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Parenting in America: You Spell That HOW?

Spelling – it’s one of the most challenging parts of learning English, no matter when you start. Because English has its roots in so many different languages, its spelling conventions are anything but consistent. Sometimes, the same spelling can have different sounds. “Cough” rhymes with “off,” but “through” rhymes with “too.” Other times, words with different spelling will be pronounced the same way, like “sea” and “see.”

There’s even a joke that the word “fish” can be spelled “ghoti.” How is this possible? The “gh” on the end of the word “rough” makes the “f” sound; the “o” in “women” makes the “i” sound; and the “ti” in “nation” gives us the final “sh.” In other words, the English language is sometimes utterly illogical.

To a frustrated learner, English spelling can seem almost random, with any rules having more exceptions than examples. That said, spelling is an important part of written communication, and for many schoolchildren, the weekly spelling list is a fact of life during the school year.

The most common approach to learning a set of spelling words is brute force repetition, writing them over and over. This kind of drudgery can be effective, but it’s like pushing a boulder uphill. Luckily, there are many different and creative ways to practice spelling words.

One method that is especially good for younger kids is to use a sandbox. Writing the words in sand (you can also fill a shallow, wide container with rice for a similar effect) gives tactile reinforcement. Remember to have the student say the letters as they draw each one. Once the word is complete, say it out loud, say each letter in order, and say the word again.

I’m a huge fan of Scrabble tiles for practicing spelling words. Instead of pulling letters at random to see what kind of words you can come up with, place all the letters face up and let the student pick what’s needed.

You can also play with variations of this. Instead of all the letters (which can be a bit overwhelming) pull (in advance) only the letters needed for all the words on a list (one set of tiles might not be enough, depending on the words), or even for just one word at a time. If you want to pull letters for just one word, you might also throw in a couple of extra, unneeded letters. I wouldn’t do this on the first practice, though. It’s better to build up to more difficult types of practice.

Another variation is to flip the script: have the student give you the tiles, so that you make the word. Of course, if you get it incorrect, the student would have to be paying close enough attention to catch the error.

Bananagrams are a version of Scrabble tiles that don’t have number values on them and don’t come with a board, which makes them more portable.

If the words in the list follow a few specific patterns, you can also use colors to differentiate between those patterns. For example, I had a student whose spelling words all had a vowel followed by the letter “r,” such as girl, bird, fur, curl, herd, verb. We wrote all the “ir” words in blue, all the “ur” words in red and all the “er” words in green. The colors strengthen the association with the letters.

The last suggestion is the one that is the most complicated to explain, but also one of the most effective. I call it Word Walking, because that’s the essence of what you do. The process is deceptively simple: start with the spelling list in one room and a blank sheet of paper in another room. Walk from one room to the other, concentrating on the word, and write it down on the blank sheet of paper. Repeat for each word. Why is this so effective? Thinking about the word, focusing on it, for the amount of time to walk from one room to another, helps solidify it in your brain.

Of course, just like any other method, you can’t do it once, the night before a test and expect magic results. For best results, this needs to be done at least once a day for three days. It’s also important that the rooms with the spelling list and the blank sheet are always the same. This increases the repetitive nature and aids in retention.

There are, of course, options. Very active children might prefer to hop, twirl, or dance between rooms. Just remember, whatever motion they did the first time, has to be repeated on subsequent practices. Word Walking is also great for older children, who have passed the age where they have weekly spelling tests, but now have things like math formulae to memorize.

When it comes to learning to spell in English, you don’t have to push the boulder up the hill by yourself—there are multiple tools you can use to help you get to the summit!

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