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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Literacy

Teaching Spelling Within the New Literacy Curriculum
Arlyne LeSchack

Chances are that many parents feel the only way for their children to learn how to spell is for them to come home with 10-20 new words per week and memorize how to spell them. In truth this doesn't work--the student may get an A on the Friday spelling test, but they are unable to transfer their knowledge of the correct spelling to their writing.

Like almost everything else, learning to spell is a developmental process. Young children, even before they start school, develop an awareness of written language. Some may be fascinated with the alphabet. Once they learn the names of letters, many begin to relate the sounds in words to the names of the letters. They often begin to use invented spelling—i.e. representing sounds with letters.

Some kindergarteners will progress from invented spelling to conventional spelling, while others may use strings of letters that don't represent sounds. One strategy teachers can use to help their students move from invented spelling to conventional spelling is to have students write a list of commonly used words that can then be put in their writing folders or taped to their desks. In first grade most children will use some invented spelling particularly for the first sounds in words. By second grade this becomes more sophisticated- children will have already picked up patterns in our language and they may even have two vowels represent a long vowel sound, for example. By third grade, students are using more standard spelling than invented spelling and by fourth grade students will spell about 92% of words correctly, according to the NEAP Writing Report Card.

We, as teachers, can help parents with spelling instruction for their children by advising them of this developmental progression and giving them ideas about how to help their children become better spellers. Parents will be very interested to learn how their children's invented spelling reflects literacy development. Encouraging lots of reading and writing—probably the best way to improve spelling—is key. The children must also become comfortable using their whole vocabulary in writing in school as well as at home.

How children learn to spell can provide us as educators a window into our student's progress towards becoming fully literate. Our teaching can be enhanced when we look at what students are able to do—and at their progress--rather than focusing on what student's can't do.


National Council of Teachers of English, SCHOOL TALK, January 2004, Vol.9, No. 2

Please e-mail me if you have any questions.


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