A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.”

~ Baltasar Gracian

I’ve heard, “My child is horrible at spelling. What do I do?”

Additionally, I raised two boys that are horrible spellers. However, your children can get good at spelling. This is good news.

Here is the truth about spelling:

  • Research shows that being a good speller is strictly a visual skill; it isn’t tied to intellect.

  • Spelling can be learned by learning patterns, prefixes, suffixes, and spelling conventions.

    According to the English Spelling Society, “the English language is not the chaotic beast of mythology it is often made out to be. On the contrary, it is systematic and reasonably predictable”

  • Where Words Come From

The English language is a melting pot, 60% of our words play fair (follow a rule or pattern), 40% don’t. Our language is derived from many other languages such as French, German, and Greek. The good news is that more than half of our words do follow some sort of a pattern or rule and can be learned. Conversely, 4 out of 10 words have unconventional spelling (don’t follow a rule or pattern); they don’t play fair. (They have to be memorized.) Thus, spelling can be confusing. This poem was written about how learning to read is confusing. I share it because it applies to how kids get confused with spelling as well.

I’m trying hard to learn to read (spell)

But what’s a kid to do,

When there’s a NO and a GO and a SO and a HO

And then there’s a word like TO?

Reading BONE and CONE and TONE and LONE

Can almost be kind of fun.

But I get upset when I have to believe that

D-O-N-E spells DONE.

It’s plain to see a kid like me

Sure needs a helping hand.

No matter how much I really try I just don’t understand.

  • Spelling needs to be taught when it is developmentally appropriate

    Marsha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society states, “Mastering such a language takes a long time and requires abilities that most children don’t develop until the middle or latter part of elementary school. Many children struggle to meet unrealistic expectations, get discouraged, and never achieve a high literacy level—all at an enormous cost to themselves and to society.”

    I learned this teaching my youngest son. I started a spelling program for him when he was 6 years old, a first grader. Most first graders learn to spell. I’ve taught first grade for years. However, my son had a horrible time spelling. He usually ended up in tears. I backed off. I started him with a systematic, applicable approach when he was 8 years old. Remarkably, he was ready. It worked to wait until he was developmentally ready.

Therefore, in order to have success, we must make sure children are developmentally ready to learn spelling skills so they have success and don’t give up.

  • Poor spellers need more than rote memorization and phonics

We have 26 letters in our alphabet, but we have around 44 sounds (it’s not easy to be precise as different accents produce different sounds) and several hundred ways to write those sounds.

So, while sounds – or phonics – are important in learning to spell, they are insufficient. When the only tool we give young children for spelling is to “sound it out”, we are making a phonological promise to them that English simply cannot keep.

  • Application is more important than rote memory.

    It is important to use words in context and apply them to life. Children need to know how to look up words and use resources to check spelling.

  • Spelling tests don’t teach spelling

Typically, a teacher gives out a spelling list on Monday and tests the words from those lists on Friday. It is assumed that the words are practiced each day at home. When in fact, in most cases, they are not. The only people that do well on a spelling test are those that are already good at spelling. Those that do poorly are reinforced that they are not good at spelling damaging their enthusiasm to learn.  The words need to be taught and reviewed daily in the classroom, and in context.  Testing is not teaching.

  • Spell check isn’t the answer to all spelling woes

Kids that are poor spellers say, “I’ll just use spell check.” The truth is that you need to be able to get close in order for spell check to help. Additionally, I’ve seen common errors such as the word “defiantly” used when the word was supposed to be “definitely”. Thus, spell check allowed the word because it was correct spelling. The student thought they were spelling “definitely” when, in fact, they were using the wrong word. So, one must be able to get close to the correct word. In fact, I think spell check has made me lazy about retaining proper spelling. Conversely, it is a great tool to use so that one doesn’t have to memorize a bazillion words. There are special instances like this quote points out:

If you can spell ‘Nietzsche’ without Google, you deserve a cookie.” ~ Lauren Leto

However, spell check isn’t the answer to all spelling struggles; it is a tool to aid in spelling.

In summary, spelling isn’t tied to intellect; it’s a visual skill. Spelling can be learned through a systematic, consistent, and relevant approach. Spelling tests don’t teach spelling, and Google and spell check aren’t the answer to spelling challenges. Success in  spelling is tied to children being developmentally ready. So, there you have it; the truth about spelling.

In the next post, I will share how to help a struggling speller.

What are your thoughts about spelling? What’s your personal experience? Were any of these tips helpful to you? Leave a comment, I’d love to know.

Let’s make a positive difference~ one word at a time.


Please share this article with others that you think would benefit from these tips. Also, please ask any questions that you may have about teaching children reading or writing. Leave your questions in the comments. I’ll answer. 🙂

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Disclaimer: The Truth About Spelling is based upon observations from my years and years as an educator, mom, and literacy consultant as well as research I’ve read.

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