Spelling plays an important role to students in the capacity of English Language Arts. On one level, it makes writing easier for a student. When children feel confident and successful in their reading and writing abilities, they feel empowered. As educators and parents, we want to help foster a love for English Language Arts, in order to empower our children.
Spelling knowledge can beneficially effect the quality of students’ reading experiences and the quality of their writing experiences as well. There are two reasons for this. First, spelling knowledge facilitates perceptions of specific words. As spelling becomes more automatic, perception of spelling patterns develop more generally across a growing sight word vocabulary, which ensures reading comprehension. Second, spelling knowledge reinforces word analysis strategies because it reflects structural information and vocabulary information about words.
We know that spelling involves more than just rote memorization. Although memory is certainly critical, it must be used efficiently. We must be sensitive to where our students are along their development of word-knowledge, and their conceptualization of word structure. Otherwise we may wind up presenting them with spelling tasks at which they will surely fail, because they will rely strictly upon memorization. This is somewhat similar to an attempt to memorize ten to fifteen new phone numbers each week and to remember them all school year long. A phenomenal task!
Students’ understanding of spelling structure appears to follow a developmental sequence of stages. As their word knowledge becomes more advanced, children reorganize the ways in which they conceptualize and exercise the spelling of words. Once children are writing exclusively with recognizable letters, they are more into the semi-phonemic and letter-name stages. These stages are characterized by the representation of some but not all sounds within syllables: for example, a student may write “BD” for “bird”. Few, if any, vowels are written. As children are exposed to more words in print and are read to, the concept of word develops and their spelling becomes primarily alphabetic. They begin to attend to most sounds and represent them with the corresponding letter: for example, “FETHR” for “feather”. Children will begin to spell some words correctly as they build upon their sight word vocabulary.
The next phase is within-word pattern stage, which involves an understanding of the patterns to which letters and sounds correspond within single syllable words. Sight words provide the foundation for this understanding. Children begin to learn and sort out vowel patterns. They may, for example, write “MAEK” for “make”. As students read and examine within-word vowel and consonant relationships, and as they exercise various spelling patterns, they gradually come to sort them out and use them correctly.
Once students understand most of the basic within-word single syllable patterns, they are conceptually ready for words of more than one syllable. They are ready for the syllable juncture stage. Children will examine what happens when syllables come together, for example, “sit” becomes “sitting”. In this phase, children begin to master the conventions that govern the joining of syllables.
The final stage, derivational patterns stage, occurs when spelling and vocabulary are intertwined through the spelling-meaning connection, in that students recognize that words related in meaning share similar spellings.
As educators and parents we want to help foster a creative spark in our children’s writing. Spelling is an important part of the developmental picture of English Language Arts. We need not hinder that creative spark by insisting upon dictionary spelling, but appreciate the learning process our children are going through as a whole. We need to walk them through a specific spelling pattern and then engage them in active exploration of the pattern. This way students will be much more likely to apply the knowledge they acquire in their spelling lessons to their everyday writing.