How can I help my child with spelling?

posted on 19th June 2020

A lot of parents get in touch because they are worried about their child’s progress in spelling.

For some children, the natural progression through phonics and spelling patterns isn't working. Try as they might, some children struggle to grasp spelling through the sounds of words. If your child has dyslexia, working memory problems or if they are a visual thinker, learning spelling through phonics is going to be tricky.

So, what can you do if you are not sure where to start, but you just want to help your child? Well, this article is for you. Hopefully, with these useful tips, you will be able to help your child get some better footing in their spelling progress.


1. Talk about the meaning of words

Just learning to spell a word by trying to remember what order the letters go can be a tedious task for some children.  Also just practising what letters go where is what we call rote learning, and it’s very boring for a lot of children. A bit like just trying to memorise times tables facts, for some children it just won’t work. Learning to spell at a deeper level is what helps with spelling. This means, not just memorising letters and their order, we need to help your child think more deeply about it.

So how can we help a child think more deeply? One way is to think about the meaning of something. With a lot of object words, this is easy. We can take a word and think about what that word means and all the different ways we can use it. This is also helpful for words that have more than one meaning. By thinking about what the word means, let’s take the word ‘table’ for example. You can ask your child if there’s one in the room? Can you draw it? Can you imagine it in your head, if so, what colour is it? You are asking your child to think more deeply about the imagery the word table can create.

The imagery makes strong memory hooks in your child’s mind. Then, whilst your child is thinking about the meaning of the word, you can look at the letters that make up that word. If you have a very imaginative child, they may be able to imagine the letters T.A.B.L.E sitting on top of the table. The more deep-level memory hooks you can create in your child’s mind, the more these memories of the correct spelling will stick.

We can see It is easy to think about the meaning for concrete words, like table, shoe, book and so on. But what about more difficult abstract words like ‘also’ and ‘with’? This is where it becomes trickier. If we take the  ‘with’ for example, you can ask your child to think about what that word means and listen as they try and explain the abstract concept of the word with. A lot of children will say ‘are you coming with me’ and show you how the word can be used. Then, you can take it a step further and ask more about what that single word ‘with’ means and you both can explore if it has one or two meanings. A quick google search will help with that.

Once you have explored what the word means (both meanings in this case), ask your child to draw a picture of the word with. You will be amazed at a child’s ability to draw abstract words. Then, when you have finished exploring the meaning and visualising the word, then add the letters and look at how it is spelt.  This is one method our spelling tutors will use with words that are hard to remember, especially if learning by sound (phonics) is not working.


2. Be careful about overcorrecting

One of the most important things to consider when helping your child learnig to spell is keeping your child’s confidence up, even when they are making mistakes. As many parents will tell you, when they see their child’s written work full of spelling mistakes, one of the first reactions is to try and correct the spelling mistakes as a way of teaching.

However, for some children having continual corrections knocks their confidence and makes the task harder. I remember when I was helping a very reluctant young girl learn to spell many years ago. Her mum was very anxious about her spelling and tried to help her daughter by correcting her mistakes as much as she could.  I asked that mum how many times a week do you let your daughter write just for fun. I explained about freewriting, where you praise the content of the writing without looking at anything specific such as spelling mistakes and grammar. We agreed to try it for one week.

The next week I went back to the house and there was a huge noticeable transformation. This girl had written a story during the week.  Mum had not mentioned spelling at all; she just praised the story and the writing. This immediately transformed the girl’s relationship with writing entirely, She wanted to write more and her motivation to write was at 100%. She also wanted to show off her written work to anyone who visited.

What is important here, is the girl then began to take an interest in the words she used and asked herself how she could make her writing even better. She decided that it was to learn to spell more words. Psychologists call this intrinsic motivation. The motivation comes from inside the child. All our spelling tutors work to foster this intrinsic motivation almost at every session.

When a child wants to learn how to spell some words, they will do it easier and faster than if an adult wants them to learn the spellings. Their confidence will grow with their spelling, which feeds the intrinsic motivation more. However, overcorrecting and constantly pointing out mistakes shuts this intrinsic motivation down. If that happens, learning to spell will become a slow task to dread and just something an adult wants them to do.


3. Link words to visual objects

Another way to support with spelling, which does not require the use of phonics and sound patterns, is to look at words and a physical object of that word at the same time. Say for example the word phone. You could let your child hold your phone in their hand as you practise the spelling of the word phone. You would be able to look at the ‘ph’ sound in the word. However, if you are going to use this method, it is important not to turn it into a sound exercise and move on to other ph sounds. Such as photograph, photo etc. It is important to keep using the same method and use just a couple of words and visual objects at a time. This spelling method will help to build a bank of object words. Our spelling tutors will often use this method for trickier object spellings, such as pencil.

4. Find a spelling tutor

Lots of parents admit, when they first look for a spelling tutor, they feel guilty. A lot of parents say they think they should be doing it all themselves, but they know they are not getting anywhere. However,  you don’t feel guilty about taking your child to a hairdresser who’s been trained and qualified to cut your child’s hair? Or to a dance or music teacher who’s been trained and qualified to teach their craft. So why would it be any different taking your child to a spelling tutor who has been trained and qualified in all the ways to help your child learn to spell?

Also, not all parents can teach their children. In fact, I think there is only a small proportion that doesn’t struggle in some way with it. This is not because they’re not good teachers. It isn’t that parents are not patient or kind. It is simply because they are the child’s parent, and their relationship has parental factors that cause natural negotiation, such as;  trying to uphold bedtimes, trying to get their child to eat healthily and not overeat sugar, setting boundaries, saying no and generally trying to keep their child safe and well. So, becoming a spelling tutor within the parent-child relationship makes it quite a complicated dynamic. If it is proving difficult, just remember, a spelling tutor working with your child will be quite a simple relationship, one of tutor and tutee. Your child may learn a lot faster.

You can find spelling tutors by word of mouth, by asking other parents in the school pickup if they can recommend someone, also, by asking for recommendations in local social media groups. You should make sure the tutor has a DBS (the police criminal records check). Also, check that they have had specific training in helping children learn to spell. If your child has dyslexia, then you might want to find a spelling tutor who can use other methods of teaching how to spell, like the ones mentioned, rather than phonics.

There are lots of ways to help your child with spelling outside of school, I hope this article helps a little bit.


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