From time to time people ask me, “What are we doing wrong? My child knows the spelling rules and phonograms but still makes mistakes when he is writing.”
It’s a common problem.
When a child writes bobcat and brave correctly on his word list but later writes the phrase brav bobkat in his own writing, we shudder and wonder where we have gone wrong! So what are a frazzled mom and exasperated child to do at this point?
Automaticity is the solution.
Automaticity is the ability to do something without conscious thought. For example, as you read this post, you aren’t consciously thinking about how to decode every word. You’ve reached automaticity in decoding, so now you can read for content. When you scramble eggs for breakfast, you don’t have to think about each step, like how to crack an egg or whisk it in a bowl. You can carry on a conversation as you turn on the stove and start cooking the eggs. You’ve reached the point of automaticity, which frees up your mind for other tasks.
And that’s what you want for your child. You want your child to reach the point of automaticity in spelling so he can spell words correctly in various situations, not just in a dictated spelling list. You want spelling skills transferred to writing whole phrases and entire sentences. Eventually, you want spelling to become so automatic that your child doesn’t have to give conscious thought to spelling during periods of free writing.
Here are some tips for you as your child develops automaticity.
Being patient and understanding as your child develops automaticity can be hard, I know! Use these tips to get yourself and your child through this stage.
1. Understand that what is easy and intuitive for you may be challenging for your child. Sometimes just changing our expectations can take the frustration out of a situation.
My son will be taking driver’s ed this year, so I recently let him try out the car in a seldom-used parking lot. I neglected to tell him that the car would move even without pressing the accelerator, and that the brake pedal needs a light touch. Oops! Explicit, step-by-step instruction doesn’t always come naturally to me! Little tidbits of information like that help set a student up for success, but a subject can seem scary when those tidbits are missing! So when things are frustrating for a child, take a step back, consider what information might help him, and have patience.
2. Understand that spelling mastery comes in stages. Don’t expect perfection. Instead, begin to teach your child about editing. One thing I do with dictation is to say, “There’s one mistake. Can you find it?” Children can often find their mistakes upon re-reading a phrase or sentence. Praise your child for any mistakes found or corrected.
Sometimes an error is phonetic, as in brav. Have your student say exactly what he wrote. If he doesn’t see the error, you might say something like, “I would read this word as brav, but we want brave. Do you know how to fix it?” This strategy can work for missing letters as well.
Other questions you might ask include “Do you know any rules that apply?” or “What’s the root word?” and so on. The Spelling Strategies Chart introduced in All About Spelling Level 4 will help you teach your child to analyze his spelling.
I remind my children over and over that even professional writers need to edit their work. I dearly love a good editor!
3. Consider whether additional work is needed on a concept. If your student doesn’t remember any rules that might apply to bobkat, walk him through it. For example, you might ask, “What are the ways we can spell the /k/ sound?” and then, after hearing the answer, “Which one do we always try first?” and finally, “Does c work here?” You might go back to the spelling lessons covering that rule and work through them again with the letter tiles.
For visual errors, have your student spend more time working with the Word Banks. I also show my kids the Word Cards after they spell each word, for visual reinforcement.
For suffix errors, you can have your child practice the correct steps by using the blue Key Cards that ask students to identify root words. Say the word, have the child identify the root, and then have the child make the root with the tiles. Finally have him add the suffix. Do a couple of words each day until your student has mastered the procedure.
5. Consider the working memory constraints of your child. Some students struggle with remembering a variety of tasks at the same time. This is a fairly normal struggle, especially for kids in early elementary school, as well as for older remedial learners.
Some students may be able to spell words correctly with tiles but not in writing. These students may still be struggling with remembering letter formation in addition to phonograms and rules. Solidify the individual areas to help strengthen your student’s ability to put these skills together into writing a word.
Some students may be able to write individual words from a list, but will struggle with dictation sentences. Here the difficulty has been increased—the child has to remember letter formation, a greater variety of phonograms and rules, capitalization, punctuation, and word spacing, and must also remember all the words.
Say the dictation once and have your child repeat the phrase or sentence. Note to yourself at what point your child struggles to remember the words. When I started with All About Spelling, my youngest could remember four words in a phrase, and my oldest could remember six words. That told me that when they had to hold a lot of concepts in their working memory, something would likely be forgotten or pushed out.
Understanding working memory can positively impact our parenting, too. For example, it might look like a child is disobeying if he or she can’t follow a simple statement like, “Put on your pajamas and brush your teeth,” which contains eight words. Instead, it may be that the statement is just too long for the child to accurately remember. So when you find your child half undressed and playing with Legos instead of brushing his teeth, it may be worth reconsidering how you give directions!
Dictation is a wonderful tool for improving working memory, and All About Spelling gradually increases the sentence length so your child can grow in this area.
Independent writing will reveal yet another layer of spelling difficulty. Here the child has to remember all the previously mentioned skills, plus come up with correct or creative ideas, remember important subject information, consider audience and the type of writing, organize his thoughts, think about syntax and grammar and usage rules, and…whew! There truly is a lot that we have to hold in our minds in order to be able to write.
It’s really no wonder that many children will have multiple mistakes in their writing. They are novices who need lots of encouragement, patience, and practice, not only in individual skills but also in achieving automaticity.
Do you ever get frustrated while you wait for your child to achieve automaticity in a skill, whether it’s spelling, math, or driver’s ed?