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Monday, January 2, 2012

On Learning to Spell

Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

Welcome to the first week of the Virtual Curriculum Fair! Each Monday in the month of January, a whole gaggle of wonderful homeschooling mamas will be exploring a new theme as it pertains to how we educate our kiddos.

Update: If you are visiting from the Carnival of Homeschooling, thank you for coming over to check out our little Fair. This post is quite long (could have been a series all by itself, lol), but you will find posts by 19 other homeschool bloggers linked at its end on the subject of language arts, so don't be afraid to skim or bookmark me and come back when you have more time.

January can be a hump month, a time when we start looking forward to what’s to come. Or pulling our hair out because things aren’t going “according to plan.” ;0)

We hope to both challenge and inspire as you ponder where you’ve been so far and dream about where your journey will take you.

And as practical helps certainly won’t hurt, there will be plenty of those, too.

The Fair is meant to give you a real view of what goes on when it comes to educating our kiddos, with a focus on what’s working and why.

This first week’s theme is:

Playing with Words: the Language Arts

At the end of this post, I will be linking to the other ladies’ posts as I receive their links. I encourage you to bookmark this page and visit the other posts throughout the week…as we have about 30 bloggers signed up (!) to participate for some to all of the Fair, it’s bound to be a bit too much for a single sitting (update: there's a total of 20 articles this week).

On Learning to Spell

Today I’m going to be focusing on spelling. I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for awhile, but the Fair finally gave me the kick in the pants I needed to sit down and expound upon my endless ruminations on spelling. Yes, spelling keeps me up nights. I know I’m a geek and I’m ok with that.

Now, I’m not a spelling expert, by any means. These thoughts come from my personal experiences in helping my own children learn to spell. I’m going to talk about what we have done, what worked (or is working), and what didn’t work. And why. Along the way, I’ll also talk about how spelling really made it sink in how differently different children learn the same information and how sometimes it’s just best to not teach something. This is going to be a looong post (um, it’s a book, okay, it’s a least a pamphlet), so I'll add some headings to help the skimmers out there to navigate. I’m not arrogant enough to think that everybody wants to read every word I write. Geesh!

Sometimes It’s Better to Skip Spelling

When I started homeschooling my oldest, David, who is now in 6th grade, I didn’t teach him how to spell. He was in 2nd grade and he already knew how to spell. He could spell anything he could read and he was reading at a 5th-7th grade level.

A year or so later I started thinking that I needed to incorporate a spelling program. Somehow. Because, you know, you are supposed to teach spelling, right? I mean, spelling is part of a well-rounded language arts program, isn’t it? See, I was paying to much attention to what other folks were doing.

And he would occasionally hit a word he couldn’t spell. Or mispronounce a word he came across in his reading that he wasn’t already familiar with.

Spelling rules. He needed to learn the spelling rules. Right? Maybe?

So I bought Natural Speller by Kathryn Stout. It seemed like a good choice since he seemed to be a natural speller. And I started quizzing him on the word lists. I’d give him a new list every day of 10 or more words. It was a couple of weeks before I hit a word here or there that he spelled incorrectly, and invariably it was an –ie or –ei word. It took took several weeks before I compiled a list of 10 words to work with him on.

I’m not telling you this to make you think my son is brilliant. Spelling simply comes easy to him (many other things do not). I’m telling you this to show you what a dope I am. Did he really need to go back and learn all the spelling rules just to master the few hiccups he had in spelling? Why was I wasting my time (and his) trying to find the words he couldn’t spell? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to simply be alert to misspellings in his work and go from there?

And after a few months, that’s what I finally did. Does my son know all the spelling rules? Nope. Can he spell every single word from memory. Probably not, but he does have a semi-photographic memory and if he has seen it in print, chances are he can spell it. Since he’s a voracious reader, he’s read a lot of words.

He does occasionally misspell a word in his writing, and I simply use that as an opportunity to teach that word and other words that fit its pattern…Natural Speller makes a great resource for these instances. He does occasionally mispronounce a word he’s read but not heard…the curse of book learning! And a good opportunity to talk about what he’s reading.

Someone out there is shaking their head and thinking…but he’ll never know all the phonemes! He’ll never know all the rules!

That is true. He’ll never know all of anything. As human beings, we have no hope of not having gaps in our knowledge (that’s a topic for another discussion), so we simply must make choices about what to teach and what to learn. It makes a whole lot more sense to spend the time and energy on something he needs help with rather than on something he’s getting by just fine on his own with.


