Spelling lists are the foundation of many spelling programs. 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 when you stop to think about it, you’ll realize that most spelling lists really aren’t designed to help a child learn to spell.
The fact is that most spelling lists don’t make sense to the student. That’s because there are two major flaws inherent in the spelling list method that can actually keep students from learning to spell. Let’s take a closer look.
You’re probably familiar with the “list on Monday, test on Friday” approach, which is the most common way to teach spelling. With this method, children receive a list of words at the beginning of the week and practice writing them three to five times. The children are tested on the words at the end of the week, and teacher involvement is minimal.
A popular variation of this method is “look, cover, write, and check.” The student looks at the word, covers it, and tries to write it from memory. Then he compares what he wrote to the original word.
For many children, these methods simply don’t work because the spelling lists being used are developmentally inappropriate for the students. And that brings us to the second major flaw in most spelling lists.
When the structure of a spelling list isn’t developmentally appropriate, it can lead to confusion, frustration, and a lack of motivation for students. Spelling lists that don’t make sense can result in a lot of unnecessary struggles.
Here are a few examples of spelling lists that are developmentally inappropriate:
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.
These lists can contain words with as many as six or seven different ways to spell the same sound. For example, the following list features the long I sound and includes words such as item, timed, pie, cry, light, and kindness.
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 related to each other only because they are in frequency order on the Dolch list.
Besides the problem of the underlying organization of these sight word lists, the related 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. The video below sheds a little light on the shortcomings of the Dolch list approach.
Even students who easily memorize spelling lists may have problems. When students 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 students, this leads to a lifetime of poor spelling.
Here’s the good news! There is a fourth type of list that does make sense.
This is the type of list we use in the All About Spelling program.
Our list is different. We don’t just hand the student 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 demonstrate 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:
Can you see how the words on this list reinforce the phonogram the child has learned and provides the opportunity to practice it?
Unlike the Long I list shown in list type #2, our list has reason and logic behind it and will therefore be easy for a student to remember and use for encoding new words later on.
After the student learns the words that contain the IGH phonogram, we review that newly learned concept in many ways.
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 to learn more.
We do whatever it takes to make learning stick, which is the exact opposite of what happens with 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.
Has your child ever been given a spelling list that didn’t make sense? Please share in the comments below.