Providing Spelling Help For Your Child

It will take your child many years to learn to spell accurately. From the moment they start to learn the letter sounds at around two years old, right through until they learn about greek and latin word roots in later years, they are building a foundation of knowledge about words and spellings which will eventually enable them to become proficient spellers.

As parents, what are the best ways to provide spelling help to your child during these formative years?

Spelling Help

Children learn to spell in a predictable way, usually passing through a series of spelling stages in sequence, although the speed at which they do so varies from child to child.

Initially your child uses their basic knowledge of letter to sound relationships to spell words phonetically using invented spellings. As their knowledge of spelling alternatives for each sound increases, their spellings adapt accordingly and they start to use letter combinations to represent single sounds, although not always in the correct way. Next your child starts to develop visual memory so that they can assess whether words 'look right'. As they get older, they begin to understand that the spellings of some words can be determined by their language of origin or meaning.

At each of these spelling stages you can provide valuable spelling help to your child in a number of different ways:

Each of these different ways in which you can provide spelling help to your child are discussed in more detail below.

Encourage everyday reading and writing activities

Learning to spell is very much an integral part of learning to read and write. A thorough knowledge of how to map letters and letter combinations to sounds will help your child in both their reading and their spelling. The more your child writes, the more they will be forced to think about how to spell words and so the better they will spell.

When using invented spellings, your child must listen for, and isolate, the individual sounds and then select appropriate letters to represent each sound. This is a valuable learning exercise which will also benefit their reading skills.

Therefore, to provide spelling help to your child, encourage regular reading and writing activities. Keep writing activities fun, being careful not to discourage your child by correcting spellings too often. Encourage reading for pleasure, including interesting comics and magazines as well as books.

Help your child to develop an interest in words, talking together about new words you come across. Create a Spelling Words booklet which your child can use to check the spelling of common words they want to use in their writing, and record any new words they come across which they are having trouble spelling correctly. Consider having a 'word wall' in their room or in the kitchen where you visibly display newly learned words. Try using this Vowel Sound Directory to help your child independently work out how to spell a word correctly while they are writing. As they work through the process of choosing the correct spelling for a particular word, they become more familiar with the different spelling patterns and so improve their spelling skills.

Encourage your child to try new words in their writing. If they limit themselves to only using words which they are sure of spelling correctly, they are less likely to learn to spell new words. Have fun playing these spelling word games with your child, which will help to reinforce correct spellings and extend their word knowledge. Or have a go at these vocabulary games to directly expand their vocabulary.

Correct spelling mistakes in a thoughtful way

Your child is unlikely to find writing enjoyable if you are always criticising their spelling. However, if you let every spelling mistake go without comment, how will they learn to spell correctly? Providing appropriate spelling help - knowing when to correct a mistake and when to let it go - can be a difficult call to make.

Instances in which it may be appropriate to correct your child are when:

  • You know they could read the word without problem.
  • The mistake is not a "good mistake". A "good mistake" would be when their chosen letter combination makes the correct sound, but is not the right choice for this particular word.
  • You haven't already made too many corrections.
  • They are writing something special which others will read, for example a book or letter. In this case consider providing your child with the correct spelling of tricky words before they start writing.

If you do decide to correct your child's spelling mistake, try to do it in a sensitive way and encourage them to work out the correct spelling themselves if possible. For example:

  • If your child has missed out an audible letter, encourage them to say the word out loud slowly (or do so yourself) and ask them what letters they can hear.
  • Ask your child to think about how the word looks when they see it in a book.
  • Provide them with an example of a similarly spelt, but more familiar, word, to help them spell the word correctly e.g. "You spell sore in a similar way to more".

Reinforce useful spelling strategies

Although frequent reading and writing will help improve the accuracy of your child's spelling, there is still a need to teach correct spelling.

Parents who are familiar with weekly spelling words lists brought home from school, may assume that learning to spell is all about memorising lists.

However an alternative, and potentially more powerful, method of providing spelling help to your child is by teaching them strategies which will help them to deduce how to spell a word correctly. Rather than memorising how to spell a difficult word, you encourage your child to work out the spelling by drawing on a range of strategies such as applying a spelling rule, decoding syllable by syllable or thinking about the meaning of the word.

Specifically, you can help your child by encouraging them to:

  • Learn specific spelling rules or patterns, such as 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'. Here is a useful list of english spelling rules.
  • Break down an unknown word into syllables and then use their knowledge of sound-letter relationships to spell each of the syllables in turn. Help to reinforce the correct letter combinations used in vowel sounds of common words with this fun board game and bingo game.
  • Think about word meanings when trying to deduce the spelling of a word. For most words the way a word is written reflects its meaning, for example 'sign' and 'signature'. Help your child to understand the meanings of new words by introducing them to roots, prefixes and suffixes, families of related words and word origins.

Also teach your child how to use a dictionary so that they can check their deductions.

Provide methods for memorising words

We all know that our children learn best when they are having fun, so try turning the arduous task of learning the weekly spelling list into a game. Here you can find lots of inspiring ideas for spelling games which will help your child to learn their spelling words effortlessly.

Teaching word families can also be a fun way of helping your child to learn similarly spelt words. A word family is a set of words with the same rime (the end part of a single syllable word) such as "bright, light, fright, sight". You can find ideas of engaging activities for teaching word families here.

For highly irregular words, which don't follow normal rules or familiar patterns, the only option may be to memorise them. One popular method for memorising words is known as the Look-Cover-Write method in which your child does the following:

  • Look: Look at the word and say it out loud, breaking it into syllables and studying the sound-letter combinations used in each syllable. They should try picturing the word in their mind, tracing the letters with their finger or thinking of other words that sound and are spelt similarly. Identify difficult parts of the word, such as double letters, silent letters or an unusual vowel combination, and concentrate on memorising those parts.
  • Cover: Cover the word up.
  • Write: Write the word from memory. Check to see if it is correct, and if not, try again.

Here is an on-line tool providing spelling help for practicing the Look-Cover-Write method.

If your child is struggling to memorise a particular word, you could provide spelling help by teaching them a mnemonic to help them remember the tricky word. My son recently learned this mnemonic at school to remember how to spell 'because': Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants. It is not very practical to teach your child mnemonics for too many words, but it can be useful if there is a particular word your child gets wrong consistently.

Good luck with providing effective spelling help to your child.

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