My Natural Speller

But not all of my children are natural spellers.

Teaching to Each Child

We’ve all seen programs, and maybe bought a few, that were sold as “use with all your children, this program can be used over and over again!” Wouldn’t it be great if you could buy exactly one set of materials and it would work with every single child? And, what’s more, you could teach it exactly the same way each time?

It sure would save me a lot of time and money. But what I’ve found is that each my children is an individual and what one gets (and gets right away) another won’t. Spelling is no exception.

While my oldest is a natural speller and has no trouble at all duplicating the picture of a word he has in head on his paper, his (nearly) 8-year-old sister used to struggle with spelling. Mary is now in 2nd grade and an excellent reader (of the same caliber as her brother at this age). But she doesn’t see the words in her head the way he does. And her temperament is very different. She is rule oriented. When she writes words, she doesn’t write them from her memory of how she saw them on the page, she sounds them out and writes them phonetically.

And so a program that is based on phonemes and learning the rules makes perfect sense for her.


My Rule Follower

All About Spelling, a Rules-Based Spelling Program

Mary is learning to spell using All About Spelling (AAS) by Marie Rippel. I was fortunate enough to receive this program for review over 3 years ago, when Mary wasn’t even reading yet. Would I be using it if I hadn’t received it for review? I honestly don’t know. I might have chosen a different program. But AAS has been a good fit for her with some minor modifications. Some of those modifications might have been necessary with any rules-based spelling program because I feel there are some inherent limitations in this approach to spelling (more on that in a bit).

This is our 2nd year using AAS with Mary and she’s nearly finished with level 2. Her spelling has improved by leaps and bounds. Judging from what I’ve seen some of her peers doing and the word lists in Kathryn Stout’s book , I would say that it’s slightly above 2nd grade level. Not up to her reading level, but slowly getting there. One of the disadvantages of this approach is that it is slow. But it seems to stick, and that’s the important thing.

AAS’s Inherent Limitations and Why Spelling English is So DARN Hard

One of the biggest problems with a rules-based program is that English doesn’t always seem to follow the rules. Some people say there are too many exceptions. Or too many rules (and there are a lot of rules).

One thing at play is that English follows different sets of rules depending upon the origin of the word in question.

So we can say, for instance, that English words don’t end in “i,” and still have words like “ski” and “yeti.” These are words that our language has adopted in their original form, and so they don’t follow the same spelling patterns.

There are also cases where language has grown and changed (sometimes in pronunciation, usage, and spelling). Any language that’s been around for hundreds of years will change---the reason Latin is “dead” is not because it’s not spoken much (it’s actually spoken a lot) but because it’s not undergoing a constant evolutionary process like vernacular languages. This may explain why so many of our constantly used verbs are irregular when less common verbs are not (is, are, was, were vs. types, type, typed, typed).

And then there are all those homonyms that can probably be explained between different origins and usage changes, like to, too, and two.

Not to mention changes in dialect. In some parts of the US root and route are pronounced the same way, and in others they definitely are not. And I understand that linguistic research is showing that English in Shakespeare’s time was pronounced quite differently from what you might hear today on the BBC. He was much punnier than we supposed.

So spelling by the rules sounds simple, but has some inherent limitations. One of the ways that AAS tries to counteract the difficulty with, for instance, differences in dialect is to reinforce the notion of pronouncing words correctly (um, yeah, who’s to say for sure which pronunciation is correct?) and to remind the student to pronounce or say the word to spell it. Can you see the problem? It’s a circular directive. I can’t say it to spell it unless I already know how it’s spelled, and then I don’t need to say it to spell it because I already know how to spell it. ;0)

If I remember correctly, the instructor’s notes also remind you, the teacher, to pronounce the words the way they are spelled. Well I don’t do that. When I introduce a word, perhaps, but not regularly. But, frankly, we need to be able to spell the words regardless of who is speaking them. Understanding one another and being able to communicate is the whole point of writing, after all.

While AAS is billed as being based on the rules, there’s a whole lot of memorizing of individual words going on.

Homonyms, for example. As each is introduced separately, you give it in a sentence so the definition is clear. The student needs to learn to associate that particular definition with that particular spelling.

And then there’s the different ways a particular sound can be spelled. Long e can be “ea,” “e-e”, “ee, “ “y,” and “ey” (did I forget any?). There’s no particular rule to tell you which it is in each case…remember words origins and changes in usage probably come into play here. You simply learn a list of words that follow this particular rule and memorize (by practice) which words are on that list.

