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.]

"The School I Would Run"

The title is in quotes because I utter that phrase frequently, mostly when complaining about something that has happened in one of my kids’ schools or when reading about the latest stupid educational fad.  (I also sometimes say “If I ran the world” but that is another post for another day!)
This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it in any particular order.
AT MY SCHOOL WE . . .

  • Would have Mass EVERY MORNING.  My parochial-schooled kids only went twice a week.  For most of my childhood it was every day, then later switched to three days.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate and it doesn’t have to take more than thirty minutes.  I did not realize what a blessing and a privilege it was at the time, but I do now.
  • Would have gym EVERY DAY.  Physical exercise is important.  Kids are getting fatter.  Some kids don’t play sports and they need the exercise.  Taking breaks to move around aids in learning as well.  We had gym every day when I was a kid and I bet you did too, but my kids go twice a week, and sometimes it’s two days in a row!
  • Would have thirty minutes of recess EVERY DAY.  I don’t honestly know how much kids get these days but I’m sure it’s not that much.  They don’t have the freedom we did to rush through lunch to try to get as much playtime is possible, and half the time recess isn’t after lunch anyway. And my middle school child doesn’t get recess AT ALL.  Not only do kids need exercise, they also need nature.
  • Would not have a technology/computer class AT ALL.  I’m not saying that computers might not be available, maybe for enrichment activities of some kind, but the idea that we need to “prepare our kids for the future” by teaching them computer is laughable.  Were we in any way prepared for the digital age?  Are we doing okay anyway?  My kids get plenty of screen time at home and they don’t need anyone at school to teach them how computers work.  Besides, what we teach kids about today’s technology in kindergarten will be obsolete within a few years anyway.  Let’s use that time for things that really matter.
  • Would have regular art and music classes.  Because these things are fun and enhance academic learning besides.  HOWEVER, and I know the teachers of these subjects won’t like this, for the most part these subjects should be taught in the regular classroom, with the teacher rolling her materials in on a cart.  Why?  Because the “specials” schedule, with kids traveling to different rooms on different days, is confusing and disruptive and wastes huge amounts of instructional time because of the transition required, both for the movement of bodies and the settling down of them afterward.
  • Would treat Spanish as a serious academic subject or omit it all together.  My big kids had Spanish for nine years in grade school.  Now ask me if they are fluent.  Kids in Europe attain fluency in English so we know it’s possible.  Our schools teach kids colors and body parts and songs in Spanish year after year after year so they can show it off when they are applying for accreditation.  If the kids aren’t coming out fluent, it’s a waste of instructional time.
  • Would emphasize grammar and diagram sentences.  There is no better way to understand the structure of the English language.  And you can’t learn a foreign language later if you don’t understand the grammar of your own.
  • Would teach cursive and practice it daily.  Some studies have shown that learning cursive improves academic performance.  But it’s also close to becoming a lost art and it’s a civilized skill that an adult should possess, if only for writing thank you notes.
  • Would use a math book that is full of math problems, not distracting color photographs.  For homeschooling, we used the Saxon program.  Seriously, y’all, have you looked at your kids’ math books?  Why do we think we need to entertain kids constantly?  When it’s time for math, let’s do math,
  • Would teach spelling the old-fashioned way.  Because it works.  We used a speller from the 1940s at home.  You have a weekly list of words, you write sentences, you do activities with them, you take a pretest, you copy over the ones you miss, you do a post-test.  Over the years I have seen some incredibly stupid methods of teaching spelling.  I will write a whole post (rant) about that some time.
  • Would encourage creative writing.  My sister’s third-grade teacher gave them a writing prompt every morning in the form of a magazine photo she hung on the board.  They could write anything they wanted to.  Betsy brought home wonderful stories every day.
  • Would offer plenty of time for reading, with an engaging reading series like the Keys to Reading series that my classmates and I enjoyed at St. Joseph.
  • Would have no summer homework.  Enough said.
  • Would have, in fact, no homework at all.  Unless you goofed off and didn’t finish what you should have during the day, or with the possible exception of long-term projects.
  • Would require uniforms.
  • Would EXPECT good behavior, not reward it.
  • Would start later in the year, maybe later in the day, and would have a shorter day for kindergartners and first graders.  And don’t tell me we need more instructional time, not less. For one thing, I’m not buying it, and for another, I’ve freed up time by getting ride of Spanish and computers and unnecessary transit time.
  • Would have the option of writing a paper on a scientific subject rather than completing a science fair project.  A corollary:  projects with obvious parental involvement would get a WORSE grade than ones kids obviously did on their own.
  • Would offer every kid an opportunity to shine, whether they are athletes, mathletes, budding scientists, artists, musicians, or writers.  Rather than awarding everyone for everything, my school would instill the concept that everyone is especially good at something and celebrate that.  Yes, that means that some kids would go home ribbonless from Field Day. It’s painful (as I know from experience) but that’s life.

I will stop there for now since I DON’T have my own school and have to spend some time actually earning a living this morning.  But I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Would you like my school?  How would YOUR school be different from mine, or different from the ones you’ve experienced?
7th grade
UPDATE:  For the past few years I have had my own school in that I am homeschooling Lorelei and just want to state for the record that it is sadly missing a lot of the above elements!