The Inner Spellist

When I work with high school students in my writing classes, I see tangible improvements in grammar and punctuation usage. I see the ability to compose a paragraph come to life. I also see timed essays worth scores of 5 and 6 but for one thing: spelling errors galore.

Is it common for students to make great strides in grammar, punctuation, and other writing skills but still not be able to spell their way out of a wet paper bag? It certainly is. Spelling occurs in a specific part of the brain. Handwriting has its part, and composing (getting thoughts on paper) has its part. Structuring sentences, choosing words, using punctuation, typing, and so on, each use a different part of the brain. Insisting that the act of writing — complete with proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation — is one big skill that a kid can master simply by writing more is one of the worst forms of educational malpractice out there.

Little orchestras in our brains…

The most effective writing programs treat writing as a set of individual skills that eventually work together after years of growth and practice. The act of writing a simple story involves gathering ideas, breaking them down into separate groups and then sentences, putting them into a logical order, handwriting or typing words, putting the words in order, spelling them correctly, adding punctuation, and so much more. The ability to do all of that at once is akin to a musical performance. It’s like we have a little writing orchestra in our brains. Each skill that a writer uses is like a musician that plays a specific instrument. Together, all of the musicians create a moving symphony. Together, the individual writing skills create a story, a poem, an essay, or a report. Just like each musician needs independent practice before playing with the whole group, a writer needs to practice different skills and techniques to perfect the parts that go into his story. To expect a whole orchestra to come together without such practice is absurd! It takes time and maturity for all those writing components to work in unison as well.

Because Writing Foundations trains those individual “musicians” with a variety of lessons and exercises throughout the year, handwriting, punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary, and so on definitely improve. Writing Foundations doesn’t specifically address spelling skills, though. By the end of the year, spelling issues become the squeaky violin or crunchy cello in the third row.

“Just use spell check”?

Because most spelling programs are designed for elementary aged children, there is an unspoken assumption that the ability to spell should finally “be there” when a student reaches his teen years. That is actually another diabolical myth. Teenagers are chastised for being careless, lazy, or worse when they misspell words. But, just writing more doesn’t improve spelling skills. It doesn’t happen naturally from just reading more. Contrary to conventional wisdom, “just use spell check” doesn’t cut it, either. Despite all the spiffy apps out there, spell check is not always available, accurate, or even appropriate in some moments. Worst of all, a culture of ubiquitous text messages actually undermines a weak speller’s efforts to improve. If students, parents, and teachers are not aware of how a rhetorical orchestra truly grows, they might be tempted to despair.

Frequent spelling errors simply mean that the “spellist” in a writer’s mental orhcestra needs focused, independent practice outside of symphony hall for a time. The key is finding the right kind of practice for your student’s literary soloist. There are two crucial elements to look for. First, you need to know how your student’s brain works. There are various learning styles and lots of combinations, but when it comes to spelling issues, it basically boils down to your child’s strength in one of two areas: visual or auditory. Because spelling is mainly a visual activity, most workbook approaches for auditory learners do not work. Therefore, if your student has a profound auditory style, look for a program that has an audio component.

Phonics is the key at every age…

If your student has a strong visual learning style, a workbook approach will do fine, but only if it is designed properly, which leads to point number two. For all learning styles, an effective spelling curriculum needs to be built on phonics. The English language is founded on a code of phonetic rules, and the better one knows those rules, the better one can spell.

There is a plethora of wonderful phonetically based reading/spelling programs out there for primary students. Play-n-Talk is a timeless classic. Scaredy Cat Reading is solid, and the new All About Spelling through IEW has it all. However, for secondary students, it’s slim pickins for something that doesn’t insult a teenager’s sense of maturity. There are many remedial spelling programs out there, but most are designed by word families or frequency of misspelling which can end up being an aimless waste of time and money.

Throughout my career as a home schooling mother and a writing teacher, two spelling programs suitable for teens have risen to top of my list. One is ideal for strong visual learners, while the other works well for auditory learners and those whose strength lies in a combination of both learning styles.

The best programs for teens…

For visual learners, I recommend Apples 1 Daily Spelling Drills and Apples 2 Daily Phonics Drills by Susan Kemmerer. The Apples workbooks introduce one spelling rule a week and give your student a variety of exercises in which to apply it. Kemmerer teaches students how to recognize when a word doesn’t “look right” and to fix it by applying the rule of the week. The lessons are simple but not juvenile, and they consistently include regular reviews of previous rules. Overall, Apples 1 and Apples 2 effectively give a student’s inner spellist the practice needed in about ten minutes a day.

For auditory or combination learners, I recommend IEW’s Excellence in Spelling program called The Phonetic Zoo. The Phonetic Zoo introduces spelling rules in a sequential manner that build towards more complex words as the student progresses. To begin a lesson, the student and teacher briefly talk about the rule before the student listens to the lesson on CD. During the lesson, the student practices spelling the words on paper and correcting the words as the CD directs. When a student achieves 100% success on the list of words for two days in a row, he moves on. Like Apples, The Phonetic Zoo lessons take only about ten minutes a day.

As students grow older, weak spelling skills will become more noticeable. This can happen even when a trail of spelling programs litters a teenager’s educational past. Even though spelling ability has nothing to do with intelligence levels or a student’s basic writing ability, it does affect ones reputation and sense of confidence. We now live in an electronically interconnected world of eternally preserved emails, blog posts, Facebook entries, and Twitter messages. Like a melodious or discordant performance, how a student communicates in writing plants an impression in an audience’s mind. Writers cannot simply depend on a squiggly red line to conduct them. A solid foundation of phonics knowledge is still crucial in today’s world.



  1. Hi! Following from the Crew.

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