Spelling Curriculum

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.

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. To save you some time, here's a quick summary of the spelling curricula we offer, with links to the full reviews.

Here is a quick summary of the spelling curricula we offer, in alphabetical order:

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

A Reason for Spelling is a user-friendly, thorough spelling program. Teachers lead students in word games, tactile activities, and visual exercises that are proven to increase spelling abilities. More advanced students may find some of the activities under their level, but these are easily skipped. This is an excellent spelling course, but it will take some work on the teacher's part. 

ACSI Purposeful Design Spelling Grades 1-6

ACSI Purposeful Design Spelling is a pretty solid course. Activities reinforce the use of spelling rules, rather than rote memorization. The student books are colorful and engaging and the clear layout make it easy to teach. This would be a good choice if your child hasn't learned to read exclusively through phonics instruction, and if you don't want to take a lot of time preparing a lesson each day. 

All About Spelling Grades K-8

All About Spelling is a mastery-based, multi-sensory approach program. Students are taught the rules of English spelling using a variety of audio/visual and tactile methods. While it is teacher-intensive, preparing lessons is not difficult or time-consuming. The hardest part is cutting out the magnetic letter tiles. This is one of our more popular spelling programs, combining ease of use with a solid phonics foundation.

American Language Series Grades K-1

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

AVKO Sequential Spelling teaches word relationships in a unique way, by working with words both horizontally and vertically. Words are taught in relationship to one another, and it's left to the students to make their own connections and formulate rules inductively. The seven levels are intended to be used sequentially. We are impressed by how comprehensive this program is, and we've had positive comments from customers on its effectiveness. Excellent for many dyslexic students, who often work better with spelling patterns than with rules.

BJU Spelling Grades 1-6

BJU Spelling is a phonics-based spelling program designed to give students an understanding of generalizations and rules that will allow them to spell most words they encounter. Children are taught to look for and anticipate patterns in the language. The goal of this program is not merely to teach kids to spell well (though that is certainly the main objective). Creative assignments and exercises are intended to help kids get a feel and love for the English language, and to see the beauty in written words. 

CLP Building Spelling Skills Grades 1-8

CLP Building Spelling Skills is one of the more traditional spelling courses we carry—and one of the best. Eight consumable student books cover grades 1-8. The emphasis on phonics provides a system of patterns for students to look for, while the constant review and repetition firmly plants words in kids' minds.

EPS Spelling Grades 1-12

All the texts from EPS Spellingthe Spellwell series, How to Teach Spelling, The Spell of Words and Spellbound—focus on the phonogram recognition method. Their goal is not for students to just memorize words but to truly comprehend why words are spelled the way they are. Whether your student spells well already, or needs remedial coursework, these books provide excellent instruction and reinforcement.

Horizons Spelling & Vocabulary Grades 1-3

Horizons Spelling and Vocabulary is a word list-based course, and probably the easiest-to-use spelling program we carry. New words are introduced based on frequency of use, appearance, and spelling patterns. Though it is a solid start, it just doesn't go far enough for most students (it ends at 3rd grade) so those looking for a comprehensive approach they can use over multiple years will have to look elsewhere.

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

One of our favorite spelling options to suggest for new home school families, MCP Spelling Workout presents a modified forms of the "spelling in context" method, focusing on reading and spelling. Context is key here: students encounter their spelling words in short passages, look them up in a built-in dictionary, and incorporate them as they write sentences on their own. Very simple to use and affordable: just consumable student texts along with with easy-to-navigate (and optional) teacher manuals.

Megawords Grades 4-10

Like Spelling Workout, Megawords presents a modified form of the "spelling in context" method, but this focuses more on vocabulary rather than reading. What sets Megawords apart is its emphasis on multisyllabic words, helping kids to see that larger words are made up of easier-to-understand smaller pieces. Word lists are organized by phonetic rules and grouped according to prefixes and suffixes, syllables, etc. As the series progresses, exercises first teach kids to spell, then to decode, then to use words contextually in sentences. 

Rod & Staff Spelling Grades 2-8

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).

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-4 (and remedial students)

Not just for spelling, Spell to Write and Read is a full language arts program, focusing on actively teaching spelling during the process of learning to read and write. Fairly intense for teachers, kids are taught through a series of 40 steps, working from pre-reading skills, learning the sounds and spelling rules of English, and into grammar and writing skills. Kids are taught to identify 70 phonograms and later 29 spelling rules 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.

An Overview of Spelling Philosophies

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.

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 today 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.

Phonetic Spelling Instruction

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.

The Direct Approach

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

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.

Whole Language Method

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.

Identifying Orthographic Patterns

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.

Other Approaches

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.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

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