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Why Johnny Can’t Spell

“Johnny could be a great writer, but his terrible spelling just gets in the way. He just can’t get down on paper what he wants to say. Johnny repeats the same spelling mistakes over and over in his writing, now matter how many times I red-mark them. I’ve had him write out a spelling word fifty times and still misspell that same word on his next assignment. It drives me crazy.”

Know a student like Johnny? Everyone does. Is there something neurologically mis-wired or does he have dyslexia? Probably not. Yet, year after year, Johnny lags further and further behind his classmates in his spelling proficiency. Can we blame the English sound-spelling system? Only about half of our spellings exactly match their sounds. Or how about blaming the “whole language” instructional fad in which teachers threw out their spelling workbooks and the traditional weekly spelling test? Or how about blaming Dad or Mom?

With more brain research, we may find a genetic predisposition to poor spelling. It may be unfair, but society judges poor spellers quite harshly. Misspelling words on a job application won’t land Johnny a job. And “spell check” and dictionaries are not complete fixes. After all, you have to be able to recognize a correct spelling or know how to spell a word to use these resources. Frankly, we do a disservice to Johnny when we excuse his deficiency with a comment such as “Spelling doesn’t matter. Albert Einstein was a poor speller, too.”

So what can we do that really works to improve Johnny’s spelling? First, find out what exactly Johnny knows and does not know. Use an effective diagnostic test that pinpoints his spelling weaknesses. Target those weaknesses with specific skill worksheets, word sorts, and game card practice. Find these resources at your local bookstore or on the web. Next, teach the rules of syllabication and have Johnny practice sight syllable spellings with oral drills. Spelling is an auditory process-it is not a visual process. Encoding a word involves connecting letter relationships to the sounds that make up that word. Students need to develop automaticity with the most common sight syllables. Finally, connect spelling instruction to vocabulary instruction. Over 50% of our academic language is built on ancient Greek and Latin word parts. Spelling and vocabulary have a reciprocal relationship-spelling influences vocabulary and, conversely, vocabulary influences spelling. Have Johnny practice the spellings and definitions of the most common Greek and Latin roots and affixes.

Next, teach the rules of syllabication and have Johnny practice sight syllable spellings with oral drills. Spelling is an auditory process-it is not a visual process. Encoding a word involves connecting letter relationships to the sounds that make up that word. Finally, connect spelling instruction to vocabulary instruction. Over 50% of our academic words are built on ancient Greek and Latin word parts. Spelling and vocabulary have a reciprocal relationship-spelling influences vocabulary and, conversely, vocabulary influences spelling. Have Johnny practice the spellings and definitions of the most common Greek and Latin roots and affixes. Use the highest utility word parts, game cards, worksheets, and fun games to aid effective practice.

The author provides these curricular resources: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (American and Canadian English); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics (available in print and digital formats).

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