Write Each Spelling Word Three Times?

By | October 19, 2013


rang    rang     rang

The lion rang home.

A highly competent second-grader (we’ll call her Emily) recently wrote the words and sentence above as part of her spelling homework.

Emily had been given the ubiquitous spelling homework instructions:

Copy each word on the spelling list three times. Write each word in a sentence.

When I asked her to read her sentence aloud, Emily, who was able to read and spell such other words as “lion” and “home” correctly, read “rang” as “ran.”

I didn’t ask her, but I wondered if Emily and her classmates had been introduced to the words on their word list before they were given this assignment.

Effective instruction for any subject requires:

  • a clear and accurate understanding of the most essential structure (knowledge and skills) of a topic, and
  • recognition and use of the ways that people learn best naturally — starting with what people already know and enjoy, focusing on the most important knowledge and skills through engaging interactions using meaningful and appropriate increments, with timely practice and feedback.

First — most important content.

I’ve seen more than a few kids who have copied words from a spelling list without knowing how to read them correctly. If you can’t read a word, you’re not saying it properly, and you can’t use your knowledge of it to help you spell it. Some don’t know their meaning either, which is a poor start toward mastery.

If students don’t know how to say or read a word and don’t know its meaning, how can we expect them to use that word in their speech and in their writing? Of course, I’m taking for granted that what we do in school is about communicating and doing useful and interesting things, not just keeping busy or doing “school” things.

Once we make sure that children know a word, we can move on to spelling.

“Rang” can be separated or segmented into units that reflect the phonemes in the word:

r      a     ng   

(‘ng’ is considered a linguistic unit — a pronunciation key is a useful tool)

Second —– how people learn.

Reading a dictionary definition of “rang” is not as memorable and efficient as having someone ring a bell, then use “ring” and “rang” to label what is happening in time.  “Joe rings or is ringing the bell right now.”  “Joe rang the bell a moment ago.” Kids also need to know about alternate meanings, such as “the ring that someone wears on a finger.”

For spelling, here’s a spelling activity that enables kids to learn to spell not just ONE word at a time but gain experience in spelling many similar words within a short period of time. A teacher asks children to change, add, or remove one sound of a word at a time as they hear each successive word:

r   i   ng

r    a   ng

s   a   ng

s   i   ng

s   t   i   ng

s   t   u   ng

s   u   ng

s   u   n   k

s   a   n   k

th   a   n   k

th   i   n   k

th   i   ng

And so on. In this word-chaining and -changing activity*, kids are engaged in attending to specific information about units (letter representations for phonemes) that compose parts of larger meaningful units (words). As a teacher gives helpful feedback by affirming or helping them to make correct changes, students learn a useful skill (saying or hearing a word in useful segments and assigning letters to the sounds) that they can use in the future. Kids find this activity fun, especially when appropriate choices of words for their level are used.

As a teacher walks around and gives students encouragement and feedback, she also is gathering feedback about her teaching. She can adjust the task so that it is at an appropriate level of challenge by manipulating the number of sounds and/or the letter representations that are used in target words.

Kids learn to work flexibly with words instead of thinking that each word in the English language must be learned separately. If we want students to have mental representations that are richly interconnected and able to generate further learning and meaning, we need to use methods that foster connected learning instead of methods that ask kids to learn a lot of unrelated bits.

This kind of activity is also more powerful than tasks focusing on “word families” that usually change only a consonant or consonants at the beginning of a word. if kids work predominantly with word families, they may see how “ring, sing, string, bring, and thing” have the same group of letters in common but may not transfer their knowledge and skills to words that overlap in other respects such as “rang, song, sang, strong, thank, and think.” Some children also overgeneralize and may get stuck in using a certain word family, even when it’s not applicable.

Writing Each Spelling Word Three Times

So, is writing one word several times in order to learn how to spell it a bad idea? Well, it depends how it is done. Writing or copying a word covers a lot of possibilities, including automatically copying letters without thinking about them at all or saying letter names without relating them to each other or to the sounds in the word.

If students are going to write words, what will increase the odds that they will remember the correct spelling in the future? Try having students “map” letters or letter combinations to sounds as they say each word.  Mapping* is a mindful and useful strategy for analyzing and remembering the spelling of all sorts of words, all through one’s life.

Mapping can help reduce the following kinds of errors:

Leaving out representations for sounds (e.g., writing ‘Thankgiving’ for ‘Thanksgiving’)

Putting letters in the wrong sequence (e.g., writing ‘prolbem’ for ‘problem’)

Adding extra letters (e.g., writing ‘stiring’ for ‘string’)

As students learn about the ways we write the sounds of our language (our alphabetic code), they will also learn to avoid errors like this:

writing  ‘g r i l’   for  ‘g  ir  l’   (instead of recognizing that ‘ir’ is used as a unit in   ‘g  ir  l’)

writing or reading  ‘w a s’  for  ‘s  aw’

Of course, some words are not spelled the way we normally say them. For example, we don’t say “Wed – nes –  day” usually. We use a schwa sound (‘uh’, represented by an upside down e in the dictionary) in words like amount (uh-mount). We can help children to learn to spell these words more easily by having students say words with “perfect” or “Queen’s” pronunciation. Many kids enjoy using an exaggerated or even snooty tone of voice to say words “perfectly.” For example, it is much easier and more fun to learn to spell Wednesday if you say “Wednesday,” including each of the chunks Wed — nes — day. Or “I have been (with an ee sound) to see the Queen (also with an ee sound). Or “I will go to school A-GAIN (“ae- gain” instead of uh-gen”) tomorrow.” Although one might not want to carry these kinds of pronunciations into everyday life, they help to highlight the crucial structure of the words we want to spell.


* Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness’ book, Reading Reflex (1998),describes the word-chaining technique under the name of auditory processing puzzles. A teacher can dictate words for kids to write and change, or kids can move cards with letter or letter combinations into the correct sequences. Mapping and the “perfect” or “Queen’s English” techniques are also described in this book.

Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

One of my obsessive interests is making learning (and teaching) easier -- for students and for myself.
Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

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