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Spelling a Word a Week

By Dave Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #51, 2003.

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David Marks


Learning to spell is hard for most children. Spelling is a particular problem for about 80 percent of boys. If you have a boy who has trouble with it, you have a normal boy. If you are one of the few parents with children who learn to spell easily, you and they are very fortunate.

This situation is a problem for homeschooled children, for almost all of the spelling programs that are available ignore what is now known about how people acquire and retain information. Studies in the last 15 years have helped us understand that there is a chemical that can be sent to the human brain that can, under the right circumstances, help information pass into what is called the long-term memory bank. If these special circumstances are not present, that same information passes into short-term memory banks and is quickly lost.

There are two situations that parents can encourage so the necessary chemical can be released into the brains of their children. The first trigger is the perception on the children's part that the information they are exposed to (in this case the correct spelling of a word) will be needed for an extended time. The second trigger is a frequent repetition of the information and its use in a practical way. What this means is for most children to easily retain the correct spelling of words, those two triggers need to be present.

How Memory Works

If you would like further information on this process, you might look up the works of a Nobel Laureate winner for work on the molecular mechanisms involved in the formation of memories, a professor Eric Kandel at Columbia University. You could check the magazine Science, 280: 2121-2126, 1998 for "Abolition of long-term stability of new hippocampal place cell maps by NMDA receptor blockade." or Science, 274: 1678-1683, "Control of memory formation through regulated expression of a CaMkII transgene." Or you could find material on this subject in Nature, 322: 419-422 in an article titled "The long and short of long-term memory" by Goelet, Schacher and Kandel (1986).

Kandel found that when the brain is weakly stimulated, a chemical pathway is created and follows the nerve cells. The neurotransmitter serotonin is released that activates "protein kinase A," which in turn modifies other proteins, which produces a strong electrical connection between neurons. There is no long-term change as the proteins return to their normal state. But, when stimulation is repeated, certain genes are turned on or activated through the release of a protein called CREB1. This protein reshapes the end of the nerve cells or synapses and changes how they function for a lengthy period of time.

Other experiments have confirmed that long-term memory cannot develop unless the particular genes in the nerve cells are switched on to produce these new proteins. If that process is not present, nerve cells are only capable of short-term memory.

Look at the procedures suggested by the spelling programs available to most students. The children are given a list of 10 or 20 words on Monday and told that they will be tested on them on Friday. Their brains say, "Okay, short-term memory is all we need." The children learn the words for the test, but on the following Monday most of them can't remember how to spell the words, for they have gone into short-term memory banks. It's not the kids' fault; it's the way the human brain works. The typical teacher/parent reaction is to ladle guilt on top of the children's frustrations. Does this sound like you: "This word was on the test last week and you got it right and now you can't spell it. Aren't you trying? I don't think you're concentrating. Don't you know how important this is?" We adults would quit trying if we were continually hectored like this. Why should we expect more from our children?

A few fortunate children can learn to spell that way, but for most children they need that perception of long-term need and lots of repetition in order to kick loose the long-term memory chemical.

If you have typical children, no matter what language arts program you're using, try the following program for teaching spelling.

Make Your Own Word Bank

Rather than use a list of words selected by some textbook writer in New York, create a list of misspelled words from your children's papers. These will be words they want to use and need to be able to spell correctly. They will recognize the long-term need for their correct spelling. That will satisfy one condition necessary for the release of the chemical into their brains.

A Word of the Week

The second condition can be met by the following process.

Select one word each week from each child's list of misspelled words. Ask each child in turn to work with you and the big dictionary finding out about their word. Together look up the derivation, the connotation, any prefixes and suffixes for the word, the root, the spelling rules that apply and the various meanings. Then have each child print the week's word on seven or eight 3x5 cards. Using two-sided tape, have each child fix one card right over his bed so that when he wakes each morning there is his word correctly spelled looking down at him. Have him fix one card on the foot of his bed, one on the mirror in the bathroom, and one each on the TV and microwave. Have him put his word by his plate, on the archway to the den, and by his schoolwork station. He will see the week's word correctly spelled all day every day for a week.

Explain what you're doing and ask your husband to have a one-minute conversation at dinner each night with each child about each one's word for the week. Those conversations might go like this:

Talking About Your Word

Monday at dinner:

Dad: Bob, I see all over the house little cards with the word liberty on them. What's going on?

Bob: That's my word for this week, Dad. I'm learning to spell it.

Dad: Good for you. You know, when I saw that word everywhere I wondered what you thought about how liberty and freedom are different, or if you thought that they mean the same thing. How about it, Bob, are they the same or can we be free and not be at liberty to do everything we want, or if we're free do we have unlimited liberty?

(This will get Bob thinking and talking about how to think about and how to use the word.)

Tuesday at dinner:

Dad: Bob, I was thinking about your word for this week and I thought that there've been thousands of people who've given their lives or who've been wounded fighting for liberty. Some people have sacrificed a great deal so that we can be free. Do you think that you owe anything to all those people? If you do owe them something, what do you think it is?

Wednesday at dinner:

Dad: I was thinking, Bob, at work today that if I do exactly what the boss tells me to do, I can never be wrong in his eyes. I won't be free to make my own decisions, but I won't be responsible for any mistakes I might make. I got to thinking about your word for this week and I want you to tell me something.

Bob: Sure, what is it, Dad?

Dad: If you always do what the people over you tell you to do, you'll never be responsible for what you do, but if you have liberty to make your own decisions, you're no longer protected by others. Do you see any connection between freedom and responsibility? Does the more freedom you have mean that you then have more responsibility?

Bob: I don't understand what you mean.

Dad: If you have freedom of choice, you can hurt other people with your choices. Does this mean that if you're free you're more responsible for what happens to others because of the choices you make?

You can see that by Friday Bob would be an expert with the word liberty.

Can It Be This Easy?

You're thinking, "But that's only one word." You're right. You have the choice. You can use a process that guarantees that most kids will forget the spelling of ten words this week... or you can use a process that will help them remember the spelling of one word and get them thinking about the meaning of life as it relates to that word.

The average spelling vocabulary for adults in this country is about 300 words. Not very many. Your children can probably spell that many correctly now. If you use these suggestions, they can learn and retain the spelling of 50 new words a year. They won't win any spelling bees at that rate, but you can remove from their lives the guilt associated with forgetting how to spell words, the anxiety of taking spelling tests, and the shame at their not pleasing you with being able to remember how to spell correctly their list for the week. Since they will be with you for years, they'll become competent spellers before they're ready to leave homeschool.


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