Spelling (or, our only formal language arts instruction)

In previous posts, I’ve talked about how L taught herself how to read – and quickly. You’ve seen evidence of her figuring out how to write. I guide her a bit on letter formation and encourage her to write (like helping her send cards. That’s been a big hit – and the recipients like it, too!). In our conversations, it’s clear to me that she’s comprehending what she’s reading. The only piece of language arts that feels to me like she needs scaffolding in is spelling. I HATE the way we “teach” spelling. Pick a list of words (I don’t care if it’s a whole class or individual list, related to a story or decontextualized, sorted by spelling patterns or theme – it doesn’t matter to me – I HATE THEM ALL!), write them x number of times, alphabetize them, use them in sentences, blah, blah, blah. Disclaimer: I certainly perpetuated these structures when I taught middle grades (sorry to any of my former students reading this!). I moved further and further from it each year, but it’s a structure that feels comfortable and familiar for parents and teachers alike. I mean, it doesn’t work, but whatever, right? Ok. We know kids learn how to write by reading – and how to spell by reading. We ought to be encouraging kids to READ if we want them to spell. And we ought to be encouraging them to WRITE if we want them to spell. When L is writing for herself, I ask her to use whatever spelling she thinks is correct. When she’s writing for others, I often scribe what she says and then she writes the “final draft” using the scribed version for guidance. I’ve noticed that she’s pretty able to represent a majority of the sounds in the words in her own emergent spelling, so I was curious… I was happiest using the principles of Words Their Way in my classrooms. I like how they draw attention to particular patterns. It seems to me that L works well from having her attention drawn to important details and that she generalizes from there. I decided to draw on my experience and what I believe to be her learning style and conduct an assessment. I used the primary spelling inventory with L. I didn’t want her to fatigue before her spelling abilities topped out, so I pulled out our Lakeshore Learning “moveable alphabet” (her previous experience with structured school was Montessori, so we borrow some terminology). I read her the words and asked her to build them the best she could. I then scribed her spellings and used the inventory to catalog what she got right. One thing I like about this approach is that it’s inherently strengths-based! Here’s my inventory for her.

Primary spelling inventory

Primary spelling inventory

I looked for a spot where there was a precipitous drop-off in accuracy. As her inventory shows, she’s nailed the first three stages of spelling and (I suspect) the fifth, also. She missed three straight in the fourth stage, though (digraphs). I decided to draw her attention to the spelling of digraphs to see where that gets us… I pulled out my old book of word sorts for within-word spellers and found the digraphs. I cut the words apart and placed the headers for the first sort (s/h/sh) on the table. I asked L to tell me the words on the headers (sun/hand/shovel). I then asked her to place the pictures under the header that sounded the same at the beginning. After she got done sorting, I told her that I could find three words placed in the wrong column. She quickly found them (they were all sh- words misplaced in the s- column). I praised her hard-working ear for finding those errors and asked her to then write the words in each list. I reminded her that the goal was to write them the best she could. I also drew her attention to the fact that we knew how each of the words started (s/h/sh). Here’s the list she created:

Her capturing of the words

Her capturing of the words

The words are: S-

  • sop (soap)
  • so (saw)
  • sel (seal)
  • soks (socks)


  • hurs (horse)
  • haus (house)
  • hos (hose)
  • ham


  • shep (sheep)
  • shrk (shark)
  • ship
  • shed
  • shop
  • shrt (shirt)
  • shoo (shoe)

A few days later, we did the next sort (c/h/ch). I again had her complete the sort independently first, and again she misplaced some of the ch- words in to c- column. I didn’t have her correct her errors; instead, I pulled all of the words and sorted them myself, being careful to input errors. I asked her to find my errors and correct them. She had a hard time finding the ch- words I’d planted in the c- column, but she found them. I called that enough for one day. A few days after that, I pulled out those same words and asked her to re-sort them. She did so, with only one error this time:

sorting in progress

sorting in progress

Because she seemed more fluent with the concept, I had her record her words, again only drawing attention to the c-/h-/ch- starting patterns. My guess is that as we continue to practice this skill, she will gain greater fluency in reproducing the digraph patterns in her own invented spelling… or at least that’s the goal!! Experiment to be continued…


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