Archive for the ‘Spelling’ Category

Guest Post: English Spelling Sense

English Spelling Sense

English Spelling Sense

by Brett Iimura

Join me in a brief game of word association. When I say “English spelling” you say….?

Confusing – Convoluted – Capricious?
Frustrating – Fearsome – Forbidding?
Inconsistent – Irregular – Illogical?
Diabolical – Demanding – Dangerous?!

What if I were to tell you it could be Fascinating, Freewheeling, and Fun? Rich, Rational, and Revealing?

Well, it can be because it is.

The written form of any language, its orthography, is “sense made visible” (Pete Bowers) and is meant to be meaningful to native speakers of that language. In English, it is not sound or pronunciation that is transcribed but meaning, “human thought made visible as text” (Michel Rameau). English can be nearly insurmountable for non-native speakers to learn but has the potential to reveal untold hidden riches for anyone who delves deeply into its offerings.

But first, many of us need to throw off the shackles of our own learning. (Isn’t this so true with much of the homeschooling adventure?!)

What would you say if I told you letters can’t be silent because they don’t say anything to begin with? That there are few, if any, “sight-words”? That phonics is a mirage or that there is no such thing as a *<-tion> suffix? Are your hackles up yet or has your curiosity been piqued?

Spellings are said to be irregular or exceptions to a rule when the instructor has no other explanation for them. But there is a reason behind every spelling; indeed the very purpose of spelling is to make sense! Just as a story is made up of words, each word has its own story to tell.

A word’s structure, or morphology,
is the basis of making sense of a word.

Trying to “sound it out” is nearly impossible in an orthography such as English in which the number of phonemes is far greater than the number of letters we have to represent them. Memorizing letters in a certain order is not only tedious but impossible to do with every word in the language. When the structural and historical significance behind a spelling is researched and revealed, a word can take on even deeper meaning. Those morphoLOGICAL and etymoLOGICAL associations can also ease the learning of that spelling, although, as with most things in life, they are not panaceas. Spelling becomes more of an intellectual pursuit to express oneself precisely rather than an exercise in frustration.

Let’s take an example. The typical “method” of explaining the spelling and pronunciation of the word <action> goes something like this:

First split the word into syllables.

ac ・tion

“Why not use a <k>?” one might ask. Most phonics programs will point out that <c> sometimes “says” the hard sound /k/. More detailed phonics programs might explain that <c> only “says” the soft sound /s/ before an <i>, <e>, or <y>. Older students might then ask what it is doing in <social> or <indict>. A slide down the slippery slope of sounding-it-out has begun.

Knowing that it comes from Latin’s actionem might be helpful in explaining the <c> versus <k> conundrum but it isn’t actually necessary (grapheme selection is often determined by position in a word) and it doesn’t explain the second half of the word’s pronunciation since the Latin pronunciation retains the distinct phonemes of both /t/ and /i/. Most teachers will explain that there is a <-tion> suffix in English and it is pronounced /shun/. Programs such as Orton Gillingham might explain the idea of closed versus open syllables to try to add clarity.

But what does this word <action> mean? What forms the base of its meaning if not the word <act>? Why in the world would we tear apart the letters that form the base of its meaning if the whole purpose of the written word is to make sense?

With the morphological understanding that every spelling must consist of a base, which holds the underlying denotation of the word and may have affixes attached, a word sum can be written as follows:

act + ion → action

The suffix <-ion> has the grammatical function in this word of indicating a noun. Phonology, of course, plays a role but in using the sound-it-out method one would wind up with a-k-sh-u-n. If grapheme-phoneme correspondence is delved into just a bit further, it will be noticed that the letter <t> in English can be used to represent at least three pronunciations. When looking at the diagram below, keep in mind the words <act>, <action>, and <actual>. Then try to find other examples.

English Spelling Sense

After understanding the above concepts, who could possibly teach <question> as anything other than a quest for information, best represented by <quest + ion → question>. The pronunciation shift from <quest> to <question> is understood easily by native speakers and our spelling system is flexible precisely in order to accommodate these pronunciation shifts. Looking at the word from a morphological perspective allows retention of the spelling of the base and hence, underlying denotation of related words, despite the pronunciation shift. A list of affixes grows quickly through a student’s experience. Putting these building blocks together then becomes easier and assists in discovering other related words, such as <conquest> and <request>. Think of the possibilities for vocabulary expansion!

