13.  What are some effective strategies for improving spelling?

Spelling in English requires a lot of memorization, unfortunately. The English language, a Germanic language in the genealogical tree of Indo-European languages, uses the Roman Alphabet to represent words in writing. English spelling is the result of an historical accident: Roman soldiers carried the Roman Alphabet and the Latin writing system, as well as the Roman numeral system, into the British Isles many centuries ago, and began the process of writing down what they heard the local Kelt or Celt people saying, including their extensive Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. English writing today bears very little correlation with English spoken sounds.

The English language, spoken as a primary or native language over many areas of the world, includes many dialectical forms. Even within the borders of the United States, spoken English includes many dialects and many regional and social variations. Compared to other languages of the world, however, English is one of the languages with the largest number of "phonemes" or categories or classes of meaningful sounds. To complicate matters further, these phonemes may appear in initial, middle and final positions within a word.

If we could summarize then, the basic source of reading, spelling and writing problems for all English speaking students and for all English learners, we could say that with only 26 letters (derived from the Roman Alphabet which contained only 23) English must represent at least 55 phonemes or categories of sounds.

But the questions remains: What strategies can we use to improve spelling? The most important strategy for improving spelling is understanding what kind of difficulty the student faces when (s)he tries reading or spelling/writing an English word. There are four basic types of difficulties:

1. EAR Reading or Spelling/Writing. If the word the student is about to read or spell/write has a one-to-one correlation between each of its sounds and each of its letters, the student can depend on h(is/er) ears to read or spell/write the word. Unfortunately, there are very FEW of these words in the English language. To tell students to "sound out" a word in English is totally futile. There is NO one-sound-to-one-letter-correlation word in the English language. Because English has so very few letters to represent its extraordinarily large number of sounds, ALL letters may represent more than one sound. And because of traditional spelling patterns established by Romans many centuries ago and maintained up to this day in spite of transcendental sound changes, many letters may represent the same sounds. Result: TOTAL CONFUSION if we try to tell students to "sound out" English words. 

English does have "phonograms," groups of letters that consistently represent the same sounds. For example, the phonogram "-ink." We can add consonant sounds at the beginning of this phonogram and obtain many English words: "pink," "link," "sink," "shrink," etc. We call these groups of words based on a single phonogram "Word Families." English has hundreds of phonograms from which hundreds of word families can be taught. Dr. Seuz's entire collection of books, like "The Cat in the Hat," is based on word families. That is why they are so easy to read and easy to memorize.

Teachers can take advantage of phonograms and help students build word families, and watch for words based on phonograms, to improve their spelling. HOWEVER, this activity will only be effective if ALL words included in the word families ARE MEANINGFUL WORDS. Thus, the first step is to group words by MEANING categories. For example, animals. Or clothing accessories. Body positions or movements, household items, sports equipment, etc. Words from these categories belong to word families based on a phonogram: cat, rat, hat, sat, mat, bat, etc.  Teachers who display in their classrooms words by meaningful categories AND words from these categories into word families, help their students tremendously. Students who keep word banks arranged by meaning categories and by word families based on phonograms can easily check their spelling because they can easily find the words: first, by meaning and then by word family. 

2. EYE Reading or Spelling/Writing. Unfortunately, most English words have to be memorized to be spelled correctly, AND have to be seen-and-heard before they can be read independently by students. This is the price we must pay for our literacy history and for maintaining our writing traditions. BUT we can help students: First, again, students must understand the meaning of the words and ACTIVELY use in their conversations the words we want them to learn to spell. Then, we can group words into categories by similarity of spelling patterns. For example, we can display in our classrooms all the words with the sound /ee/, as in tree, (green, bee, feel, etc.); as in tea, (pea, bean, sea, etc.); as in field, (shield, priest, etc.). As new words are learned and actively used in conversations, they can be added to our existing patterns displayed in the classroom.   Students can keep these words organized by categories in their word banks.  

