There are almost as many ways to teach spelling as there are variations in the spelling of English words. Between phonetic, direct, orthographic and contextual approaches, it's often difficult for a non-specialist to know which method works best, or how any of them work at all. Each available curriculum promotes its own modified version of an accepted method and explains why it is superior to the others. You don't have time to thoroughly study each approach (and probably wouldn't if you did), but you don't want to abandon your kids to sub-par spelling instruction either.
Forty years ago there was basically one way to teach spelling. Teachers introduced lists of unconnected but grade-specific words on Monday, practiced them for three days, and administered a test on Friday. The next week it was the same thing, and kids had to keep up or fall behind, memorizing words without understanding why they were constructed the way they were. Fortunately, a trend in recent years away from mere rote memorization has led educators to suggest that students must be given tools to decode the language, not merely learn by rote as many words as possible.
Part of this is due to an increased awareness of learning difficulties. Spelling in particular presents a number of problems, especially with the current educational emphasis on creativity and helping students reach conclusions through critical thinking. The spelling of words must be uniform in order to preserve the continuity of communication—consequently, students must learn to spell accurately and consistently, and this can only happen if they are taught to memorize words themselves, the rules which govern words, or the formations of language from which words are made.
The most common problems faced by students have to do with memorization. Kids have a hard time internalizing the amount of information they are required to remember in order to spell well simply because they aren't required to memorize other things anymore, like multiplication tables or historical names and dates. This deficiency can manifest itself in different ways, most often either as lack of auditory or visual memory skills. There are other more specific difficulties as well, notably dyslexia and dysgraphia, but these are generally only overcome through therapy. The following instructional methods each address the more common problems (usually a specific one) in a unique way, while providing a basis for spelling instruction for students without learning difficulties.
The trend away from mere sight-reading memorization is also due to a re-evaluation of much older methods. Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book (first published around 1800) uses a form of sound- and phonogram-recognition instruction currently enjoying a revival in the form of orthographic pattern identification. Such methods give students the tools needed to decode words and understand language, not simply how to identify each word as a complete unit by itself. The move away from this approach began sometime in the late-18th century (mostly in France, of all places); the move back has been an evolution from basic phonics instruction to the more technically and philosophically oriented phonogram instruction currently in ascendance.
This approach aims at familiarizing students with the phonetic structures which govern the construction of most English words. Children are given lists of rules to memorize before they even begin to spell words, so that when spelling does take place they are equipped with building blocks from which to construct words. Opponents of this system point out that there are so many exceptions to the rules and so many foreign-based words that actually contradict the rules, that it isn't helpful for kids to learn the rules at all. Proponents counter that without rules, kids simply have to memorize lists and lists and lists of words, and that's much more difficult than memorizing a few exceptions. Phonetic spelling instruction is a fine approach if your children don't struggle with memorization or keeping track of important (but often overlooked) details.
In many ways, this is a modified response to phonetic instruction. Students still memorize word lists, but words are organized by type and spelling, and phonics rules are taught in conjunction with the lists to help internalize both. Whereas in the former approach students learn phonics rules before applying them, the direct approach has them learning phonics rules while applying them. This is particularly effective with visual learners, as they are able to see the practical element of theoretical knowledge. At the same time, it's only part of the puzzle, since students are given no way to really put words together—they can spell words with which they're already familiar, but are able to spell new words only if they abide by rules the child already knows or exceptions they've already learned.
Spelling in context is similar to the direct approach—instead of simply memorizing out-of-context data, however, students learn words through reading. As with the direct approach they are given lists of words and accompanying phonics rules, but the words are culled from texts the student is already familiar with. This reinforces both reading and spelling skills through integration, and demonstrates the importance of good spelling skills apart from the study itself. It also helps students who may struggle with memorization; by encountering words more than once and in a variety of contexts, most kids will find it much easier to retain the information and apply it in their own writing. At the same time, unless students are given a wide range of material to read, taking spelling words only from texts they know could result in an incomplete vocabulary.
The whole language method is a logical progression from the spelling in context approach. The entire language arts curriculum—spelling, grammar, composition, etc.—is presented as a unit and kids learn what they need intuitively from dealing with existing texts. For spelling in particular, students focus on the meanings of words rather than their phonetic structure, though phonics is typically taught both for reading and spelling. It is assumed that kids will automatically internalize language as a whole if repeated attention is paid to each element as it relates to each of the others. While this works for some kids, most will still need specific focus on spelling, grammar, etc., and will not simply learn without direct guidance. Especially with spelling, kids need to understand how words are formed, and not just remember how to spell from having read each word in a book over and over.
A number of programs implement (usually a modified form of) the whole language method, in which one or more of the general language arts are taught alongside spelling to reinforce all language arts skills. This is a fairly new method of spelling instruction, and there are few full courses available.
The newest and (we think) best approach acknowledges each of these methods and combines their most effective aspects to ensure students are able to spell not only words they know, but also words they have not yet encountered. Identifying orthographic patterns (orthography being the standardized written form of a language) provides children the tools needed to decode words. Kids are taught phonemes (or phonograms as they are more popularly called—the sounds made by various letter combinations) and phonics rules, as well as basic morphemes (the smallest units of words that contain meaning), so they can approximate not only the spelling, but also the meaning, of words with which they are unfamiliar. Also, by cementing sounds in kids' visual and auditory memory, and by presenting far less information for kids to memorize, the decoding approach is far more likely to plant itself firmly in the minds of students.
All About Spelling, AVKO Sequential Spelling, A Reason for Spelling and all the texts from EPS Spelling focus on the orthographic patterns/phonogram recognition method. Also known as decoding, students are taught the sounds made by the different possible letter combinations in the English language so they can decode more or less any word they encounter. We prefer this method, since it is the only one in which students do not need to be already familiar with a word in order to figure out how to spell it. This is somewhat true of the phonetic approach, though there are so many exceptions to the phonics rules kids can easily become confused and frustrated trying to spell unfamiliar words; there are no exceptions to phonograms, just variations.