Approaching a word in print using the same tools but in reverse, peeling away the affixes to reveal the base, aids in recognizing a word that at first appears unrecognizable. Understanding suffixing conventions helps understand the spelling itself. Digging etymologically can also help inform the meaning of the unknown word, as well as make connections with other words.

Looking at English spelling this way requires a philosophical change. It is an approach to the written word, not a method. It is easily utilized in homeschooling because it can be adapted to any words your child is engaged with, whether they arise from children just becoming acquainted with the written word or from more advanced students. It seems to be particularly effective with dyslexic children who are often desperately searching for meaning in their learning and find this approach makes more sense than meaningless syllables. There is no particular sequence that must be followed. You can explore and discover alongside your child.

Some invaluable sites to get you started:

WordWorks Literacy Centre – a site created by Pete Bowers that looks at how modern English is built, why it makes sense, and why it’s supposed to. Builds on Real Spelling. Many practical ideas to get you started.

Online Etymology Dictionary – delves deeply into the etymology of English. It takes some learning and experience to understand all of its riches. Unbelievably, it is run entirely by one man.

LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange – a blog by the foremost linguist I know who also runs online classes on various topics, one of which is run in conjunction with the man who runs etymonline and goes into how to get the most out of that site.

I have no financial stake in any of these sites. They are simply my stomping ground, my utmost resources, places I can get lost in for hours. My only purpose is to spread this approach as far and wide as I can while I also continue to expand my own knowledge. I utilize these sites often in my teaching of homeschooling groups and individual tutoring. Feel free to contact me at if you are interested in having your child tutored using these tools.

Invented Spelling?

spelling test
I do not advocate “invented spelling” the way schools used to teach it. Schools recognized (based on the excellent work of Orton-Gillingham) at some point in educational theory that children were inhibited to write if they had to keep figuring out how to spell, handwrite, and punctuate everything “perfectly” before they could get any attention for their content, before they had mastered those skills. They unconsciously “dumbed down” their content to match their mechanics, OR they ran rough-shod over correct mechanics to protect their sophisticated English thinking skills, and got back a page of red pen marks.

As a result, teachers were told: “Let children invent the spellings. Don’t mock or correct them. Allow them to use whatever spelling they can find to get their complex ideas out.”

So far so good.

Issues arose when students did not retire these invented spellings quickly enough for schools. Assessment is much more precise when measuring and valuing mechanics than when appreciating the nuances of content and personal ownership of writing.

Hence, in schools, a hybrid approach emerged: a period of invented spelling was often allowed in journaling and some freewriting, but an expectation that the child would master the mechanics some how some way, and that this mastery would show itself in a child’s original writing encroached on this freer approach.

Many schools have discarded this methodology, now, returning to traditional instruction, believing that the earlier we can “get kids to spell correctly,” the easier it will be for them to write their original thoughts without hindrance or the formation of bad spelling habits. Naturally, the return of writer’s block has taken hold with a vengeance.

How I Understand Mechanics and Original Writing

I don’t call what we do with our kids: “invented spelling.” I don’t relegate some contexts to correct spellings and others to invented. There is no duality in our approach. Kids write using the skills they have. All spelling is invented (in that sense)! Kids use the spellings they can muster—and do their best to be accurate (to match current conventions) based on:

  • what they know,
  • have surmised,
  • and can guess.

Their choices are much more amazing, if you take time to see their hard work to apply what they know.

This is not “invention,” then, as educators define it, but sheer grit in an attempt to match developing skills with sophisticated language.

So: in original writing, you permit it all—whatever the mechanics skill level of the child, you support, honor, and nurture it. YOU, the parent, pay attention to what is congruent with current spelling and punctuation conventions, and what is not. You take notes (both literal—on paper, and mental—that you store in your head). You might note that the child doesn’t know how to spell certain repeated key terms (like “What” or “because” or “horse”—and this piece is about horses).

You might note that your child is unaware of how capitalization works.

Surely there are other issues as well, but for now, you isolate one or two and leave the rest which will magically reappear in future writing, so don’t worry. If they don’t, then you just saved yourself a lot of trouble.

