Many spelling programs are based on spelling lists. In fact, most of us learned to spell—or at least we attempted to learn to spell—with some type of spelling list method.
But if you take a close look at them, most spelling lists really aren’t designed to help a child learn to spell.
The fact is, most spelling lists don’t make sense to the student.
You’re probably familiar with the “list-on-Monday, test-on-Friday” approach.
This is the most common approach to teaching spelling.
With this method, children are given a list of words at the beginning of the week, asked to write them three to five times, and then are tested on the words at the end of the week. Teacher involvement is minimal.
A popular variation of this is “Look, Cover, Write, and Check.” The student looks at the word, covers it, and sees if he can write it from memory. Then he compares what he wrote to the original word.
There are three common themes for these spelling lists.
List Type #1: Words taken from a book the student is reading. The words on these lists are usually unrelated both in terms of content and phonetic structure. For example, this 3rd-grade spelling list from Trumpet of the Swan includes words such as catastrophe, reveille, and plumage.
List Type #2: Words showing all the different ways that a single sound can be spelled. These lists can contain words with as many as six or seven different ways to spell the same sound. This list features the long I sound and includes words such as item, timed, pie, cry, light, and kindness.
List Type #3: Words taken from the Dolch or Fry lists (in frequency order). The words on these lists have no context and are completely unrelated to each other. A list may contain the words found, wash, slow, hot, because, far, live, and draw, which are only related to each other because they are in frequency order on the Dolch list.
Many well-meaning educators feel that these spelling lists make sense.
That’s because, as adults who can already spell, we can see the organization behind the lists. The words are grouped by literary work, or by common sound, or by frequency order, and it feels like a nice, neat package that we can hand off to children to learn from.
But in reality, this is an example of the “curse of knowledge.” We can see the big picture—the common theme behind the word lists—so the lists make sense to us. But because children lack an understanding of the underlying concepts, they have a hard time learning from lists like these.
Nothing about these lists is developmentally appropriate for children.
For many children, the “list-on-Monday, test-on-Friday” method simply doesn’t work.
Besides the problem of the underlying organization of the lists, with this method the phonograms and spelling rules generally aren’t explicitly or systematically taught, leaving students to figure out the code on their own. Rote memorization of the words on the list is difficult (and boring). And the words are easily forgotten because there is nothing for the learner’s mind to “attach” the words to.
Even children who easily memorize spelling lists may have problems. When children learn to spell this way, they can become confused as soon as they encounter new or more difficult words. They resort to guessing at the correct spelling of unfamiliar words and often spell them wrong a week or two after the test. For many children, this leads to a lifetime of poor spelling.
So what does work?
We’ve looked at three types of spelling lists that don’t make sense to learners, but there is a fourth type of list that does make sense.
List Type #4: Word lists that are centered on a single, well-organized spelling concept. This is the type of list we use in the All About Spelling program.
But we don’t just hand the learner a list on Monday and expect him to have it memorized for a test on Friday. In fact, we don’t even have tests! Instead, we teach students why words are spelled the way they are, and how all the words on the list are related to each other.
For example, when we teach the IGH phonogram (which says /ī/ as in high), we teach multiple words that contain IGH, such as:
You can easily see how the words on the list reinforce the phonogram the child has learned and give him an opportunity to practice it.
Unlike the Long I list shown in list type #2, this list has reason and logic behind it and will therefore be easy for a child to remember and use for encoding new words later on.
But we don’t stop there.
After the student learns the words that contain the IGH phonogram, we review that newly learned concept in many ways. We review using Word Cards, being sure to mix up the new words with previously learned words. We dictate phrases and sentences using the new words, and we encourage writing original sentences. In all, we incorporate four major spelling strategies (phonetic, rule-based, visual, and morphemic), as well as five minor strategies. (Check out this article on effective spelling strategies if you are interested in learning more.)
We do whatever it takes to make learning stick, which is the exact opposite of the “list-on-Monday, test-on-Friday” approach.
When you use spelling lists that make sense, it’s a win-win. Your child gets the type of teaching he deserves, and you get the satisfaction of watching him flourish.