An ideal rules-based spelling program would probably also simultaneously teach word roots and origins, but that still wouldn’t account for changes over time in usage, spelling, and pronunciation. I’ve found that AAS works best for Mary with some minor modifications.

How We Use All About Spelling

AAS is designed so that your child progresses at their own pace. You don’t move onto the next lesson until they have mastered the previous one. I know some people take a week for each lesson (there are 25 lessons in level 2). We are currently going through 2-3 lessons a week, but we slow down if we hit a difficult lesson. Typically I do the new teaching one day, through to spelling the words using the letter tiles, and then spelling on paper and dictation of phrases and sentences the next day. We do spelling 4-5 days a week, depending on our schedule.

One of the attractions of AAS is that it has a kinesthetic aspect to it, the word tiles. The lesson is meant to be given using the word tiles and the first time you give new words your child is supposed to spell them using the tiles.


The consonants are blue, the vowels red, and then you have some consonant and vowel teams, plus special tiles. Marie Rippel recommends using a 3’ x 2’ magnetic board. A white board is best for optimal versatility. We use a smaller board (I think it’s about 24” x 18”) for 2 reasons: easier to store and shorter reach (short arms get tired). We actually first started by using the side of the fridge, but Mary got tired of always standing and reaching here and there, and I got tired of chasing down the tiles that her baby sister stole and stuffed under the fridge (you’ll notice they are different shades of blue and red? I had to make new tiles ;0). This size works well enough that I can’t justify the expense and storing issue of a larger board. Plus Mary doesn’t want a bigger board! She says this is far enough to reach.

We don’t use the board for every lesson. Mary’s not a fan of manipulatives in general and she always groans when I get out the board. Sometimes we just use a white board (I have a peel and stick one on front of the fridge) and different colored dry erase markers. The physical act of writing the words helps her.

While the manual directs you to have the child put the letters all back in order after spelling each word before spelling the next, I don’t do that.


As each word list has a “pattern” to it, I find that having her rearrange letters (and picking up new ones as needed) to make each new word helps to reinforce the pattern. Plus, it takes much less time.

AAS has you use an index card box with phoneme cards, key cards (some of the rules) and word cards. I don’t use the word cards at all. I simply put a tick mark by any she misses with a pencil and make sure I use those words in copywork or sentence dictation. It’s one less thing for me to get out and there are a lot of word cards. Plus, the extra words in the book don’t have cards at all. It’s just easier to have all my notations in one place.

Sometimes Mary writes her dictation on lined paper and sometimes she writes it on a lined white board.


This cuts down on paper usage and clutter and it helps with the doldrums.

Some of the lessons will have optional words in addition to the 10 spelling words that follow the same rule. I always have her spell the extra words, even if she gets all the spelling words with no problems. And I have found that she sometimes has difficulty with the extra words and didn’t with the first 10 words.

One aspect of AAS is the word banks. There are a few different lists of words that follow particular patterns (they are printed on cardstock sheets) that you are supposed to give to your child and have them look over periodically so they can visualize the words that fit that pattern (remember the different spellings of long e?). This is essentially an aid to memorizing and the words in the word banks are just words (including the extra words) from the lessons.

Mary is really not a visual learner. She doesn’t remember how she saw a word spelled. She can read a word one minute and not be able to spell it instantly after that. Her brain just doesn’t work that way. So we don’t use the word banks at all. I give her practice with those words by giving her additional sentence dictation using them and copywork. The physical act of writing the word helps it stick. Every few days I throw in some scriptural copywork or have her copy some other words I want her to learn that are beyond where she’s at in AAS.



I do this because her vocabulary and reading level is much higher than where she’s at in AAS and it’s frustrating for her when she wants to use these words in her own writing. Between both All About Spelling and other copywork, her spelling has really improved and is much closer to her true verbal level.

I’ll add that before I started AAS with her, I had Mary do plenty of copywork and handwriting practice, but it didn’t seem to improve her spelling on its own. The addition of a rules-based program has been a real win for her. 043

I’ll conclude here by saying that I didn’t start formal spelling instruction with Mary until she was reading independently. It simply felt right to do it that way with her. Trying to learn to read and spell at the same time was too frustrating for her---she wasn’t connecting the one with the other enough for it to help. You might think that learning phonetic spelling rules would be helpful in learning to read. Not so in her case.

