How to learn spellings, for many parents, is a cause of concern – and a bit of a minefield. There’s often a disconnect between the scores children achieve in traditional spelling tests vs. their reading or writing levels. At times, it feels as though the knowledge doesn’t cross over. But advances in educational understanding of spelling (and literacy in general), coupled with the right approach, can help parents and children ‘join the dots’.
It was once a widely-held belief that the best way to teach children how to learn spellings was rote learning: encouraging them to group letters together, like ‘beads’ on a necklace. However, over the last two decades, it’s been discovered that this is not the case – in fact, there are two important processes that must take place in order for a child to master spelling. As Dr Louisa Moats (a specialist in the implementation of school-wide interventions for improving literacy) puts it:
‘First, we now know that a child learns to spell in a roughly predictable series of steps that build on one another (Ehri 1986, 1994; Gill, 1992; Henderson, 1990). Second, we also now understand that spelling memory is dependent on a child’s growing knowledge of spoken and written word structure.’
For parents who are trying to teach their children how to learn spellings, with the aim of not only enhancing their skills, but also building confidence, a varied and holistic approach is recommended (it’s important to remember, for example, that over 40% of all children are right-brained, or learn best in visual, kinaesthetic or tactile settings). Mentor Education are here to help you with some great learning tips that will inspire young learners who are learning how to spell, and need a bit of loving attention; children who love to be challenged but find spelling a little boring; or indeed any learner who needs to practise in a supportive yet stimulating environment.
When trying to teach how to learn spellings, fun should be at the top of the list – it’s the best way to break the ice, introduce the activity, and ease any kind of learner into the process. If you’re looking for fun, spelling-related games to play with your children, read on:
For a variation, there’s the spelling train – again, you’re visualising words like building blocks. In this game, you read out a word and ask your child to write it down; then, your child has to choose another word that starts with the last letter of the previous word – and so on, until you’ve created a ‘train of words’. It might look like this by the time you’re finished:
Longer words can seem daunting, so it’s a good idea to break them up into bite-sized chunks to make the spelling easier to remember. First of all, work out – together – how many syllables are in the word: you can say the word out loud and clap it out (one clap per syllable) until you’ve reached an agreement. For example:
Trial = tri / al
Hospital = hos / pi / tal
And so on.
Once you’ve done this, you can address any stumbling blocks by finding out which part of the word is the trickiest to spell, and then highlighting it. For example:
Ne / cess / ar / y
After you’ve broken down the word and highlighted the tricky part(s), ask your child to write the word out again without looking. Approaching the word in this way means that your child will start to focus on how the word should ‘look’ according to how it ‘sounds’, and which parts trip them up, and they will start to remember how it all fits together.
If you’re finding that highlighting and breaking down a word isn’t quite working, there are other tricks to try.
For example, it’s generally agreed that linking words with visual images makes it easier for the spelling to ‘stick’ in the brain. Let’s imagine that your child is learning the word ‘ballet’, but keeps spelling it ‘balley’ (understandable, as ballet is a difficult word!) – you could help them remember it ends in ‘t’ by teaching them the phrase ‘I twirled my legs into ballet’. Often, the most effective way to use this trick is for your child to come up with their own phrase that helps them remember: if they spell ‘cat’ with a ‘k’, for instance, they might remember it’s a ‘curved’ c by picturing a cat with a ‘curvy’ tail.
Create an acrostic
Acrostics are another great aid – and again, it’s often best for your child to create their own (with your help). These can be single words or even ‘poems’, such as:
I love every flavour
Cold as ice
Every time the sun comes out
Run to the fridge
Excited for my treat.
Almond fudge, chocolate chip.
Say it as it’s spelled
This a simple trick, but an old one: go through new vocabulary with your child and really accentuate all the sounds (you can even act these out!). It works particularly well for double letters: ‘another word for talk is discusssssss.’ Or ‘when we press the bell, it goes buzzzzzzz.’
If your child learns best through ‘doing’ (this is known as kinaesthetic learning), memorising words can be a little tricky – but not impossible. A great tip is to ask them to trace out each letter of the word onto the palm of their hand (or another area, like the front of the leg), with their finger. Keep repeating this process. In time, the spelling will ‘sink’ in via muscle memory, because they will begin to remember how the word felt to write.
A fun – if more unusual – technique, this is an approach that is commonly adopted by American tutors, but we’re seeing it more in the UK as it’s so effective (apparently it’s one of the most popular methods used by American Spelling Bee champions). Create a melody for a word and sing it out loud, over and over (you could even create a jingle for an acrostic poem, and bring those two methods together).
The melody will be readily absorbed into your child’s memory, and if they struggle to remember the spelling in future, they can recall the tune in order to remember the word’s sound and rhythm, which might jog their memory.
Spelling doesn’t need to be a chore, but it does require careful consideration – particularly as prep schools are looking for a high degree of accuracy. Be sure to set aside time for specific spelling practice, and keep note of any frequently misspelled words – at least two of these should be used in every session (you can make use of the techniques above to help your children remember). With regular time and effort you’ll soon see an improvement, but do remember: our expert tutors are always here to help if you get stuck.
Find out how Mentor can help you support you and your child as you approach the 7+.