Teaching spelling can be a slow task, but it is made easier if we understand how kids learn. Our Spelling You See curriculum is built on research on children’s cognitive development and memory, and modes of education.
Most spelling programs are based on the faulty premise that if children memorize a certain sequence of letters or words, they will become good spellers. This approach emphasizes week-long memorization of word lists, with the hopes that these words will be retained the following week. But generally in this approach, students merely record words in short-term memory, only to forget them. Without something meaningful to connect these words to — what researchers refer to as linkage — the brain simply reverts to rote memory, storing the words for a few days and then discarding them. The words never make it into long-term memory.
Since the 1970s, various researchers including the linguist Charles Read have noted that children develop strong spelling skills in consistent developmental patterns. This research indicates that spellers advance through a common progression of learning stages, starting with sound-to-letter correspondence and moving toward more advanced and complicated spelling structures. The developmental process of spelling is similar to what children go through when learning to walk. They need to develop the prerequisite skill of crawling before they can move on to walking and then running. In the same way, Spelling You See guides your student naturally through the stages in the process of learning to spell.
Dr. Holinga utilized this research to create the Spelling You See program to guide students through these sequential stages for a more natural and stress-free way to learn spelling. This approach emphasizes context through meaningful copywork activities, repetition, and fun. To read some of the research pieces used by Dr. Holinga in the development of Spelling You See, download the bibliography.
The Five Developmental Stages of Spelling
All students move through the same sequence of stages as they are learning to spell. Stages can’t be skipped or accelerated, but the pace at which children move through the stages is unique to each child.
Before children can read, write, or spell, they must first acquire some fundamental understandings about language. This process occurs during the preliterate stage. As children experience the printed page, both as a result of watching books being read and of exploring books on their own, they develop concepts of print. For example, they become aware that English words are written from left to right and flow from the top to the bottom of the page. Beginning writing experiences might include “pretend writing” with scribbles or random marks that eventually become more linear. Children then learn to write actual letters, often beginning with their own names, showing words as strings of letters or letter-like symbols. These activities lay the foundation for the language skills that are developed in the next stage.
The second developmental stage is auditory. As children are increasingly exposed to language, they develop phonemic awareness—the ability to distinguish the individual sounds that make up spoken words in English. They then relate these sounds to print by understanding that letters represent sounds, letters make up words, and that each word looks different.
In the phonetic stage, most instruction involves helping children match individual sounds in words to their corresponding letters, usually starting with their own names. They often use all capital letters and spell words incorrectly. For example, they may spell KAT for cat, MI for my, LUV for love, and U for you. Silent letters in words like bake or lamb may be omitted. Instructors welcome these spellings as an indication that the student is beginning to understand sound-to-letter correspondence. Children arrive at the end of the phonetic stage once they have learned the basic rules of phonics and can actively apply them to both reading and spelling.
This third developmental stage is the most difficult, the most critical, and the longest for emerging spellers. It usually begins in early elementary years, once children have cracked the basic phonetic code and are progressing rapidly in reading. As students learn the phonics rules needed to develop reading skill, they are able to apply these rules to their spelling. Problems often arise, however, when children become aware of words that are not spelled phonetically, such as house, there, and said. Phonics rules need to be de-emphasized at this stage because they are no longer needed to help the student learn to read. In fact, over-teaching phonics at this stage can actually create unnecessary confusion in spelling.
The overriding neurological principle is that, because of the numerous inconsistencies in our language, new and different spellings must be connected to context in order for the new information to be linked correctly and permanently to long-term memory. As students encounter new vocabulary, spelling skills increase as they apply consistent strategies to master more complex spelling patterns and a greater number of irregularly-spelled words.
The critical thing to remember is that this is a stage—a developmental link to the stages that follow. Children are often in the skill-development stage through the late elementary years. It may seem repetitious to practice the same skills over and over again, year after year; however, if students do not master these skills, it is very difficult for them to move ahead in spelling development.
Because students are in this skill development stage for several years, there are multiple levels in Spelling You See which correlate with this stage including: Jack and Jill – which acts as a bridge between the Phonetic and Skill Development stages, Wild Tales, Americana, American Spirit, and Ancient Achievements – which acts as a bridge between Skill Development and the Word Extension stage.
The word-extension stage focuses on syllables within words, as well as prefixes and suffixes. In the upper elementary or intermediate grades, children often struggle with issues such as doubling consonants when changing the endings (pot/potting, but look/looking) and dropping the final e before adding an ending (love/loving, but excite/excitement). Other issues arise with words such as almost. Why isn’t it spelled allmost? Often children become the most confused or exasperated by these inconsistencies, but they eventually learn to master them as they move through this stage of development.
This final stage explores related words—those with the same derivation or origin—that usually have a consistent pattern despite changes in pronunciation. These words are often predictable if a student is familiar with word roots. Greek and Latin root study is helpful at this stage as mature spellers gain an understanding of how patterns and meaning are related. Students gain the most benefit from this stage if they begin derivational studies after basic vocabulary has been learned and a strong foundation has been built in the previous stages.
About Dr. Karen Holinga
The Spelling You See curriculum was designed by Dr. Karen Holinga, a Reading Specialist with a doctorate from The Ohio State University in Developmental Reading, Curriculum, and Professional Development. Dr. Holinga’s passion for helping kids learn began during her six years as a classroom teacher and continued to grow as she successfully homeschooled her own three children for twelve years. As a reading specialist, Dr. Holinga has helped over 25,000 children learn to read and spell successfully. She currently owns her own business, The Reading Doctor, Inc. where she works full time tutoring children that struggle with reading and counseling families in curriculum development. Dr. Holinga is also the author of the reading curriculum Happy Cheetah.
About Demme Learning
Demme Learning is an independent family-owned and operated publishing company. Based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Demme Learning has been providing innovative learning solutions for homeschoolers, parents and small group learning environments since 1990.
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