On Teaching Spelling

I have a confession, and I hope you won’t hate me for it . . .  Spelling is easy for me.  I started first grade in 1968.  They weren’t teaching phonics.  It didn’t matter—I already knew how to read.  Everyone else was working their way through Sally, Dick, and Jane.  What I remember about spelling lessons is lists of words.  No problem.  Show them to me and I won’t forget, even if you don’t explain anything.  I loved spelling tests.  I remember that in about second grade I would help my 4th or 5th grade friend with her spelling on the bus ride home.  Such fun!  I could hardly wait to get to that class and do those workbooks.  I don’t take credit for this.  I accept it as a gift from God as compensation for my abysmal math skills.

Now I jump forward about 20 years, passing over some undoubtedly fascinating history, to teaching my own children to read.  Which really started only a few days after the birth of my first child.  As he cried and cried for no discernible reason, I loudly read Goldilocks and the Three Bears, doing all the voices, hoping he would be comforted by the soothing sound of his mommy’s voice.  Or the bears’.  Or someone’s.  

All three of my children could read before they started school.  Thank goodness!  Because I’m not sure the schools were actually teaching that by then.  How did I do it?  I read to them.  A lot. And taught them the sounds of the letters.  I taught them sight words by pointing to the words as I read, stopping at certain words, waiting for the child on my lap to fill in the blank.  That’s all I knew to do.  After all, no one had taught me to read.

Oh, I had picked up a few tips along the way.

“No, it’s not bit-ee, it’s bite.”  “How come?” “Well, because the e is silent and makes the i say i.” “OK.”

“No, it’s not kitty, it’s city.”  “How come?”  “Well, sometimes c says s.”  “OK.”

See how that works?  Pretty slick when you have kids who get it.

Skip a few more years of enthralling history.  I started homeschooling when my oldest was in 6th grade, my youngest in 2nd.  I was learning this whole curriculum thing from scratch.  When I heard people talking about choosing a spelling curriculum, I’m afraid I had uncharitable thoughts in my heart about their competence to teach.  How did I teach spelling?  Why, by reading and writing, of course.  We read. We wrote.  Each child’s spelling list came from words he or she misspelled in other lessons.  Pretty slick when you have kids who get it.  Mostly.  

Another 15 years or so of stimulating history, and I’m teaching in a small classical Christian school where I learn the reality that most kids don’t just “get it.”  For that reason, we use a spelling method that has been absolutely enlightening to me –Spalding’s Writing Road to Reading.  Now, before you jump to the conclusion that I’m about to set the hook, I must tell you that I learned to teach the WRtR method by watching someone else do it.  Someone who had watched someone else teach it, and had gone to the training seminars; who had then used it in the classroom for a few years, making adjustments along the way.  I simply did what she did for about 5 years before I had the opportunity to go to a training seminar, or even before I got around to reading the book.  I went by imitation and intuition.  I can do that because I get it.  


About another five years, and . . .  you know.  I read an article in a magazine I respect by a person whose name I recognize, saying that Writing Road to Reading isn’t classical.  I am indignant!  Our school is certified, I passed the class!  Who says we’re not teaching classically.  I prepare to write a diatribe in rebuttal.  I look at this author’s assertions about WRtR and think, “Does it really say that in the book?”  It really does!  So what’s the deal?

A couple of deep breaths and some cooler thoughts later, I realize, this writer is no doubt correct.  What has happened is that over time we have taken a method that is justly open to criticism and made it our own.  I use the book as a springboard.  It is a compilation of a valuable word list, spelling rules, and a teaching method which I use the same way I use a grocery store.  I take what I can use and leave the rest.  I see what works and what doesn’t.  I am not a slave to the book or the method. Rather, I make the book my slave.

And this is where I’ve been going all along.  Teach phonics.  Somehow.  You can find an expert to support any curriculum you like.  And you can find another expert to criticize the same one.  Don’t let anyone pressure you into using something that isn’t working for your family.  If you are reading this, you know the sounds of the letters.  If you’ve taught those and don’t know where to go from here, google “word families,” and print free word lists and worksheets from the internet.

It’s that easy, and yet, there is more.  English is a complex and fascinating language.  I’ll talk more about that next time.

Spelling Series Articles:

A Severely Abbreviated History of English

How Came We to Spell Thus

Let’s Get Started

The Next Step: Blended Families


-ible, -able Endings