Now, using someone else’s writing, you teach to these specific mechanics and spelling issues. You find a bit of copywork that includes the words: “what,” “because,” and “horse.” You may spend the next three weeks on this, one sentence per week, that features one of the words. You let your child copy the sentence. Then you might try traditional dictation, to really solidify the words.

Next week you focus on capitalization—you find a passage with capitals at the start of each sentence (virtually every sentence ever published – piece of cake). You discuss capitalization: you point to a capital and ask what it is, you ask the child to find other capitals in the sentence, you ask the child if he or she knows why they are there—inductive, conversational, friendly.

Once the child has spent time with “what,” “because,” and “horse,” and knows capitals go at the start of sentences, guess what you can do?

The next time a child does a freewrite that will be revised, you ask your child to double check spellings for “what,” “because,” and “horse.” If they need a notecard to help, offer it with the correct spellings for comparison. Now, once that is done, ask the child to double check for capitals. Ask where they should go, then send the child back to his or her paper to ensure they are there. The child makes the corrections—your pen never touches the page.

THIS is how you coordinate the need for correct mechanics WITH original writing—painstakingly, taking forever, slowly ensuring that your child TAKES RESPONSIBILITY for everything he or she knows, but sequentially, thoughtfully, carefully, a bit at a time.

Yes, it takes forever… for awhile. Until, one day your child unconsciously starts applying what he or she is learning in copywork and dictation naturally to original writing…which always happens! You just have to be patient to see it emerge (about ages 12-13).


So don’t let any teacher say to you: “Oh we already tried invented spelling. It doesn’t work.”

What we do? NOT THAT.

Now go forth and be awesome with your kids!

Image by elginwx

Email: Beginning Writing Advice

Skip to Second Half of the Story if you’ve landed here from the Brave Writer ZipLine e-letter.

The following is a wonderful email exchange between one of our Brave Writer moms and me. I share it with you because these questions, so beautifully and honestly articulated by Sharon, are common to many home educators. Brave Writer is not like other writing “programs” because it focuses more on the writer, than writing. We are Brave Writer not Brave Writing for that reason.

The paradigm shift occurs when you become more aware of your child and your child’s vocabulary, insights, and stories than rules and formats for writing/narrating. You must start there, or you’ll create a blocked, reluctant, or pedantic writer. If you want to see life and power in the writing, you need to value and activate the original writing voice of your child… today, and every day. Keep reading. Like all paradigm shifts, it will feel unnatural and “wrong” at first. But over time, you’ll realize this is how you always wanted to teach writing.

I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have in the comments below.

Hi Sharon.

How great to hear from you! I love feedback and you certainly gave me a lot. Thank you. I have commented throughout your original below.

On Tue, Mar 6, 2012 at 10:00 AM, Sharon Jones (MD) wrote:

Julie or bravewriter staff

Want to first say a big thank you – I got the Writer’s Jungle two weeks ago and it is already making a huge difference in our homeschooling.

Music to my ears. Glad to hear it.

My ds is 9 years old and I was beginning to fret about his lack of writing skill – and we have been doing [another writing program] but I was finding the narrations in there were killing both his and my 1st grader’s desire to narrate anything.  I wasn’t listening to their play just worried that they were not with joy telling me a good summary of the short story in the curriculum.

It’s subtle, isn’t it? You think you are “doing something” that is “important,” and then miss enjoying your kids which is THE most important part of narration. Narration (as a word) is such bugger anyway. It feels like it’s from another century (and is). We’re really just talking about, well, talking—what I call “Big Juicy Conversations.”

While my son is able to dictate very well as long as I am there to feed him how to spell the words – he would know what word came next but not how to spell it. [This other program] does say to just spell the word for them.

But even more, he needs to discover that it’s okay for him to misspell the word. Here’s the flip—the change you want him to make in his own thinking. He gets to take writing risks. Just like he took “talking risks” to learn how to speak. Can you remember a funny word he used to use to convey something? For instance, my daughter called our bedroom, the “dreadroom.” She called “magazines,” “mazazines.” One of my kids routinely said, “waterlemon” and “magah” instead of “watermelon” and “Gramma.” We understood them. We even used their funny words as adults because they were “adorable.”

