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Spelling Fluency: Pre-Drills for Teaching Spelling

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #60, 2004.

A roadmap to speedy, accurate spelling.
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Michael Maloney

Once your child has learned to read and to print or write, he or she is ready to learn fluent spelling skills. Learning to spell fluently depends on your child having been taught certain pre-skills. It is important that your child has already become a competent reader. There is little point to trying to teach a child to spell words that they cannot read.

It is equally important to have taught your child basic printing or writing skills. If the child cannot form the letters that make up the words quickly and easily, it is going to be a long hard task to teach them to spell. Before beginning a spelling program, your child should have been taught sufficient decoding skills to allow him or her to read 125-200 words per minute of reading material appropriate to their age group. Your child should be able to write between 100 and 160 alphabetic characters per minute. Each of the alphabetic characters should be readable by the parent.

To test these preskills before beginning spelling instruction, have the child read a familiar passage from an appropriate book. Time his performance for one minute and determine whether or not he is within the range of sufficient reading skills to allow easy learning of spelling skills.

A child's name is one of his most familiar words. Have him write or print his name as many times as he can for one minute. All of his effort can be dedicated to printing, not to trying to spell, so name writing gives an accurate idea of the speed and accuracy with which your child can generate alphabet characters. Count the number of characters that he was able to print or write and see if it is within the range of appropriate writing skills. If your child does not meet these criteria, you should dedicate your time and effort to improving the reading and writing skill components before you embark on teaching spelling.

Teaching Phonetically Regular Words

Part of teaching children to spell relies on the child's ability to say the sounds that make up phonetically regular words. That assumes that the child has a thorough knowledge of phonics so that he can say each sound or sound combination in a phonetically regular word and then write the letter(s) which constitute that particular sound. Children should be able to correctly say fifty to sixty sounds and/or sound combinations in one minute from a list of sounds that they have been taught. With some further spelling instruction, this skill alone will allow children to sound out and spell a large number of regular words. Approximately sixty-five percent of the one thousand most common words in the English language are phonetically regular. That means that with minimal instruction about different sound combinations, a child with fluent phonetic skills could easily attain a vocabulary of 650 spelling words just by saying each sound in the word and writing that sound down.

The children still require careful instruction because they may not differentiate between phonetically regular and phonetically irregular words. They could accurately say and write the sounds in the word splash. However, they could say the sounds in a word like enough and then completely misspell it as enuf because they do not recognize it as an irregular word.

One of the major tasks of an effective spelling program is to differentiate between phonetically regular and phonetically irregular words and to present strategies for teaching each type. To teach the phonetically regular words, the child simply says the sounds and writes each sound. The list of highly frequent irregular words is taught as whole words. Students should be praised for their efforts and can be given points for working diligently, following instructions, and completing their assigned work.

Words With Vowel Sounds Made From Sound Combinations

Many regularly spelled words have a vowel sound (e.g. the "e" sound in cheer) that is spelled with a sound combination (e.g. "ee"). These types of words are introduced as the next class of regular words. One easy and effective strategy is to teach lists of rhyming words that contain the same sound spelled with the same sound combination The weakness in this strategy is that there are several ways to spell the sound "e" (ea, ei, ie, ee). Unlike reading, where each of these sound combinations can say the long vowel sound "e," in spelling the student has know which particular combination is correct for spelling this word. There is a tendency to overgeneralize the first combination that is taught to other words with the same sound and to use it in other words that have a different sound combination.

One strategy to prevent this overgeneralization error is to teach lists that have words of the same sound with one combination (e.g. cheer, peer, deer, steer, etc.) and then teach another list of words which have the same sound but uses a different letter combination (e.g., fear, dear, clear, near, etc). Once each list has been learned fluently in isolation, the lists are blended and taught as a single list. The student should be able to hear and write the words from the first list at 20-30 words per minute to be considered fluent. Then the student learns the second list to the same level of performance. Only then are the lists combined.

Teaching Morphographs

In the 1970s, Robert Dixon and Siegfried Engelmann created a spelling system using word parts called morphographs. It is and has for many years been a superior approach to teaching spelling.

Morphographs are more than just root words, prefixes, and suffixes. When combined with certain spelling rules, a small number of morphographs allows a student to spell thousands of words. Morphographs are the smallest part of a word that has any meaning. The word spend is one morphograph. The word spending is two morphographs, spend + ing. Each of the morphographs in spending has a meaning. Spend means "to use up or put out"; ing means "to do something." So spending means "when you use something up or put something out."

The real power of the morphographic approach to spelling is that it provides the ability to use parts of words which are not recognizable as words by themselves (e.g., cept) to spell many words. Such morphographs cannot stand alone but when combined with suffixes and prefixes, they generate a host of new words (e.g., concept, except, deception, inception, and many more.) The power is also seen in the ability to teach the children to analyze a word into its component parts. That power is heightened by teaching spelling rules which will apply to almost all examples. It allows the student to analyze words in terms of known rules and to know not only how to spell a word, but also to know why it is spelled that way. Look at the following example.

An Example of a Common Spelling Rule

One of the few common spelling rules now found in many programs is the "final e" rule. It states that "if a word ends with 'e' and you want to add a word part that begins with a vowel, you must first drop the 'e' from the word." Wide + est becomes widest. Cure + able becomes curable. Students learn to apply the rule and also learn why the "e" from cure or wide has been dropped.

An Example of a Little-Known Spelling Rule

Another rule deals with the letter w and situations in which it is actually a vowel letter. The rule is that w is a vowel when it appears at the end of a word. That is why the "e" in en is dropped to produce shown, (show + en = shown). It also explains why the "w" does not appear twice in the word showwed. It is not an example of doubling the final consonant as in hotter or dimmer, because in this case w is a vowel, not a consonant.

Practicing Rules

Once the student learns the rules, he needs practice to become fluent in their use. This is best done with the provision of practice sheets that contain at least forty examples and non-examples of a particular rule such as the "final e" rule, (e.g. like + able = likable, like + ness = likeness). An effective spelling program presents these tasks so that the student can see and write the combined word from its parts using the rule if necessary. The student can also hear and write such words when they are dictated. As rules are added, practice sheets change to include examples and non-examples of all of the rules taught to this point in the program.

Students are fluent with any particular practice sheet when they can successfully write 20-30 words correctly while applying the rule. To be considered fluent, students should be able to hear and spell words at 12-15 words per minute when they are spelling orally. Younger children have difficulty printing or writing quickly. It may be easier to have them see and spell the word orally or hear and spell the words than to have them see and write the word from its component parts. Practice to develop fluent printing and/or writing skills at 150-160 characters per minute should continue in tandem with an effective spelling program.

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