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Tips for Struggling Spellers

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Developmental Stages of Spellers

Does your child need help with spelling? Whether you use a published spelling curriculum or plan to teach spelling naturally along with reading and writing, the following tips may be helpful. They are organized according to the developmental stages that all children move through as they learn to spell.

Preliterate (Pre-reading) Stage

Reading aloud is the primary way to introduce your young child to the idea that words represent sounds and have meaning. Here are some other activities that will help you lay a foundation for success with written language.

  • Point out letters in the environment. Call attention to the letters in book titles, signs, and everyday objects.
  • Read and recite rhymes. This trains the ear to hear different sounds in words.
  • Practice distinguishing beginning sounds. This should be informal and fun. For example, call attention to a favorite book and say, “Look at the book. What sound do you hear at the beginning of book: b…b…book?”
  • Use puzzles or magnetic letters to help your child become familiar with the alphabet. Be sure to include lowercase letters.

Phonetic Stage

As children become familiar with written language, they move into what is sometimes called the phonetic stage of language development. They learn the basic sounds of letters and begin to read simple words. Usually students learn to sound out and read words (decode) before they are able to write spoken words correctly (encode).  Don’t be surprised if spelling skills lag behind reading skills. Here are some activities to help your student practice encoding skills.

  • Point to the words as you read simple stories, encouraging the child to focus on each word.
  • Play games with words to reinforce letter sounds. For example, ask what Leo Lion wants for his birthday. The answers might include lettuce, lollipops, lemons, lights, and a library. Use the child’s name to make this even more fun.
  • Use magnetic or foam letters and work with the child to spell out simple words while emphasizing the sound that each letter makes.
  • Make spelling practice more fun by using sidewalk chalk, clay, cookie dough, a chalkboard, or by writing with the finger in a tray of salt.
  • Exaggerate a letter sound and help your child discover how the mouth and tongue make that sound. Comparing two similar sounds can help your child hear the difference when writing a word.

Skill Development Stage

Learning phonics (sound-to-letter correspondence) is critically important for readers and beginning spellers. However, children soon realize that there are many ways of spelling the same sounds in English. For many students, the seeming inconsistencies are confusing and frustrating. This is why the next step is to develop a visual memory for the patterns in words. Here are some ways you can help your child to continue to make progress in spelling skills.

  • Present words in a meaningful context. Have the student copy a short passage that includes the words you wish to emphasize. After copying the passage, have the student mark or circle letter patterns that are troublesome.
  • When your student asks for help in spelling a word, do not say “sound it out.” Instead, mention a word that has the same spelling pattern. For example, blue has the same pattern as Sue and true, while blew has the same pattern as new. If the student continues to struggle, it is better to simply tell him the correct word rather than letting him become frustrated or write the word incorrectly.
  • If some words are consistently misspelled, consider having the student write them on note cards and highlight the troublesome letters. Keep the cards handy so that the student can refer to them easily. This ensures that the student does not imprint incorrect spellings by constantly repeating them.

Word Extension and Derivational Constancy Stages

As students practice reading, writing, and spelling over a period of several years, they will develop a strong visual memory for everyday words. Then they are ready to explore how words change when prefixes and suffixes are added and how word roots and word histories help in writing our amazing language.

You may be interested in Spelling You See, a new spelling curriculum published by Demme Learning that explains and follows these natural developmental stages. It uses some of the techniques mentioned above to move the student through the various stages of spelling.

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. Learn more at

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