A number of supplementary texts are available to help you tailor spelling instruction to the particular needs of your child. Most of these are directed primarily at teachers and parents and stress the fact that all kids need (to some extent) personalized guidance; others are remedial texts to help older and struggling students get back on track. How to Teach Any Child to Spell is perhaps the most helpful of the parent-oriented texts, while Sound Spelling (which teaches standard spelling through phonetic spelling) is one of the more helpful remedial student texts. A number of resources and reference works are also available.
Spelling can be a difficult subject to navigate, both for students and their parents. Each method outlined above is supported with research and years of implementation in a variety of educational contexts, and each has its own benefits and negative aspects. The needs of your child (learning style and strengths, possible disabilities, possible teaching limitations on your part) will largely determine what methods will work best, though certain approaches are more universally approachable than others. There is a plethora of in-depth information available online concerning spelling instruction in general and particular methods--we hope this brief distillation is helpful as you try to navigate the many options.
A Beka Spelling & Vocabluary Grades K-12
A Beka Spelling & Vocabulary is part of a much larger integrated language arts program that covers everything from grammar to composition to poetry memorization. The approach is phonics-based, though words are learned primarily through memorization, and multiple exercises per lesson are the primary mode for reinforcement. Using this apart from the other A Beka language arts books is difficult and not likely to be very productive, though together they make a thorough program.
A Reason for Spelling Grades 1-6
All About Spelling, AVKO Sequential Spelling, A Reason for Spelling and all the texts from EPS Spelling focus on the orthographic patterns/phonogram recognition method. Also known as decoding, students are taught the sounds made by the different possible letter combinations in the English language so they can decode more or less any word they encounter. We prefer this method, since it is the only one in which students do not need to be already familiar with a word in order to figure out how to spell it.
ACSI Purposeful Design Spelling Grades 1-6
CLP Building Spelling Skills and ACSI Purposeful Design Spelling both use the phonetic approach, teaching a phonics rule at the beginning of each lesson and providing lists of words that exemplify that rule. This is just straightforward spelling with no frills, and repetition is the main tool used to ensure kids understand the rules well enough to implement them on their own.
All About Spelling Grades K-8
American Language Series Grades K-12
The American Language Series is perhaps the best example of the whole language approach, offering phonics, grammar, spelling, composition and handwriting instruction simultaneously. This is a teacher-intensive program, using colorful readers and consumable workbooks to inundate students on all sides with the language they'll use to communicate for the rest of their lives. Written by a Christian and based on years of research, this is a great choice not just for spelling, but for all the language arts.
AVKO Sequential Spelling Grades 1-12
BJU Spelling Grades K-12
More traditional courses like BJU Spelling and Horizons Spelling & Vocabulary rely primarily on rote memorization, having kids simply memorize lists and lists of words. Since both of these are intended to be used in conjunction with phonics programs they could be considered phonetic courses, but if you're planning on using either one of them by itself much of the phonics element will be lost.
CLP Building Spelling Skills Grades 1-8
EPS Spelling Grades K-12
Horizons Spelling & Vocabulary Grades 1-3
IEW Excellence in Writing Grades 1-12
Rod & Staff Spelling and IEW Excellence in Spelling are fairly unique, offering courses that contain elements of phonetic spelling instruction but focus primarily on the sound of words to teach spelling. If kids are familiar with the phonetic rules and know how words are supposed to sound, the reasoning goes, they will be able to spell any words they encounter. The two main drawbacks to such a method are that 1) kids are not automatically prepared to spell words they don't know, and 2) there isn't enough emphasis on visual memorization so kids don't necessarily become familiar with the way a word looks (which is ultimately more important than the way a word sounds, at least in written language).
MCP Spelling Workout Grades 1-8
MCP Spelling Workout and Megawords present modified forms of the "spelling in context" method, the former focusing on reading and spelling, and the latter on vocabulary and spelling. Both emphasize contextualization, either as students encounter words in texts, or as they write them in sentences on their own, and both are simple to use: just consumable student texts along with with easy to navigate teacher manuals.
Megawords Grades 4-10
Rod & Staff Spelling Grades 2-8
Spectrum Spelling & Vocabulary Grades 1-6
Like all the Spectrum workbook series, this one isn't intended to be a complete course in itself. Each colorful consumable worktext offers a variety of exercises built around specific spelling rules and designed to reinforce existing knowledge rather than present new information. These are excellent for supplemental use, test prep, or remedial work for kids who are struggling or behind.
Spell to Write and Read Grades K-12
Spell to Write and Read is primarily a phonics- and orthographic pattern-based program, though it also implements important aspects of the whole language approach. Kids are taught to identify phonograms in order to successfully navigate any word they come across, not just for spelling, but in the context of reading and writing as well. This is a unique approach, and there aren't many like it, but it has been proving itself for many years now and remains a strong choice.
Spelling Plus Grades K-12
Spelling Plus doesn't include much phonics-based material, relying on a list of the 1,000 most frequently used words to get kids spelling as they memorize all 1,000 words in a series of 69 lists. Kids practice writing the words in the lists until they can do so without making any mistakes, and a dictation book offers supplemental exercises to solidify the information.
Spelling Power Grades K-12
Spelling Power uses elements of the direct method (word lists grouped according to phonetic rules and frequency of use) as well as including elements of the whole language method (integrating spelling with writing and grammar) and spelling in context. The course centers around a list of the 5000 most used and misspelled words broken into 11 lists, which kids then work from to master the spelling rules as well as the words themselves.