Spelling spelled out

Help your child develop good spelling skills with these expert strategies.

By Carolyn James, Ph.D.

LeapFrog Literacy Expert

As the literacy development expert on LeapFrog’s Learning Team, Carolyn ensures that the curricular design in LeapFrog products is grounded in the latest educational research. Before joining LeapFrog, Carolyn was a reading professor at Sacramento State University, a curriculum developer for the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, and a teacher in the San Francisco bay area. She earned her doctorate in educational psychology at Michigan State University.

Learning to spell is a developmental process, so the answer to how to help a child learn to spell depends on the child’s developmental level for spelling.

Young children begin to spell using a strategy we call “invented spelling.” That is, they attempt to spell words the way they sound. This strategy is known to enhance early reading skills and speed up the acquisition of conventional spelling down the road—so don’t jump to correct these early writing attempts. At early spelling stages, an over-emphasis on spelling accuracy can inhibit a child’s motivation to write. While we do not want to send the message that correct spelling doesn’t matter or ignore studies showing that long-term spelling difficulties can contribute a child’s lack of academic confidence, it’s best to take a balanced approach.

The first step is to help your child build what some educators call a spelling conscience. Take a sample of your child’s writing and have her point out any words she thinks she may have spelled incorrectly. Misspelled words are likely to fall into two categories:

  • Words misspelled because your child was rushing: Encourage her to edit her work to fix these mistakes.
  • Words she isn’t sure how to spell but tried her best by trying to sound it out: This is a strategy that should be commended and followed up with gentle coaching.

To help your child learn to spell those more difficult words, you can try a couple strategies:

  • For words with regular spelling patterns (words that are spelled the way they sound, without tricky vowel combinations or advanced spelling rules), coach your child with something like, “Say the word slowly. Stretch it out. What sound do you hear first? What sound do you hear next?”
  • For words with irregular spelling patterns (even short words like they, said, does), explain that some words are not spelled how they sound, and they just have to be memorized. You can introduce simple spelling rules (such as silent E) if you think your child is ready.

Remember that spelling takes practice. The rules of spelling take years to learn, so know when to acknowledge that your child is working at her developmental level.