This technique is extremely effective with ALL students, but particularly with English learners, since they have no clue how to pronounce English words. Thus, all students will understand that "tea," "pea," "bean," and "sea" are pronounced similarly and are similarly spelled. At the same time they will understand that "bear," "pear," and "wear" are pronounced similarly and are similarly spelled. They will also understand that "clear," "rear," and "ear" are pronounced similarly and are similarly spelled.  As new words are learned, they are added to existing categories.

3. MEANING Reading and Spelling/Writing. Students also need to know that meaning determines the spelling of many English words. For example: "bear" and "bare." There are hundreds of homonyms, as these words are called, and their spelling is determined by their meaning. There are many English words that have different pronunciations depending on their meanings. For example, bow (a tie) and bow (to bend). There are hundreds of homographs, as these words are called, and their pronunciation depends on their meaning. Effective instruction helps students form categories of KNOWN homonyms and homographs.

4. RULE Reading and Spelling/Writing. Students can also learn a few rules that help them read and spell/write words correctly. These rules are exceedingly important for English learners. For example: Teacher usually teach the ORTHOGRAPHIC rules for the regular past forms of verbs, or for writing correctly the plural of nouns. Teachers seldom teach the PRONUNCIATION rules for the regular past form of verbs, or for the plural of nouns. PRONUNCIATION rules are totally different from ORTHOGRAPHIC rules. Both types of rules must be taught. Both types of rules must be mastered by all students.

In English, all students need to know that consonant sounds can be made with or without vibrations of the vocal cords. In English, as a pronunciation rule without exception, if a word ends in a consonant sound made with vibrations of the vocal cords, sounds added to the word must also be made with vibrations of the vocal cords: "to bill," "billed," "he bills." Consonant sounds made with vibrations of the vocal cords are called "voiced" sounds. In English, as a pronunciation rule without exception, if a word ends in a consonant sound made without vibrations of the vocal cords, sounds added to the word must also be made without vibrations of the vocal cords: "to talk," "talked," "he talks." Consonant sounds made without vibrations of the vocal cords are called "voiceless" sounds. Similarly for all plural noun forms: lab/labs; pet/pets. Similarly for all possessives: John's; Marc's.

To return to the original questions: What are the strategies for improving spelling? The most important strategy is for the teacher to know and understand the sounds of English, how they are made, and in how many different ways can they be represented by many different letters and groups of letters. The second most important strategy is for the teacher to understand that the meaning of words and their active use by students in their daily lives is essential for developing reading, spelling and writing skills. The third most important strategy is for the teacher to understand that displaying words arranged into categories in the classroom --categories of words by meaning, categories of words by word families, categories of words by similar spelling patterns, categories of homonyms and homographs, and categories of words by "voiced" and "voiceless" ending sounds-- and requiring students to keep word banks arranged by these categories, is the ONLY way to make sense of the historical accident and the traditional writing conventions which we use today to spell and write English.




For more in-depth information, classroom demonstrations, and "coaching" of new and/or experienced teachers, Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK offers:

1. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
2. Cross Cultural Diversity - Multicultural Strategies
3. Effective Instruction for English Learners (L.E.P. students) Parts 1, 2, 3, 4
4. Promoting Academic Success in Language Minority Students
5. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
6. Oral Language / Literacy Skills / Higher Order Thinking Skills
7. 50/50 Dual Language Programs: design, planning and implementation
8. The Structure of English / The Structure of Spanish
9. Transition: Introduction to English Reading

Web Site Programs for Teachers: Numbers 1, 5, 7, 8, and 9.
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Paraprofessionals: Number 3.
Web Site Programs for
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Identifying / Responding to Students' Language Needs
Phonemic Awareness: Teaching English phonics to L.E.P. students
Relationship Between Reading, Writing and Spelling
Improving Reading Performance -- Building Oral Language Skills)

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