitalize the first word and other proper nouns, and put punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, etc.) beside the words they go with. Cut out the sentence into its bits. Then have your child sort out the bits, place them in order, read the sentence aloud, and rewrite it in correct order. When your child becomes adept at this, you can leave out capitalization and punctuation, and once he has written the sentence in correct order, can practice his capitalization and punctuation skills on the sentence.

And then there’s always… the all-time favorite spelling game, “Hangman!”

Looking for other useful tips on helping your child read and write? Check out the list of topics in the second half of our Tutoring Tips page.

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