Eventually, over time, our kids self-corrected with exposure to the “conventional” ways of saying these words. Likewise, your son will grow as a speller if he feels free to get his thoughts into writing in any form and continues to read, do copywork, and slowly discovers how to edit his original writing by looking for his own spelling errors. But that comes later. Right now, the original writing impulse is far more important than his proper spelling. You need to let him know that no one ever complimented an author on her “fabulous use of commas” or “perfect spelling.” Editors can supply those. What we are looking for is his fabulous vocabulary, insight, and experience shared in his most natural voice, even if he doesn’t yet quite know how to spell everything.

Have this conversation with him (he’s old enough and smart enough to get it). If he is utterly flummoxed (can’t even find a way to get a word down incorrectly without paralysis), he can then ask you to spell it. But what you want is an uninterrupted flow of ideas to come from him. For a little while, you may need him to dictate to you while you transcribe his original thoughts so he can get back in touch with having them without the frustration of handwriting and spelling getting in the way.

My ds is hitting a wall – where he refuses to study spelling words, and yet wants to spell perfectly to the point where he won’t write anything because he is afraid he will spell wrong.  I am not sure how to address this issue except that through reading the WJ, I realized that we really had not been talking.  We, I should say I, was just saying okay do this, now do this, okay time for this, your (sic) not done with that yet?  Now do this, okay now your (sic) done as soon as you get that done.  Yeah, not much fun!

Look at how much you are already changing your thinking. He hates writing because he can’t spell. But you have been requiring him to write without support and you have him focused on spelling programs as though those will cure his paralysis. It’s the other way around. Drop the programs, focus on talking, jot some of his ideas and thoughts and words onto the page for him, share those with his dad at the dinner table, laugh about his funny jokes, admire his thoughtful ideas, probe his facts, and then do it all again.

Do this for awhile.

Then when you introduce freewriting (a practice we teach in The Writer’s Jungle), make it VERY short and focus all his energy on never stopping the pencil—even if he just writes Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh hellllllllppppppppp across the page for 3 minutes. He needs to breakthrough by letting himself defy the rules. Tell him: You get to be a rule breaker. Write whatever you want, in any way you want, but don’t stop that pencil. Ready set go! (And you freewrite too – at the same time, at the same table, with the same impatience and anxiety.) Stop what doesn’t work. Give permission to take risks. Enjoy whatever results you get (don’t scrutinize them – enjoy them).


I figured I should go slow even though I was very excited and well my children are still very young.  I have a lot of time I realized – so I decided the first thing was to get out of the room that is our “school” room away from the table and the white board.  Oh we might go back there for some things but for now I wanted homeschool to be more about home and less about “school.”

Brava to you! Wonderful.

We have a blanket we lay on the carpet as the wrestling mat – the kids connect it with fun with Dad and time to WRESTLE so I brought it out and said in the day time it is the conversation mat.

You’re clearly a genius. 🙂 I love this in a hundred ways.

 We spent a week just talking.

I hope now you’ll spend a lifetime just talking. 🙂

 I found out a lot of really neat things about my kids.

Isn’t that incredible? Pause and really notice – you found out a lot of really neat things about your kids. That’s all you need to be a great writing coach and ally—you need to value THEM as they are.

 I also really started to listen to them when they are playing and it is pretty funny the amount of things from school that gets incorporated into their stories.

Because school isn’t separate from life. In fact, at home, it is life.

 After talking and sharing stories and letting my daughters put on a play with pet shops and stuff animals – not all in the same day mind you.  The craft products that were sitting unused suddenly were remembered and they are becoming very creative.

This week I put out a copywork table with books they can choose whatever they want to copy and there is no set amount after the first one.


 My dd in 1st grade has decided to copy a book of poems, my ds 3rd grade is doing random things, my 4 year old is drawing photos which I then write whatever she asks under the photo – she is pretty proud of the books she is making.

Of course! Books, by her? Wow. Put those books in a little basket on the table and read them to her often. Read them to her dad. Have her dad read them back to her. Do this for all your kids. When they share something that you jot down for them, but it in a little book. Later, take that book back out and read it at story time, just like any other book. They will start to value their own writing.

