How Does Your Child Learn How to Spell?

Most of us are probably familiar with one of the more popular methods of helping children learn how to spell. Spelling Lists. Many a parent has drilled their child on this week's spelling list ready for the obligatory test.

However, your child will never learn to spell all of the words they need as adults by memorising lists alone. If they are to become proficient spellers they also need to master a range of other skills.

Mastery of the skills children need in order to learn how to spell starts at an early age and follows a predictable sequence for most children. Although the speed at which a child moves between the different stages of spelling development will vary, most will pass through each stage in turn.

By understanding these stages in more detail we, as parents, are better able to support our children at each stage and therefore help them to become better spellers.

Stage 1: Pre-phonetic

When your child is around 2 to 3 years old they start to try to draw letters or scribbles to represent letters. At first, however, they do not make the connection between the letter they are writing and the sound which that letter makes. When trying to 'read', the child guesses at whole words based on their visual features.

Help your child learn how to spell: You can support your child at this stage by immersing them in a print-rich environment, reading aloud to them frequently while pointing out certain words or letters as you come across them, and offering your child many varied opportunities to write. Try activities to help them learn all of the letters of the alphabet.

Stage 2: Semi-phonetic

From around 4 years old and above your child will be able to write most letters and will also know some of the sounds which the letters make, having realised that letters represent speech sounds. They will start to use abbreviated spellings to write words, often using just one letter to represent each sound, e.g. they may spell papers as 'paprs'.

Help your child learn how to spell: Encourage your child in their writing attempts and provide many different opportunities for them to continue to develop their understanding of the letter-sound correspondences through various phonics-based activities. Teach your child to stretch out the word as they spell it to make them more aware of the different sounds they say and hear when saying the word out loud.

Stage 3: Phonetic

The next stage your child will pass through when they learn how to spell starts at around 5 years old. Now your child is able to use letters to represent each of the speech sounds they hear in a word in a systematic way, although often their spellings will not conform to conventional spellings.

Using such invented spellings is a valuable developmental step your child goes through as they learn how to spell and will not prevent them from spelling correctly later. It provides your child with lots of useful practice in phonics as they stretch out the word, listen for and isolate the individual sounds and then select appropriate letters to represent each of the sounds they can hear. It also enables them to write more independently and freely since they are not constrained to using only words which they know how to spell.

Your child will be starting to recognise and use different spelling alternatives, or graphemes, for each sound. So, for example, they will recognise that the sound /e/ is spelt -ea in 'head' but -ai in 'said'. However, they will not always use these spelling alternatives correctly when spelling words.

Help your child learn how to spell: Keep reading to your child and encouraging them to read and write to increase their exposure to conventional spelling patterns. When your child misreads a word, gently correct them providing explanations for the correct pronunciation where appropriate. For example, if your child incorrectly reads the word 'eat' you could say "I know that -ea often says the sound /e/, as in head, but in this word it makes the sound /ee/." Play games, such as these word family games, to practice more complex graphemes with your child.

Stage 4: Transitional

At this stage, when your child is around 6 to 7 years old, they understand that most sounds are represented by letter combinations and they begin to see that syllables are spelled in predictable ways. They start to use, but still confuse, these different constructions, for example they may spell papers as 'papres'.

They also start to develop visual memory and know when words 'look right'. When trying to spell a word they no longer rely exclusively on the sounds in the word, but also take into account the visual representation of the word and an understanding of the structure of words.

Help your child learn how to spell: Continue to maximise your child's exposure to print through reading and writing activities. Encourage purposeful writing, such as the writing of messages, lists, plans, signs, letters, stories, songs and poems. Also start to provide systematic instruction in certain more complex spelling patterns, such as with this bingo game to help your child learn how to spell vowel sounds.

Stage 5: Conventional

From about 8 years of age your child uses a range of skills to determine the spelling of a word. As well as using visual and auditory skills and memorising the correct spelling of words, they also start to use meaning-based strategies, such as seeing how the word fits in context. They understand how to deal with things such as prefixes and suffixes, silent consonants, irregular spellings and alternative spellings (or homonyms). They recognise that the meaning of a word can determine how it is spelled. Your child develops generalizations about spelling and knowledge of exceptions and usually applies them correctly.

Help your child learn how to spell: Continue to encourage your child to write frequently, such as writing a short story or factual book. Their spelling will improve the more they apply their spelling knowledge while writing. Help to develop your child's spelling skills by providing additional help on, for example, breaking longer words into syllables and inflectional endings such as -es, -ed, -ing. Play games to help your child differentiate between homonyms and learn about word parts such as roots, prefixes and suffixes. Point out words with related meanings as you come across them in reading or writing activities, such as 'wise' and 'wisdom'.

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