You’ve heard the rules: “i before e, except after c or when sounding like A, as in neighbor and weigh.” To form the plural of most nouns, add s, but to form the plural of nouns ending in s, x, z, ch or sh, add es. And don’t forget: some nouns are the same in the singular and the plural, such as salmon and sheep, and the plural of a few nouns is formed in irregular ways, such as children or feet. Whew. With all of these rules – and, of course, the exceptions for each -- it’s no surprise that children can struggle with learning how to spell. Whether your tot is learning that the letters c-a-t define her favorite feline friend or is moving onto more complex words, such as refrigerator, there are a number of tips you can use to help your child conquer those syllables and phonemes and become a spelling superstar.
Early exposure to words can be one of the most effective ways to help your child learn to spell. From the time he is a young tot, surround him with books and read them often. As he grows, read with him, and eventually, you can ask him to read to you. This early exposure – especially reading aloud -- can help to increase your child’s phonemic awareness, which relates to your child’s ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds, or phonemes. “Some children display natural phonemic awareness, which translates into a ‘knack’ for spelling. On the flip side, there are others who struggle with hearing sounds in words, and being able to recognize and apply specific spelling rules to more unique words," says Jennifer Baxter-Blubaugh, a fourth-grade teacher from Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania. These children, she says, are the ones who typically need to spend extra time studying words and their spelling patterns.
Several decades ago, researchers thought that children primarily learned to spell by using rote visual memory “to string letters together like beads on a necklace,” reports Louisa Moats of Scholastic.com. Today, however, researchers and educators alike understand that teaching a child to spell involves processes beyond simple rote memory. “It is not only a matter of rote memory,” says Baxter-Blubaugh, who is also a certified special education teacher. “Students need to be aware of sounds and patterns in words. This requires students to spell words not only in isolation, but also within the context of what they read,” she says. As such, if your child is struggling with learning his spelling words, try to provide him with a variety of fun opportunities to practice. For starters, Baxter-Blubaugh recommends that parents use online spelling websites, such as VocabularySpellingcity.com, which allows elementary, middle and even high school kids to play games with spelling words while providing them with valuable exposure to and practice with their spelling lists.
In a given week, most school-age children learn about 15 to 20 words. For instance, Baxter-Blubaugh states that her fourth-grade students learn 20 words at a time, which are all based upon the same spelling pattern, as well as five additional “challenge” words, which are vocabulary words from a story her students are reading. “I have found that students who truly struggle with spelling on a more basic phonemic awareness level often have difficulties that carry over into their reading fluency and sometimes comprehension,” she says. One of the most effective methods for helping your child to master his spelling words at home, then, is to help him create stories using the words. For instance, you can break down the list into two lists of 10 and then ask your child to use the words in a story. Just be sure to keep it light by encouraging your child to use his imagination and to be silly in his writing. The point is that your child will not only show you that he knows how to spell certain words, but also that he understands their context and meaning – and he just may have fun in the process.
It’s no secret that children (and, let’s be honest, most adults) become easily bored if they’re asked to repeat the same activities over and over again. If you’re trying to help your child learn his spelling words at home, add variety. Try different activities, such as placing magnetic letters on the fridge, hanging word lists around the house or letting your child play teacher: have him quiz you and then correct you when you spell the word wrong. “I always suggest to parents that they provide many opportunities for practice when working with a child who struggles with spelling,” says Baxter-Blubaugh. If, after repeated attempts to help your child improve, he’s still struggling with learning those spelling words, intervention may be necessary. “I rarely suggest tutoring solely for spelling, because usually the student has difficulties in other areas, which would, in fact, warrant further assistance through tutoring.” Remember, your first line of defense is your child’s classroom teacher; if you’re worried that your little one’s spelling skills aren’t quite leading to s-u-c-c-e-s-s, don’t be afraid to ask for help.