This is a question I'm asked on a regular basis. If you've tried spelling program after spelling program with no real success, then you know first hand that not all programs work for all types of spellers. Some students seem to be natural spellers while others - not so much.
The English language contains a lot of spelling rules and these rules often have exceptions or other nuances to be aware of when teaching spelling. Of course there's more to becoming a good speller than learning spelling rules, but spelling rules are a great place to begin.
Difficulty with Word Sorts
One area of difficulty for struggling spellers often comes with an activity called the "word sort". Word sorts have gotten a bad rap. Word sorts are not inherently inappropriate for struggling spellers, but the manner in which they are often used can make them confusing and counterproductive. Many spelling programs ask students to search for patterns within words and sort words into their respective categories. Hence the term, "word sort". All too often elementary students are sent home with a sandwich bag of cut apart words containing several different spelling patterns that often produce the same sound or very similar sounds. They are asked to sort them for homework. Sometimes students need to write their completed sorts on a piece of paper, but other times not. The goal of this activity is to help students learn their spelling words by tuning their attention to visual patterns within the words. This, of course, will not benefit struggling spellers and readers if it's not paired with quality instruction. Word sorts are supported in research provided students are given the words orally first and students understand the concepts being sorted - either guided to discover on their own or are directly taught the concept. Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that very little direction is given surrounding the word sorting activities. At the beginning of the year - yes, hopefully. But then it's often expected that kids "get it". It's not the word sort that is problematic, but the lack of teaching and modeling that should go with it that can be problematic. Without this, word sorting can turn into an activity that creates a lot of stress for students and parents. If a traditional "word sort" is limited to cutting and sorting ... students who struggle with spelling and reading are often left guessing which leads to confusion. Struggling spellers do not learn to spell simply by memorizing visual letter patterns.
Spelling Rules Aren't Taught Explicitly
I teach spelling rules explicitly. It's troublesome when a spelling curriculum does not directly teach reliable spelling rules or when they are not taught clearly and directly. When spelling rules are taught in an appropriate manner spelling will make more sense and the student will gain understanding. Instead of a word sort I like to use something I call a, "Rule Sort". When we have three or four rules that students are almost to mastery with, we will "rule sort". The student is given the names of the targeted spelling rules and a stack of words that follow one or more of the rules. Students sort their spelling words according to the spelling rules found in the words. This encourages critical thinking and is done after lots of explicit instruction, modeling and guiding have been given. Rule sorts can also be used as a review activity to bring back concepts previously learned.
Spelling Patterns can be Abstract
Another area of difficulty is with the way concepts are presented within a program and how much time is taken to really dive deep and develop student understanding of cornerstone concepts. Spelling patterns can be very abstract for struggling spellers if the reason for the pattern (syllable type and/or spelling rule) hasn't been explained, practiced with repetition, and mastered before students are asked to work independently. Abbreviations are often used to build an understanding of letter/sound patterns. I've seen many students brought to tears over this because it only adds to their confusion. Some examples include: CVC, CCVC, CVCe, CVCC, etc. If students are not taught a deep understanding of how these patterns affect sounds within words, they will see these abbreviations as random strings of letters. Directionality confusion and transpositions are also an issue. Where does the C go? Is the V here? What's a vowel again? Merely identifying a pattern does not build understanding, especially if everything is done visually. Students need to identify syllable types and spelling rules, but they also need to know how to read the sounds within each syllable accurately and understand why these patterns produce the sounds they do.
Too Many Options Presented at Once
Other times, spelling programs present too much information at one time. The /sh/sound can be spelled 15 different ways depending on the word it’s in. If all, or even a third of these patterns are introduced at the same time it will confuse the student because there is no hard and fast way to determine which one to use when.
If you search spelling rules online, you will find a lot of resources and programs. But, which resources are the best, most reliable, and accurate? Even if you have that determined, what is the best way to present/teach a rule based system of spelling? It’s one thing to have the content that needs to be taught. It’s a completely different skill to teach the material in a way that builds understanding and allows students to learn without become confused or overwhelmed. Structured Literacy (OG) based approaches have done the best job at distilling and presenting spelling rules in a manner that does not confuse students, but builds understanding. If your spelling instruction is not working for some of your students, it may be time to try a different approach. Focus on building understanding through explicit teaching of spelling rules, syllable types and corresponding sounds.
Written by: Kelly Steinke, Founder READ Learning Educational Services, LLC