Everything you need to know about spelling for kids and helping your child learn to spell
With schools set to close and many of us now cooped up indoors, it seems there’s no better time for your child to master their A-B-Cs. But what approach should parents take? Here, Kate Finney looks at how exactly you can help your child learn to spell.
It was the night before the class ‘spell-a-thon’ and I found myself streaming the music video House of Love by ’90s boy band East 17, in an attempt to drill the correct spelling of ‘everybody’ into my six-year-old’s mind.
But as we sang along to the lyrics (“Everybody, everybody, everybody in the house of love”) I did wonder if there might be a slightly simpler way to go about helping my child learn to spell.
A common misconception is that English is illogical, quirky and random, but this is far from true. The strict system, with multiple rules and patterns that can help young spellers, has evolved.
However, over time, rules have been manipulated, throwing up exceptions, and even exceptions to those exceptions!
William Caxton, a merchant and diplomat, brought the printing press to England in 1476, kickstarting the standardisation of English spelling.
Prior to this, there’s evidence that the Elizabethans cared little for spelling – Shakespeare’s name, for example, was spelt in multiple ways. But Caxton’s Flemish assistants and his own European bias meant that the spelling of many English words was duly influenced.
And it didn’t stop there. “When the Bible was translated into English in 1525 for the first time, many of the translations were Dutch-based, so you get the introduction of the silent ‘h’, in ‘ghost’, for example,” explains language expert Phil Parker.
Understanding this historical influence is the key to decoding spellings with various roots, from Greek and Latin to words which came over with the Vikings (‘knife’ and ‘knock’), and words adopted from French and Spanish as people began travelling more frequently.
Rather than being daunting or confusing, spellings can offer teachers and parents the opportunity to delight and inspire children with historical facts, imaginative stories and word tricks, that will appeal whatever your age.
Spelling coach and writer, Joanne Rudling, talks me through the four components of learning to spell.
First, when helping a child learn to spell, we need to understand the etymology, or the origin of a word. Next up is the morphology of a word – the ways in which units of meaning are combined to construct our words.
Thirdly, orthography comprises the conventions we use to write down a spoken language, including punctuation, emphasis and spelling so as to connect a word with a meaning.
Identifying a word family often helps with spelling – for example, the silent ‘w’ in ‘two’ makes sense when it is grouped with ‘twice’, ‘twelve’, ‘twin’, ‘between’ and so on.
Finally, a good grounding in phonics, or the sounds of a language, helps us to identify the right letter(s) to represent a particular sound. Phonics, now a subject in its own right in Early Years education, provides the building blocks of reading and writing.
While the National Curriculum policy Letters and Sounds is widespread, many schools also follow a learning system called Jolly Phonics.
My two older children have daily Jolly Phonics sessions at school, where each of the 42 letter sounds are taught using multi-sensory methods, such as hand movements, animal associations and songs.
The youngest is so enthusiastic about demonstrating each new sound, so I wanted to talk to Chris Jolly, the co-founder and publisher behind the system.
“One of the things that’s happening with phonics is that you’re learning order,” says Chris. “The 42 sounds, including the 17 vowel sounds, get you a huge way.
Then you start to identify tricky words, and games to help you remember them, and then you introduce grammar, enabling kids to become more fluent and expressive in their writing.”
One thing that’s crucial for effective learning is confidence. The fun and games that are integral to Jolly Phonics help with this. As Phil Parker says, “once kids start to fail, they start to lose confidence and their brain starts to shut down”.
Phil advises picking the right moment to practise spelling. If the child’s tired, annoyed or frustrated, take a break, or go back to something they’re good at: “If we see a child who is good at football we’d ask them to recall how it feels scoring a goal to activate that part of their brain.”
On reflection, I sometimes begrudge the pressure of the weekly spelling tests, but having realised the link between good spelling and creative expression, I now feel a renewed sense of purpose.
Maybe East 17 karaoke isn’t so crazy after all! For if every word is at the epicentre of its own universe of history and meaning, then instilling a love of decoding words can only help children to fully appreciate the intricacies of our wonderful language.
Spelling test tips
- Avoid trying to force children to learn.
- Stay calm and don’t get frustrated.
- Tap into the methods that work for your child.
- Be playful with spellings, keep it interesting.
- Support, congratulate and celebrate them.
10 tips for helping children learn to spell
- Look, Cover, Write and Check is a classic technique. Look at the word… Cover the word… Write the word… And finally check it.
- Conjure up a visual memory associated with the word to reinforce specific letters (‘the cat likes to c-url up’) and encourage them to think up their own pictures.
- Use writing methods to reinforce a word – bubble writing, rainbow colours, write on top of your word again and again.
- Use phrasing to remember long words like ‘necessary’. Never Eat Cake Eat Salad Sandwiches And Raspberry Yoghurt.
- Muscle memory – write the word on your hand to remember the letter shapes, or practise writing a word in the air.
- Making melodies – singing the letters out loud should mean that the tune, and therefore the word, is imprinted on the brain. This technique is often used by Spelling Bee contestants in the USA.
- Words within words – ‘we are weird’; ‘you hear with your ear’; ‘a piece of pie’.
- Syllable beats – by breaking a word down into syllables and clapping as you do it, kids will begin to understand how a word is constructed and thus, how to spell it.
- Word pyramids – build up a complete word by starting with the first letter and adding a letter at a time underneath.
- Play – using apps and games like Junior Scrabble and Boggle, helps to make spellings as engaging as possible.
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