Math is still getting done and Science and History.    I see my kids doing more school willingly then we were doing while I was pulling teeth to get it done.  Only know they seem to think that they are doing hardly any “school” at all.  Funny how that is.

Exactly – because it has to do with them now.

I realize now how much time I have.  One day I think we might take one of your on line classes.
My ideas for the rest of this year is to continue the talking and the copywork.  Adding in a jar of quotes to do at some point to change it up.  I also need advice for what to do with a child who is afraid to write anything least he should spell it wrong?

I think I addressed this above. But stop all the programs. No more. They aren’t working because they are enslaving you. I can hear it in your descriptions of trying to find the right one. The goal you have can’t be fixed with those programs.

His spelling isn’t bad if he tries.  We had been using [another program] – but the time comment for that was just getting too much with two children it takes at least 45 mins per child.  Lots of people are trying to convince me that AAS is the way to go.  (SWR-Spelling to Write and Read and All About Spelling).  I have Spelling Wisdom – I have thought about using that for the quote jar for copy work.  I also have Sequential Spelling – okay so maybe my problem is I want quick results. =)

I guess I am a little afraid to just use the copy work –  well this really teach him to spell.

Yes. Combined with reading, some dictation, and his own writing. But it takes ten (10) TEN years! 9 is so young. Of course he’s an awful speller. All 9 year olds are. Give him time.

 I think it will teach the first grader – she is reading on a 4th grade level if not higher and is my creative, language person – she was using full sentences at 18 months old.  But I am not sure about my ds who is reading a bit below grade level doing math at a higher level.  He is my history buff, loves science and anything factual.  He only got interested in reading through Magic Tree House books.  He is very particular – he likes to put his clothes on the same way each time to the point where it is almost not funny.

I am wondering about how to get someone like him to try to write.

Don’t “get him to write.” Catch him in the act of thinking. The next time he’s explaining something to you, jot it down. Grab any piece of paper handy (even the back of an envelope works) and start writing. THAT’s his writing. No more contrived methods. Capture the real words, real mind life of your child in writing.

Yes, it’s that easy. I mean it.

You can try freewriting once you are at the point where he is not pencil phobic and he really believes you that he can take writing risks. Until then, you transcribe his thoughts for him, you talk to him, you have poetry teatimeswith him, you read his thoughts aloud to his dad, you read aloud to him, he reads…. Get it?

 I was thinking of getting Story Starters and Rory cubes as a fun way to do some oral stories during the mat time.  Then getting something like rummy root cards to work on Latin roots in a fun way for language.  Maybe getting a game like cooking up sentences to help work on some of this fear of writing sentences.  Not that I can get those all at once but over time.  Then maybe by half way through 4th grade my son would be ready for me to start freewriting on Fridays.   I am trying to think outside the box and outside the workbook mode.

Don’t cook up sentences. Your kids are already fluent in the English language. They are amazing sentence generators. Don’t confuse them by making them think they don’t know how to write a sentence. They do. They’ve been saying sentences for YEARS. 🙂

Any advice or encouragement on this would be well taken. Thank you again the change in my school day has been 100% for the better!

I’m so glad. You are doing an awesome job of changing your paradigm. Keep it up!

Lapbook Success!

Want to see how a lapbook can be used as a way to foster writing?

Thanks to Teresa and Joshua (10) for your permission to share your wonderful work!

Joshua’s lapbook below features what he learned about sharks, a passion of his. Teresa and I had discussed what to do about spelling errors, etc., via email. The basic idea is to slowly develop the skill of self-editing (kids edit their own work) and I gave her strategies for how to nurture that practice successfully. Enjoy!

Hi Julie,

This is for Joshua’s (10) September assignment – a mini report on Sharks.

I have attached 3 photos and retyped his text below.  This is completely his design and content.  What is interesting is that he wrote more about sharks in his freewrite, but he did not want to include it all in the report.  He knows SO much more than he was willing to put in there.   I am typing the text exactly as on the report, errors and all…

Photo “Sharks1”

He designed it so that the photos are numbered and on a slide.  When you open the book, the center writing area has the corresponding number for that photo with a blurb about it.


Photo “Sharks2”

Center text:

News flash, this just came in about sharks

1) One of the five most dangeres sharks the Great white.

