Do-It-Yourself Homeschooling: Spelling

Since school time seems to be rushing ever closer and there’s nothing I can do to stop that, I thought I might get myself in the mood for homeschooling Lorelei (and get my head on straight before we get started) by writing some posts about the curriculum we are going to be using.
You won’t find this curriculum on the internet or in a catalogue or at a homeschooling conference because I made it up myself.  I am still making it up, in fact.  To me, that is one of the best parts of homeschooling.
Today, let’s talk about spelling.
Now, if I can consider myself an authority on anything, it would have to be spelling.  There was a time in my life–a time that stretched over several years–when spelling was the only thing anyone thought about when they heard my name and pretty much the only thing people I didn’t know well ever wanted to talk to me about.  I won the Knoxville City Spelling Bee five times, the first time when I was just eight years old, and I came in 9th in the National Spelling Bee when I was 13.  From my own experience, and from observing my kids, and seeing trends in teaching spelling come and go, I’ve reached some conclusions about spelling ability in general and about the best way to teach kids to spell.
I used to think that if you were smart, and read a lot, you’d automatically be a good speller.  I still think that’s mostly true, but I’ve known plenty of very smart people–some of them my own kids–who still make spelling errors.  Maybe not many compared to the general population, but they still make them.  I can spell words I’ve never seen before, and my ability to spell carries over into other languages I’ve studied, leading me to believe that there’s something about being an excellent speller that you are either born with or you’re not.
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to spell most words you will need in life, though. (Well, maybe some people really can’t, but I think most people can .)  So what is the best way to teach spelling?
Here’s one way that is stupid.  The teachers at my kids’ school attended a conference and learned about this method–the latest most exciting thing EVER which they stopped using after putting all my kids through it–called “Johnny Can Spell.”  This was based on teaching kids spelling “rules” which the teachers held up on cards and made the kids chant until they had them all memorized by rote.  How many things are wrong with this method?  Well, for one, English is notorious for having few rules and for breaking the ones it does have.  I used to take great pleasure in finding exceptions to each of these rules when the kids would tell them to me.  I remember one of the rules was “English words never end in i.”  It took me only a second to come up with “ski.”  My kid told the teacher and her response was that “ski” is not an English word.  Well, not originally, but it is now.  We don’t speak Old English these days.
The only rule they gave us when I was learning to spell was “i before e except after c,” which is a nice rule of thumb but STILL has exceptions, even if you add “or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh.” (weird, leisure)  And even if every single one of these rules was 100% accurate all the time, who spells like that?  Who has the time?
So in my homeschool, we go back to the way I was taught to spell, the way my parents were taught to spell.  I found this little gem of a book originally at my friend’s antique shop.  I lost it when the house burned down but was lucky enough to find it on Amazon so I could use it for Lorelei.  It’s the book they were using in the 1940s in Knox County, and in my opinion they should have kept right on using it.
spelling book
It’s a thin little book–each lesson takes only two pages!–and yet there is enough material in here for an entire school year.
Each lesson starts with a little story showing the words in context.  So on the first day of the week you read the story and find the words.
spelling book 3
Then you copy the words in your spelling notebook.  You can write a story with the words, or use them in sentences.  I used to love this assignment as a child.  It was so fun making up sentences, and I loved trying to make them into a story even when that was not part of the assignment.  Lorelei is burned out on sentence writing, because there were so many rules attached to this assignment when she attended school (at least five word sentences, can’t begin with articles, must use all “third grade” words) that she would get frustrated.  I’m looking forward to helping her learn to enjoy writing and being creative.
On Tuesday, there are a set of exercises to do with the words.  These vary.  Sometimes you look some of them up in the dictionary, or you might divide them into syllables, or talk about their root words.  There’s lots of variety.
spelling book 2
On Wednesday, you take a practice test.  If you miss any words, you write them down correctly in your notebook.
On Thursday, you practice the words you missed.  The book provides clear guidelines for how to study the words: “Look at the hard word and say it softly; look at the word and say each letter; close your eyes and try to see each letter of the word without looking at it; look at the word and copy it; write the word three times without looking at your book.”  Some people might think this is boring.  I think it’s a lot better than copying words on the computer in different fancy fonts. or writing each letter in a different color, or making the words into a train.  Believe me, when Lorelei was doing those things last year the last thing she was thinking about was the actual words and how to spell them.
There are also Review Words from the earlier chapters to look over on Thursday, and extra words to learn if you have time.
On Friday, you take the final test, which includes the Review Words.  If you miss any, you are supposed to keep a record of these and study them in your spare time.  Chances are they may come back in the form of Review Words in a later chapter.  Plus at the end of each six week unit, you spend a week reviewing all the words you’ve learned, following basically the same pattern outlined above.
And that’s it.  Basic and simple, and it works as well or better than any method of teaching spelling, without unnecessary bells or whistles.
Does anyone disagree?  Have you found other more effective ways of teaching spelling?  Tell me in the comments!
[Update: Rather tellingly, there is very little to update except that I was happily able to find the next book in this series, which incorporates grades 5-8, and we continue to use this method.  Lorelei is not a model homeschooler, but she appreciates the routine this method provides, and her spelling has steadily improved.]

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  1. Clisby says:

    “I used to think that if you were smart, and read a lot, you’d automatically be a good speller.”
    I think that’s exactly backward.
    I think if you’re a good speller, you’re probably smart.
    If you’re a poor speller, that tells me exactly zero about how smart you are.
    It’s nice to be able to spell well, but that’s about the most I can say about it.

  2. Clisby says:

    I don’t mean I think spelling is unimportant. However, I’ve known a number of poor spellers who were way smarter than I am – and when I was in 7th grade, I came in 2nd in my state’s spelling bee. I just don’t see it as any indication of smarts – just an indication of ability, just like some people have innate math ability, and some people have innate sports ability, and some people have innate musical ability.

  1. November 4, 2014

    […] are on track with our spelling program, and Lorelei never misses more than one word.  She’s never going to be a spelling bee champ […]

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