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Strategies to Help a Poor Speller


Q. Our sixth-grade daughter makes the same spelling mistakes over and over. What can we do to help her?


Be patient, and quietly circle her spelling errors yourself, and guide her to how to look up words in the dictionary and spell them correctly.


Why should you do this, when school won't? Because it's the right thing to do. Your daughter needs to see words spelled correctly so that when she "constructs" a word, she has the correct model from which to work.


It takes quite a few repetitions for a child to see a word spelled correctly before he or she internalizes the correct spelling. So if the child is allowed to misspell a word over and over, without being made to go back and correct it, he or she will internalize the wrong spelling. And then it's REALLY hard to get rid of it and get the right one in place.


What would be better for the schools to do? Switch to phonics-only reading and writing instruction in kindergarten through Grade 2 because, among other benefits, it turns out much better spellers than other reading instructional philosophies. After that, make sure that teachers in all subjects circle misspelled words, teach children dictionary skills such as alphabetization and string searches, require careful editing and error correction, and keep teaching and re-teaching the rules of spelling throughout the grades.


It would be great if parents and taxpayers would demand those simple changes of our schools, but that doesn't help all the poor spellers we've already turned out, or people like you whose children need intervention right now.


In the meantime, here are some thoughts for what you can do:


         Don't get on her case or criticize her about her spelling. Keep your encounters very positive. Praise her effort. Just keep the mind-set of a spelling coach, not a spelling critic.

         Are you reading to her for 30 minutes a night? You should be. Always hold the book so that she can see the text. Encourage her to look at the text as you read. The more she sees words spelled correctly, the more she'll internalize the correct spellings.


         Buy her a simple spiral notebook, and call it her spelling notebook. Buy her a children's dictionary with relatively large type and make sure she knows how to use it. Keep them both in a prominent place, like on the kitchen counter. But this isn't for you, this is for her. Every time she notices that she has misspelled a word, she should look it up in the dictionary and then write that word over and over on a page of her spelling notebook, like 25 times, saying it aloud each time so that it's a multisensory process. That's how she can "set it in stone." This is how a phonics-only curriculum teaches spelling at the same time as handwriting and reading.


         Kids love games, and they love to see how their parents draw. So put those two together, and make a funny worksheet with lots of words that she tends to misspell and cartoons depicting them. Have your child "correct" YOUR spelling.


         Let's say your child is very sensitive and you don't want to have her get down on herself about spelling. So don't make a big deal out of it. When you look at her school papers and notice misspelled words, don't say a thing. Just make a mental note. Then get yourself a set of handy, dandy index cards. Write a word that your child has misspelled on a card, and put it on your fridge as "The Word of the Day." At dinner, everyone in your family should use that word in a sentence. Have fun with it! If you did this every night for a year, there couldn't be very many words left in a child's vocabulary that she doesn't already spell correctly, or that you haven't covered!


Homework: For excellent background on what has gone wrong with spelling, read the chapter about spelling in the landmark book, Why Johnny Can't Read, by Rudolf Flesch.


By Susan Darst Williams Writing 10 2008


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