Let’s talk about spelling.  “Why?” you may ask. I hear many people say that with technology, in this day and age, “spelling doesn’t matter anymore”.

While the importance of spelling to our society may be diminishing, the importance of spelling in teaching the brain how letters and sounds go together cannot be overstated.  Learning to spell solidifies the process of reading.  If your child has difficulty spelling, it is a sure sign of an underlying language disorder that has been missed.

Bottom line, a kid who can spell is on track; and teaching spelling guides the brain through letter acquisition, letter-sound correspondence, word structure analysis, and helps synthesize the reading process.

Learning to speak and verbalize thoughts is a normal part of a child’s development. As infants and toddlers, parents encourage their vocabulary to grow by talking to them, conversing with them, and repeating sounds back and forth until they learn to express themselves spontaneously.  Over time, children eventually learn that the words and symbols in the world around them are based on the spoken language sounds and words they have been learning.

Learning to interpret words is fundamental to building good reading and writing skills. These are essential tools that every person needs to learn in order to understand one another and express themselves. One way to ensure children achieve a high level of literacy is to teach them proper spelling.

When children spell out words, they learn how letters or groups of letters “pair” with sounds that they can hear within words (this is called ciphering).  Once they connect sounds and letters, they can read more accurately (better) and more efficiently (faster) which facilitates comprehension skills like vocabulary learning and critical thinking.

Teaching your child spelling tricks can help them if they are having trouble reading. Spelling out words tends to get boring and repetitive for some children. If you are looking for methods to make learning how to spell interesting and exciting, especially for young children, here are some ideas:

1. Put it to music

For some children, music can stimulate them and help them with memorization. Putting single words into a song can help them with particularly long ones. Sing common vocabulary words like “p-a-j-a-m-a-s,” “b-r-e-a-k-f-a-s-t,” or “t-o-o-t-h-b-r-u-s-h,” with a unique tune as your child encounters them and see if the music helps jog their memories.  Think of the song “Bingo” as an example.

2. Use flashcards

ALWAYS remember that reading, writing, and spelling are LANGUAGE tasks.  Letters provide a visual input to the LANGUAGE system.  These are NOT visual skills, so avoid any “visual” based strategies and activities.  There is a reason that spelling tests, spelling lists, and flashcard drills don’t work – these are based on visual memorization strategies.  Research has clearly disproven these approaches.

However, flashcards provide an opportunity for repetition, which IS important.  And with flashcards comes the opportunity for hands-on learning.  There are many games and activities you can do with flashcards such as memory-matching, go fish, “Easter egg” style card hunts, card sorting, and so on.  Making learning hands-on can be very engaging and can also engage kinesthetic and tactile learning styles.

Get creative.  I use flashcards to do “jumbled words”/word scrambles; I do “missing letter” activities; or I do an activity I call “looks right to me” where some of the cards are spelled correctly and some aren’t; the child must identify if the card is spelled correctly or not, and if not, then fix it.

Note that the example activities provided above all incorporate word/letter analysis.  Remember that children do NOT memorize “whole words”.  Activities that promote looking at the word and “recognizing it” or “guessing it” do more harm than good.  Rather, the brain looks at a word and looks at every letter, and makes sense of the letters by matching/comparing them against the sounds in the words they know.

That is why you can very quickly recognize and read words like break, brake, bake, beak without error – your brain “extracts” the appropriate sounds and identifies the matching “spoken” word to identify it.  So, this is what we are teaching a child’s brain to do with word and letter analysis tasks.

DON’T use flashcards for timed word reading activities, unless it is an assessment.  This is a way of testing kids, not teaching kids.

3. Involve movement and play

At a young age, children have boundless energy, and they are constantly moving and playing. Incorporate spelling into their playtime to make it fun. Try drawing hopscotch letters on the sidewalk or driveway with chalk, and have them shout out the letters as they jump from box to box. Try forming the letters with body movements, such as spelling out “A” with arms above your head, and “L” with arms at a 90-degree angle.

Letters mastered?  have them shout out the sound that the letter typically makes.  Start putting letter groups within a hopscotch box; e.g., put “au” and have them say “aw” as in the word ‘pause” when they jump on that square.

To easy?  Put the letter group “au” in several boxes, and have them shout out a word that uses that spelling pattern (e.g., pause, cause, haunt).  If they make a mistake (e.g., “bought”), they are “out” until the next round.

4. Label your child’s items

Part of learning proper spelling is being able to see the words clearly and associate them with people, activities, emotions, or objects. One way you can help this along is to label their belongings, so they see the words often. Put tags on your child’s “CHAIR,” “BOOKSHELF,” “CRAYONS” in bright, bold letters. If you live in a multilingual household, putting the object’s name in your home language helps to secure foundational sound-symbol skills.

5. Spell anything and everything

Repetition is key to learning any new skill. Don’t get frustrated if your child doesn’t pick up on the right spelling immediately.  Spelling does not “consolidate” unless there is an intact sound system.  Continual work on sound processing skills is needed, but you don’t want to wait until the sound system is “filled in” before you start teaching letters – your child will fall too far behind their peers.

So, patience is required.  Spelling is often the last skill mastered, well beyond speaking and usually after reading. 

When encountering words in your environment, say the letters out loud to your child.  E.g., that sign says “S-T-O-P”.  The word it spells is “stop”.  It works like this:  In the word stop, each letter represents one sound: sss-t-aw-p.  That’s how reading and spelling works.

Point out signs, items on restaurant menus, or sign boards on shops.  Watch for background print in their favourite cartoons, video games, or YouTube videos and talk about them.

When it comes to spelling, you don’t need to pressure yourself or your child to get it right at an early age. The key to learning the correct order of letters is to practise it often and incorporate it into everyday activities. Point out misspelled words gently and constructively as soon as you see it. Acknowledge the way the spelled it “ah, yes, I can see what you were thinking.  That was smart thinking, you were really close.  This is a tricky word; do you want me to show you how it works”?  Your child will learn correct spelling with time and constant exposure to books and visual aids.

Remember that learning the sound structure of words helps to fill in the letter system, and working with letters helps to fill in the sound system.  We need to work on both, but we need to have patience.  There is a lot of work involved, and that work may double, triple, or quadruple when children have an underlying language disorder or cognitive deficits with attention or working memory.

Feel like your child is having difficulty learning letter names, learning how letters and sounds go together, is slow to learn to read, confused by the process, or has real difficulty with spelling? 

There is an extremely high chance your child has a language disorder.  They are often missed and easily compensated for and “masked” until it is TOO LATE.  I strongly recommend a comprehensive assessment if you have ANY concerns.

Do you need more ideas to help your child who is having trouble reading? We offer intervention programs in Calgary that can help your child improve their literacy skills. Call us today to learn more.