Sending Home Spelling Lists

Since parents of school children are generally eager to help them with their homework, some parents may become confused when Riggs teachers do not send home traditional spelling lists. Unless you help them understand why you are not doing that, they may even become concerned. I’ve heard from many parents who say: “Isn’t that how things have always been done? Why can’t I have a list of spelling words so I can help my child study them? His other teachers always sent one home, and my child needs a lot of help! Why can’t I help?”

In order to reassure such parents--in order to help them understand your reasons for doing things differently--you might like to send home some version of the following letter (individualizing it for each student, of course--feel free to cut, paste, and edit):

Dear Parent,

Thank you for your willingness to help your child with spelling. This year, we will be using a research-based learning technique to help your child master new words, so you will be seeing some exciting new changes in the way that he is being asked to study them (and in his learning rate). For example, instead of having to rely on his visual memory alone this year (which may or may not have been his learning strength), your child will be using practice procedures that involve his not only seeing but also hearing, saying, writing, and analyzing each of the 750 words that we will study together. I am confident that this highly-effective, multi-modal method of practicing new words will help your child by ensuring that his strongest sensory pathway--sight, sound, speech, or touch (writing)--is being stimulated during every practice activity, and that it will also help ensure that his mind (not just his memory) is being challenged. And I am sure that his learning will take off this year.

Since English is an alphabetic language that uses about 75 spelling patterns (graphemes) to represent its 42 speech sounds (phonemes) in print, your child will begin his formal study of English spelling by practicing with these patterns daily (using sight, sound, voice, and writing simultaneously while practicing), and he will continue to practice until these patterns are well on their way to being mastered. This will not take long (less than a month for children in grade 1 will give them a working-set with which to begin--this will only take a week or so for older children), so your child will soon be combining these patterns (on paper) to write whole words (again using sight, sound, voice, and writing). And all of these words will be useful.

This year’s spelling words will be chosen from lists of commonly-used words in literature, from key words related to science, history, and math lessons; and from words which make up the “academic talk” that we will be using in our classroom (function words like “describe,” “summarize,” “compare,” and “contrast”). In other words, your child will constantly be working with the words that he will be using for the rest of his life.

During learning activities, your child will build on what he has previously learned, so he will never feel lost: his ability to write and read English spelling patterns, for example, will be built on basic penmanship skills and applied to the spelling and reading of whole words. Similarly, his ability to spell and read these new (and old) vocabulary words will be used while he is learning to write and read correctly spelled sentences (which will then grow in complexity). And so on. Does this make sense to you?

Once the spelling of whole words begins (Lesson 20), please know that your child will indeed be bringing home a list of spelling words to study, but the list will have been written by your child from his teacher’s dictation of previously learned spelling patterns (graphemes), which means that your child will not be practicing any words that he has not first worked out the spelling of.

During each day’s spelling lesson, for example, your child will begin by listening to his teacher present the word (orally) and he will then analyze that word (orally) to identify its constituent sounds (phonemes). To imagine this process for yourself, think of the English word “church.” This word has three elementary sounds, the first and last of which are basically identical, right? Your child will listen as his teacher pronounces “church” and uses it in a sentence to illustrate its meaning. He will then write the word “church” (before having seen it), sound by sound, by writing the correct spelling pattern for each of these sounds after first identifying that sound (“ch” + “ur” + “ch”), always looking to his teacher to help him with any sound which may regularly be written in more than one way. (The sound “er” can be spelled five different ways; his teacher will tell him that we use the /ur/ grapheme, or phonogram, in the word “church.”)

After your child has written each new spelling-vocabulary word in his notebook--from the teacher’s dictation--he will read the word back to his teacher by pronouncing each of its phonemes so that his teacher may encode the word on the board. (This is step 2 of dictation.) If there was more than one way to spell a given sound, your child will tell his teacher which spelling pattern he has used. (The sound “er” was spelled with the /ur/ phonogram.)

Once the teacher has finished “taking dictation” from your child, the word will be on the board for them to study together. Your child will now compare his word to the teacher’s model so that any errors may be corrected (by your child), ensuring that the notebook contains only correctly-spelled words to be used for study and reference.

Together now, your child and his teacher will analyze the word (step 3), using a simple marking system to note multi-letter spelling patterns and rules which may help explain the word’s spelling. (This marking system is a great learning tool--and a huge aid to the memory.) The written word “church,” for example, contains three multi-letter spelling patterns, and each of these graphemes will now be underlined--by your child--to help your child “see” the truth about this word’s spelling.

Your child will ultimately learn 47 useful rules of spelling and syllabication in this way. He will careful study his words so that, slowly but surely, he will go far--always by steadily increasing his understanding of the English spelling system, always by building success upon success, and always by thinking about, talking about, and applying what he is learning.

After the new word has been analyzed, your child will begin to practice with it until it becomes a part of his writing and reading vocabulary--a word that he can accurately spell on paper at will (and a word that he can quickly and easily pronounce when he encounters it in books).

During this practice activity, your child will write the word repeatedly (on a separate sheet of paper) while pronouncing each of its spelling patterns, and he will then practice blending and reading the word until he can do this with ease (always using sight, sound, voice, and writing while practicing).

So please know that as your child travels down this writing and spelling road to reading and thinking, his teacher will, indeed, be sending home spelling lists. But the words on these lists will have been written by your child during activities that have been designed to help him think critically about the spelling and pronunciation of each new word.

I am confident that this scientific way of developing language skills will appeal to your child’s highly intelligent mind and lead to his success. While doing some of the best thinking of his life, he will study elementary phonetics and come to understand the basic principles of English spelling (orthography) and pronunciation (orthoepy). And you can help.

Ask your child to teach you about the most common spelling patterns of English and the Riggs Institute’s marking system (or come to a school informational meeting about this topic), and you will be equipped to help your child analyze and study not only his spelling-vocabulary words (30 or so new words per week) but also any additional English words that he might like to master.

Please know that like the Latin language that came before it, English spelling was founded on phonetic laws. Your child is now learning these laws. We’d love to have you join us.

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