2) Sharks have a sixth sence of sencing energy, this shark is sencing the fishes moovment or energy.

3) This picture is about how sharks find there food.

Right flap text (fictional story):

The dog and the shark
by Joshua Youngblood

There once was a dog and shark and this is the story of how they became friends.
One day John went on is boat whith Jack his dog. They went out into the ocean, but John forgot to poot the boat tale gate up so when he made a sharp turn and Jack slipped and fell into the ocean. When John got home he realised that Jack wasn’t there, meanwhile Jack was swimming around when he saw a shark coming at him Jack thought he was going to be eatten but he was not eatten, Jack asked the shark if he could bring him home and the shark said yes and they becaum friends. The shark took Jack to John and they lived happely ever after. THE END!


Photo “Sharks3”

Left flap text (Prelutsky poem copywork):

In the middle of the ocean,
In the deep deep dark,
Dwells a monstrous apparition,
The detested RADISHARK.
It’s an underwater nightmare
That you hope you never meet,
For it eats what it wants,
And it always wants to eat.

Its appalling, bulbous body
Is astonishingly red,
And its fangs are sharp and gleaming
In its huge and horrid head,
And the only thought it harbors
In its small but frightful mind,
Is to catch you and to bite you
On your belly and behind.

It is ruthless, it is brutal,
It swims swiftly, it swims far,
So it’s guaranteed to find you
Almost anywhere you are.
If the RADISHARK is near you,
Pray the beast is fast asleep
In the middle of the ocean
In the dark dark deep.


Spelling in Style


Spelling is a perennial concern to most homeschooling moms. Do we need to use spelling lists? Which spelling book would help? Why can’t my 7th grader spell when he writes but gets all the spelling words correct on his tests?

Spelling is like learning to speak a foreign language fluently. It takes years before proficiency shows up and about ten years before real fluency kicks in. Reading and writing are the best ways to grow as a speller. Learning to take responsibility for spelling words correctly when writing is the key to spelling success down the road. That means that after writing, the writer looks for spelling errors, runs spellcheck in Word, double checks any words she isn’t sure of, and asks for a second pair of eyes to help her spot typos and misspellings.

Copywork and dictation support growth in spelling, and especially attentiveness to spelling in the context of writing.

Beyond that, however, some kids really enjoy a spelling challenge. They like the tests, or spelling verbally as if in a bee; they like showing off how much they know. And for other kids, sometimes they are proficient spellers, but they have a particular area of vocabulary that is challenging and they want to be sure they know how to spell those words correctly before having to write using them.

I have a couple of ideas for you. First, if your kids enjoy spelling tests or bees, by all means enjoy spelling together. There are some terrific spelling lists online or you can make your own from the reading your kids are doing.

If they are struggling with a category of words (names of birds and birding equipment, ancient Greek mythological character names, engineering terms, WWII tanks, cities and states, furniture in your house, breeds of dogs, apparatus for gymnastics, football terminology), you can tailor make a spelling list for that category. Use that list to play some spelling games, and ultimately, to test those words before writing in that category.

For instance, my daughter Caitrin (who is featured in the photo above) is hoping to be a fashion designer some day. She loves to design, sew and create. She pours over Vogue magazine for inspiration. We created a spelling list that included famous designer names (these are HARD to learn otherwise) and the typical vocabulary found in the fashion world that she will want to know how to write easily, without thinking. She chose words like: couture and boutique, pants and v-neck.

Once she and I pored over a magazine to make the list (featured above as well), we wrote out the words on slips of paper and played a spelling game. She would draw a word for me to spell (I had a tough time with those designer names) and then I would draw a word for her to spell. We kept the slips of the words we got right and returned the ones we got wrong to the table.

The selection of the words introduced the vocabulary to her through the act of selective reading. Caitrin had to discover what words she felt unsure of and choose them for the list. I offered suggestions as well. The act of writing out all the words onto the slips of paper served as copywork and spelling practice. The reading of the words to me for me to spell reinforced the spellings Caitrin had already written. The reciting of the spellings (based on words I chose for her) forced her to remember what she had already seen and written. Freewriting about fashion after this whole process was a breeze! She was also very able to spot and correct her mistakes once her freewriting was finished.

Hope that gives some new energy for those who wonder what to do about spelling!