Spelling is primarily an auditory, not a visual skill. Visual cues should never be applied to phonetically regular words. Spelling strategies such as tracing letter shapes in sand or outlining the letters in a spelling word have long been discredited. Although visualization strategies such as picturing the spelling word and spelling it backwards may have some short term benefit, there is no transfer to other spellings. Indeed, relying on visual memorization of each individual spelling word is highly inefficient.
For example, written languages such as those used in Asia take much longer to learn. Elementary age students spend enormous amounts of time memorizing and practicing the logographic symbols/pictographs that will enable them to write their own language. In contrast, using the English sound-spelling system (the alphabetic code) which relies upon only 45 speech sounds is highly efficient. About half of English spellings exactly match their sounds.
At this point, many will be thinking “Yes, but half of English spellings do not match their sounds. True enough, but abandoning the half that works is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead of bemoaning the English sound-spelling irregularities and jumping ship to ill-advised spelling strategies which rely upon purely visual strategies, we need to build upon the solid foundation of the English sound-spelling system. To mix metaphors, I like to think of spelling in terms of how a batter should face his or her opponent—the pitcher. Good batters train themselves to look for the fast ball, then adjust for the curve. Good English spellers do likewise; they look to use the sound-spelling system and syllabication skills to problem-solve spellings and then adjust, as needed, to other strategies.
About 30 % of the phonetically irregular words can be taught by combining and applying the eight conventional spelling rules with the ten syllable rules. The conventional spelling rules, such as the i before e rule cover a huge amount of ground. Syllabication skills that apply the common English, Greek, and Latin morphemes (meaning-based syllables) with grammatical inflections, such _ing cover still more ground.
The remaining 20% require rote memorization. Unfortunately for beginning spellers, many of the most common words in the top 100 most frequently used words are derived from Old and Middle-English spellings. These spellings do not match their sounds and are often referred to as Outlaw Words. Although the term conjures up images of bad guys in black hats, the term is quite accurate. These irregular spellings live outside the law of the sound-spelling system. Some of these words are pure Outlaw Words, such as once, which derives from Old and Middle-English. Other words incorporate foreign word parts that may be phonetically regular in another language, but not in English.
Common single-syllable Outlaw Words, such as once, should generally be memorized by repetitive practice. Old school game cards do the trick as do drill and kill software programs. Careful diagnosis makes sense. A good Outlaw Words Spelling Assessment is just as important to use as is an Outlaw Words Reading Assessment. After all, students should be learning what they do not know, not rehearsing what they do know.
When Visual Spelling Strategies Do Make Sense
However, troublesome multi-syllabic words that are used less frequently, such as colonel, need special treatment. Of course, many of these words are essential components to an academic vocabulary. With these words, visual spelling strategies do make sense. After all, Confucius did say a picture is worth a 1000 words.
When using a visual strategy with an unknown multi-syllabic word, the speller needs to focus on the troublesome part of the spelling. For example, with the French word colonel, the letter “c” and the ending “nel” are not the spelling difficulties. The “c” is phonetically regular, i.e., the spelling exactly matches the sound and it follows the conventional spelling rule that the initial /k/ sound followed by an “o” is spelled with a “c.” The “nel” is a common suffix covered by the syllabication rules and is also phonetically regular. Thus, the speller should build upon the known and adjust to the unknown “olo.” It is important to boost the confidence of struggling spellers y reminding them that they know most of the word and that there is just a small bit that needs to be memorized.
Applying a colorful picture to the unknown portion of a multi-syllabic word can aid the long-term spelling memory. When associated with the vocabulary (meaning of the word), a picture can be especially memorable. For example, to memorize the “olo” in colonel, the speller could draw a head on top of the “l” with a plumed helmet and a uniform onto the “o’s,” which serve as epaulets (the colorful shoulder decorations designating military rank). Introduce this “picture spelling” with simple multi-syllabic words such as principal, in which the “pal” is incorporated into a friendly principal’s face or dessert, in which the “ss” is incorporated into a lighted birthday cake with the “s’s” serving as candles.
When used as an appropriate instructional component of a comprehensive spelling program, visual spelling strategies, such as these “picture spellings” do make sense. For example, a weekly Personal Spelling List of unknown words, derived from an effective spelling pre-test, could have a Memory Key column that requires the speller to make note of the spelling rule, syllabication rule, or “picture spelling” that will help best in word study.
Students enjoy creating these memorable Memory Keys, including the “picture spellings.” Of course, students will find the troublesome “pp” spelling in disappointment and go wild with the picture, but what is memorable for a student is not always memorable for a teacher :).
The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.
Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.
The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).