It can seem like there are as many spelling curricula (and ways to teach spelling) as there are words in English, but there are relatively few variations in terms of approach. The two basic options are sight learning (where students learn to spell by simple rote memorization) and the phonetic approach (where students learn sounds and spelling rules and how words are created from the two). At Exodus Books, we prefer the phonetic approach to the sight learning method every time.
Demme Learning's Spelling You See takes the phonetic approach, but focuses on auditory and visual memory rather than spelling rules to help students reach spelling proficiency. The approach is similar (though not identical) to Demme Learning's popular Math-U-See curriculum, and tailored specifically to teaching spelling. Teachers will need to take an active hand, but the program is designed to take no more than ten minutes a day, and teacher prep is minimal to nonexistent after initial orientation.
How Do These Work?
There are currently seven levels (A-G) for Spelling You See. These do not directly correlate to specific grade levels, but rather to stages in the student's development. If you're looking to start Spelling You See with an older student or one who can already spell to some degree, therefore, don't think Level C equals 3rd Grade (for instance)—there are short assessment exercises and questions available online for each level that will help you determine where your child should start.
Dr. Karen Holinga, the author of Spelling You See, identifies five stages for learning spelling: Preliterate, Phonetic, Skill Development, Word Extension, and Derivational Constancy. At the time of this writing (August 2021), the levels only go through Word Extension; we do not know whether there will be more levels forthcoming.
The Preliterate stage comes before reading and spelling instruction have begun. This is the period when children are first gaining knowledge about language, largely through looking at books on their own and having books read to them. For the most part this does not involve actual instruction, but rather things like learning that English is read left-to-right, or "pretend writing" as the first stage in developing the ability to write letters and words. Preliterate is followed by the Phonetic stage, in which students begin to establish sound-to-letter correspondence by auditory means and to learn the phonics rules.
Holinga says that the third stage, Skill Development, is the longest and most challenging of all the stages. At this point, phonics rules should not be emphasized (or abandoned altogether)—students now need to learn how to spell words with spelling inconsistencies, and they do this mostly by connecting these words to their context. The fourth stage, Word Extension, is about navigating inconsistent spellings by focusing on syllables within words, prefixes, and suffixes. In the final Derivational Constancy stage, students learn about Latin and Greek word roots in order to navigate patterns and pronunciation differences among similar words.
There are no books for the Preliterate stage. Instead, the series begins with the Phonetic stage: students can begin with either Level A or Level B. Skill Development is covered in Levels B-F. Word Extension is covered in Level F and Level G. There is not currently a text for the Derivational Constancy Stage. Again, use the Demme Learning assessments (link above) to determine which level your student should start with.
Each level covers one 36-week school year. There are 36 lessons, each with 5 sub-lessons to be completed one-per-day. Each sub-lesson should take about ten minutes to complete. Level A includes one student workbook, one instructor's handbook, a sticker pack, and a laminated handwriting guide. Level B includes two student workbooks, one instructor's handbook, a laminated handwriting guide, and a pack of ten erasable colored pencils. Levels C-G include two student workbooks, one instructor's handbook, and a pack of ten erasable colored pencils for each level.
The consumable workbooks are illustrated with full-color drawings. Most student exercises are built around narrative and dictation, with students either listening to or reading a short story and then copying it exactly themselves (the only exception is Level A, where students just copy short words). Students also spend a lot of time in Levels B-G "chunking," or highlighting specific sounds, blends, etc. in the provided story with the colored pencils. This is not a handwriting course, so the handwriting guides are intended as helps, not as substitutions for dedicated handwriting instruction. It is also not a phonics, grammar, reading, or vocabulary course—though it will help with all of those, and can draw the common threads between each subject together for excellent reinforcement.
Full-color instructor's handbooks all begin with a statement regarding the Spelling You See philosophy and a description of the five developmental stages of spelling learning. Then comes an overview of the level, and lesson-by-lesson instructions for each lesson in that level. It's a good idea to read through the lesson instructions before tackling instruction or having the student complete the exercises, but this will not take a big time commitment as the instructions are clear and to the point. Word lists, dictation texts, and answers to all exercises including "chunking" can be found in the back of the instructor's handbooks. Each handbook also includes a glossary, a bibliography, frequently asked questions, and extra tips for instruction. Some additional instructional support is available online in video form. You categorically do need the instructor's handbooks for successful use of this program.
Every level of Spelling You See is themed, with all exercises relating to the overall theme in some way (again, Level A is the exception). For instance, Level C is "Wild Tales" and contains information about science and nature; Level D is "Americana" and contains stories of famous events and people in American history; Level G is "Modern Milestones" and focuses on key figures in the early modern era, etc. The stories are carefully selected to pique children's interest.
Spelling You See focuses on auditory and (as its name implies) visual memory to teach kids spelling. The idea is not to provide lengthy spelling lists to be memorized each week (and just as quickly forgotten), but rather to give students the necessary tools for spelling proficiency and the ability to spell words they haven't encountered. Auditory and visual memory isn't the whole approach, however: the real thrust of the program is to help students connect words to something meaningful in order to store the in their long term memory. This is where the developmental states of spelling come in, and the reason this course is unique among spelling courses.
Our Honest Opinion:
Spelling is frequently dismissed as unimportant or relegated to meaningless lists of words students are meant to memorize (which means little more than storing them in their short-term memory so they can pass a test). There are no tests for Spelling You See because the goal is not memorization but mastery and proficiency. The series shows students how to identify patterns through auditory and visual memory, and how to apply what they've learned while reading and writing. It also ties together many aspects of language arts instruction, including phonics, grammar, and reading.
Of all the spelling programs we carry, Spelling You See is closest in approach to IEW Excellence in Spelling and Rod & Staff Spelling in that it requires teacher involvement and has a strong element of auditory memory. However, unlike those two courses, Spelling You See doesn't require much if any teacher prep, and it reinforces the auditory approach with a strong visual memory element. This means this important subject won't take much time out of your day, and that students will experience a well-rounded approach. There are also elements of the whole language approach, but without the complications that usually accompany such programs.
We do recommend teachers keep a copy of Margaret M. Bishop's The ABC's and All Their Tricks on hand if using Spelling You See because it utilizes a similar approach to irregular words. Bishop's modern classic is not a curriculum, nor is it for students—rather, it is a reference for instructors designed to reinforce phonics and spelling instruction. It's also an excellent reference for all the spelling rules, along with detailed explanations of the reason for each rule and its various applications. There's no direct correlation between The ABC's and All Their Tricks and Spelling You See, but they work together surprisingly well.
This is probably the best spelling course we've seen. It contains all the best elements of the different approaches, but doesn't require undue prep for the teacher while remaining fun and engaging for students. It also aims at strengthening long-term memory rather than short-term memory, and imparts skills rather than rote lists. Spelling is an important subject, but it is only meaningful in context—Spelling You See provides that context, while using context to teach skills. The price is a bit high, but you definitely get what you pay for, both in terms of time saved and quality of instruction.
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