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Spelling Tips

My child’s reading fluency has really improved! When can I expect to see an improvement in his spelling?

This recent question from a parent about her fifth-grade son is an excellent one, and is relevant to many students. Therefore, I’d like to share our answer.

In researching the relationship between reading fluency and spelling skills, we found that reading instruction can improve spelling to a certain degree. But by the upper elementary grades, students must master specific skills in addition to reading fluency to become good spellers. Students need additional spelling instruction because reading fluency and spelling call upon different abilities. Reading fluency measures a student’s ability to read accurately and quickly, while spelling demands that the student correctly hear, combine, and record a word’s sounds with the proper letters. On top of this, the student must understand and apply the spelling rules of our language, in which many words are not written exactly as they sound.

Fluent readers have learned the rules of phonics (the sounds each letter symbol makes) and can apply these rules when reading. Additionally, fluent readers can quickly scan a page and recognize each word. Good reading is based on more fundamental skills: phonetic awareness, phonetic memory and rapid naming.

Just like fluent readers, good spellers have mastered the rules of phonics (they know their sounds) and remember those rules when spelling a word. Approximately 80% of words in our language follow phonetic rules. However, the remaining words do not “play fair” phonetically and require knowledge of the exceptions. So good spelling requires even more skills than good reading does: phonetic awareness, phonetic memory, visual processing, visual discrimination, visual memory, and graphomotor (writing) skill.

So how are reading fluency and spelling connected? Research has found that teaching spelling improves reading. The phonetic instruction which is also used to teach spelling is now proven to be the best way to teach reading. However, spelling instruction at the fifth-grade level and above requires more than phonemic awareness. In the K-1 years, spelling can be taught using phonics, but fifth-grade spelling rules require several more complex skills. Louisa Moats (2005/06) has broken down spelling tasks by grade level:

Kindergarten: Teach phonemic awareness, letter sounds and names.

First Grade: Teach consonants and multiple spellings of vowel sounds.

First-Third Grade: Teach irregular words, such as homonyms (to, too, two).

Second Grade: Teach more complex spelling irregularities, such as spelling according to position of the sound in the word (where in the word to use ou or ow; when to use ge or dge for a /j/ sound); and common endings such as -s, -ed,and -ing.

Third Grade: Teach multi-syllable words, including rules of syllabication, (where to break up a word into syllables), compound word(such as cowboy), accent and pronunciation shifts (schwa) when the short u sound is used instead of the original vowel sound (man to human, or the /a/ sound in adapt).

Fourth Grade: Teach Latin-based prefixes, suffixes and roots, such as /pre/ (before) + /nat/ (to be born) = prenatal (before birth).

Fifth Grade: Teach the meanings and spelling of more common Latin-based words. Organize word study around a common root word, once prefixes and suffixes are recognized.

The fifth-grade student who prompted this question has been taught many of these concepts. However, some of the skills required to spell at the fifth-grade level may not yet be automatic for him. While he has learned to recognize and decode words, and so to read well, spelling demands not just recognizing but producing the correct letters in a word. In order to spell a word right, a student must correctly recall its sounds, generate the symbols for those sounds, and apply the spelling rules to make sure the sounds are, in this word, correctly represented by those symbols. Reading offers visual cues that help in decoding, but spelling requires the student himself to produce the auditory, visual and written forms of a word.

So spelling demands more skills than reading does, and therefore requires its own instruction. What to do in the case of this delightful fifth-grader who has improved so much in his reading? He has the phonetic awareness, memory and rapid naming necessary for reading fluently. We now know that he is ready to go beyond the one- and two-syllable spelling rules. He should benefit from the fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum recommended by Louisa Moats. Since we at the K&M Center already teach the prefixes, suffixes and root words to improve vocabulary, we include the Lousia Moats program as spelling instruction for our older students.

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