However, her 6-year-old brother, Peter, is learning to read and making progress. He is not yet an independent reader, but he wants to write words. And has some of the most amazing phonetic spellings. I think I may start spelling with him soon. ;0)

Carnival of HomeschoolingLinked to the Carnival of Homeschooling

Take some time this week to visit some of the other Virtual Curriculum Fair participants. I promise you, they didn’t all write books like I did. ;0)

Reading on Time by Cindy Horton @ Fenced in Family

Playing with Words: the Language Arts by Christa Darr @ Fairfield Corner Academy

Reading and Beyond: Language Arts in Our Homeschool by Laura O in AK @ Day by Day in Our World

Language Arts that Work for Us by Melissa @ Grace Christian School

Learning Language at Our House by Jessica @ Modest Mama

Virtual Curriculum Fair: Language Arts by Christine T. @ Our Homeschool Reviews

The Learning of Language by Dawn @ tractors & tire swings

Reading and Spelling: Modifying the Magic by Pam @ Pam and Everyday Snapshots

An In Depth Look at All About Spelling by Missouri Mama @ Ozark Ramblings

Virtual Curriculum Fair: Let's Talk About Words by Debra @ Footprints in the Butter

Why We Love Classical Conversations Essentials (and how I know that is not a complete sentence!) by Nicole @ Schooling in the Sun

Virtual Curriculum Fair---Playing with Words: the Language Arts by Angie @ Petra School

Whole Language vs. Phonics by Christine @ Crunchy Country Catholic

It's All About the Art of Language by Brenda Emmett @ Garden of Learning

Watching Movies for Language Arts Class by Debbie @ Debbie's Digest

Only 5 Spelling Tests a Year! (Can we do that?) by LP @ justpitchingmytent

Playing with Words by Chrissy @ Learning is an Adventure

Language Art at Our House by Joelle @ Homeschooling for His Glory

Virtual Curriculum Fair Week One Playing with Words: the Language Arts by Leah Courtney @ The Courtney Six Homeschool Blog

Playing with Words, the Language Arts by Cindy @ For One Another

Heart of Dakota- The Fine Details part 1- Language Arts by Lynn @ Ladybug Chronicles


  1. Susan, I'm not surprised that we both wrote aboout AAS--it's a great product. Please, oh please tell me where you found the ruled white board!

  2. It's made by Crayola, it comes rolled up in a box with washable dry-erase crayons and I found it at Walmart with their teaching supplies. It's peel and stick (not magnetic) and will work on any smooth surface (it would be fun to put in on a table top!). I think I paid about $10.

  3. I'm going to be looking for that lined whiteboard. I did buy some magnetic strips that are lined that we use on our white board. But, you only get so much space.

    Love your super in depth look at AAS. I did such a survey in my post and felt like it was super long as it was.

  4. Great post! We also use AAS, but my 7-year-old is opposite of your daughter. He still doesn't like to read much at all, but I started him with Level 1 of AAS and he loves spelling the words and working with the tiles. I can see his reading improve because of the spelling. Gotta love the uniqueness of each one. :-)

  5. @Laura---This was the post that never wanted to end, lol! Would you believe that I cut it? And then cut it again. ;0)

    @Cindy---Yes, I want to start level 1 with my 6-year-old who is not reading much yet but loves to "write" stories. Mini graphic novels really. I think he will love using the tiles.

  6. Thanks for the post. I purchased a spelling program but did not imeplement it because spelling is covering in my ds curriculum. However I see that he needs more work with spelling and he does better when I mention the phonics rules. I have some letter tiles that I put away last school year I am bringing them out so we can make spelling fun. If spelling can be fun. Thanks agian. I will be looking for a larger white board. I did not know white boards were magnetic. I like the peel and stick I will look for it at Walmart, anything to switch it up.

  7. Hi there, Tiffany! ;0)

    Thank you for your comment. Some white boards are magnetic and some
    are not. The label on the package should will tell you, or test one
    you have with a magnet. For magnetic letters you could also use a large flat cookie sheet if you want to work at a table instead of at the fridge (not a white board, but still great for magnetic letters).

    I'm so happy to hear that you found this post helpful.

  8. You can also make your own wipe boards by getting panel board from Lowes or Home Depot. I had them cut mine down to size and I drew my lines with permanent marker. My kiddos love using them to write. I also use with my kiddos to mix things up. They are such technology junkies that it is always a fun reward for them to use the site. I also can create handwriting worksheets there for them to use. Thanks for sharing your post!


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