Full disclosure: I have taught spelling in a homeschool setting, but I have also been involved in the creation of several spelling books, including being the main writer on the initial version of Steck-Vaughn Spelling, Level 6 (series author John R. Pescosolido), the revising author of Barron’s Pocket Guide to Correct Spelling, and the author of Painless Spelling, also from Barron’s.
Teaching homeschool spelling can be more of a challenge than other subjects if you’re teaching by the standards, because the standards are not completely clear guides for instruction, and spelling programs take different approaches. This article discusses how to interpret the national standards to help you get a grip on a spelling curriculum that will serve you and your child(ren) well.
Homeschool Spelling and the Standards
You should check your state’s department of education website, the URL of which you can locate at the United States Department of Education site: nces.ed.gov. Here, we will discuss the national standards for homeschool spelling, which are part of the NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts. NCTE is the National Council of Teachers of English, and IRA is the International Reading Association. The standards have this to say:
Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
This isn’t much to go on, but it is somewhat elucidated by further comments in the standards document, which make the following points:
- In their initial efforts at spelling, children will sometimes write words to mirror the way they sound and sometimes write words to imitate a spelling they remember seeing.
- Studying the system and conventions of spelling is critical to a child’s English language arts education.
- Moving from scribbling to “temporary spellings” – sometimes called “invented spelling” – to conventional spelling is the expected path or writing development and important stages for children to experience and adults to observe in order to gain a good picture of how the children are understanding language.
- It’s important to convey to students that knowledge of spelling – as well as fixing mistakes – makes a contribution to style.
- In the glossary, spelling is defined as “The process of representing language by means of a writing system, or orthography.”
How to Teach Based on the National Standards
How do you apply the kind of comments from the standards into constructing a spelling program? Here are some thoughts that combine the wisdom of the standards with a lot of time spent considering spelling instruction:
First, spelling is a way of representing speech. Speech in any language has a limited number of sounds. Because English draws on many different languages, as well as other historical reasons, each speech sounds is represented with more than one spelling. In some other languages, each sound has a single spelling.
For example, look in an English dictionary, and you will see words that begin with the sound /f/ spelling with ph as in philosophy and f as in festival. Look in a Spanish dictionary, and you will find no words at all beginning with ph. Instead, the Spanish words filosophia and festival both begin with f. This type of example can help us realize that a child learning to spell in English is doing something demanding and complex.
Second, the fact that the same sound can be spelled different ways means that when a child uses a spelling that doesn’t look correct but conveys the correct sound, the child is doing many things (though not everything) right. This is why the standards refer to “invented” spelling in its explanation of spelling stages and does not suggest that this is problematic. Spelling pharmacy as farmacy shows an understanding of orthography and making a connection between the spelling of pharmacy and farm.
This leads us to point three, which is that a child learns that pharmacy is spelled withph most readily if s/he is guided to see the patterns and systems within English spelling. This will not happen if the instructional method only a) focuses on words that the child needs at a particular moment for a particular task or b) uses literature based spelling that teaches whatever words happen to be in a particular story without regard for showing the child the patterns in English words.
Teaching by patterns also means that each word is not learned as a separate, individual piece of knowledge, but is understood both in and of itself and as part of a larger group. This provides more context and gives the child some structure to consult if the spelling of a particular word is forgotten. Knowing derivationally related spellings – spellings that are connected with word origins – is also helpful.
Besides these overarching factors, knowing the vocabulary of spelling, such asconsonants, digraphs, diphthongs, prefixes, roots, sight words, suffixes, syllables,and vowels will be helpful. Besides a spelling book for your child to work with (which you may or may not wish to use), you may also wish to consider Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (4th Edition), which will help you to understand English spelling yourself and assist in devising lessons for your child(ren).