Susan C. Anthony

Spelling for Success Transcript


This is Susan C. Anthony, and I welcome you to my workshop, Spelling for Success.  The purpose of this session is to share with you ideas that helped me get past the spelling roadblock so I could concentrate on other things without constantly feeling distracted, distressed and discouraged by my students’ terrible spelling.

About Me

SusanBefore we begin, I should tell you a little about me, so you know who’s talking. The photo was taken years ago, not long after I learned how to effectively teach spelling.  I have more wrinkles now and I need glasses to read, but the method of teaching spelling I’m going to share with you has worked with hundreds of kids since that photo was taken.

I moved from Colorado to Anchorage in 1979 and was hired to teach 6th grade.  I was amazed at how hard the words were in the spelling textbook, and even more amazed that after passing the weekly test, the kids misspelled the very same words the following week in their writing, as well as much simpler words. Unless a spelling program brings about improvement where it counts, in kids’ writing, It’s not working very well.

Early in my career, I enrolled in a month-long summer institute on the Writing Process.  The instructor emphasized how important it is to have kids do a lot of writing without worrying too much about the spelling, but I have to admit, the spelling was driving me crazy. I was uncomfortable that the more kids wrote, the more they were practicing errors. I had to address the issue of spelling so I could sleep at night.

In 1984, I made it a goal to figure out the most efficient way to teach spelling. Efficient means achieving maximum results with minimum wasted effort or expense.  They say, for example, that if you exercise for 20 minutes 3 times a week, you get maximum benefit from each minute of exercise. More exercise is good, of course, but with 20 minutes three times a week, you get the best result for the least effort.

It took me awhile, but I found what works, and that’s what I’ll share with you in this workshop.


I hope to:

  • Convince you that spelling is important.
  • Clarify why spelling in English is inconsistent and difficult to learn.
  • Share specific, effective procedures that can lead to greatly improved first draft spelling.
  • Increase your confidence as a teacher of spelling.

You're probably already convinced spelling is important or you wouldn't be here.  I’ll talk some about the history of the English language, which is fascinating to me and might interest your older poor spellers.  If they know tidbits about why words are spelled the way they’re spelled, it can help them remember correct spellings as well as spur their interest in language and spelling. 

The nuts and bolts of the presentation will be the answer to the obvious question, "What do I DO?"  Your kids may never become great spellers, but if you're doing the best job you can of teaching spelling, you'll have more confidence and you'll rest easier.

I have to admit that when I started using this program with sixth graders, I didn’t see immediate results.  I stuck with it because I knew it was better than what I’d done before and I didn’t have any better ideas.  In time, I noticed objective improvement.  With younger kids, results came a lot faster because they hadn’t been practicing errors for quite as long. 


A handout for this workshop is available as a PDF download from my web site.  Everything you need to teach this program is in the free handout. You don’t need books. I wrote books to save you preparation time and make your life easier. I went to lots of classes myself as a teacher where great ideas were shared, but I didn’t have time to prepare the materials I’d need to use those ideas, so I never put them into practice.

The first page of the handout has a list of signs of a successful speller, the steps to mastery of a spelling word, the creative-critical “bridge” which we’ll talk about in this session, and the directives for daily practice activity and daily dictation, which I’ll be showing you.

Page two has a list of the most useful spelling rules and guidelines, as well as mneumonics, or memory aids, for some difficult words.  For example, to remember how to spell tomorrow, spell the three small words tom – or – row.  Together is to – get – her and so on.

The third and fourth pages in the handout are the Spelling Plus lists, 1000 most often used and misspelled words organized into 11 lists of 15 words each.  Again, you’ll hear more about the list later.

Why Spelling Is Important

So, why is spelling important? 

The most important reason is that, like it or not, English-speaking people are very judgmental about spelling.  Thankfully, they are less judgmental about perfection in speaking, and that’s one of the reasons English is a popular second language to study in foreign countries. 

It probably goes back to middle England, when only rich kids had the means to go to school or become literate.  Their parents and teachers shamed them into memorizing long lists of spelling words to prove they weren’t part of the despised lower class, the hoi polloi

Based on spelling, judgments are made about a writer’s intelligence and character, about the teacher, about home schooling in general, about the state of education in the United States, about the future of the world itself.  Misspelling a word in a job application can prevent you from getting a job that has nothing to do with spelling.  It’s not right, but it is true. 

An analogy I use is appearance v. character. It’s better to marry someone with good character than good looks, but that doesn’t mean we neglect our appearance. We know that when it comes to writing, content is more important than spelling. But that doesn’t mean we can neglect spelling. We’re not supposed to judge books by their cover, but the fact is, we do.

Good spelling facilitates clear communication.  Readers are distracted by poor spelling and may miss the main message.  When spelling is good in first draft writing, kids can concentrate on revising as distinct from editing.  Revising means working to improve the communication of the message.  Editing is fixing technical mistakes.

And good spelling means there is less need to recopy and rewrite, both of which put a drag on the creative process.

Some years ago, the junior high school in Middletown, California, north of San Francisco, was vandalized and a new computer lab was destroyed.  The eighth graders wrote letters to the editor, and the editor chose to run them, unedited.  These were picked up by a wire service and reprinted all over the country.   

Dear Vandales, I really think that you were tuped to mess our classrooms.  our teachers our upseat and so are the students.

Dear Vanduls, I hope your happy now that you just cost us thosands of dollars and ruind are new computers.

Dear Vandals, We just got are new cumperters.  I am verey mad at you and it herts to see my teacher’s cry.  Ther is know punishment that can fix whate hapend.

Notice the judgments you make as you read these.  You don’t want people making judgments like that about your kids or about you as their teacher.

Please do not let anything like this leave your school or home en route to a critical audience.  You can edit kids’ work until they learn how to do it for themselves.  Tell your kids that sending something out before it’s ready is like going to a concert or special event in dirty clothes. It’s disrespectful.  Sometimes spelling counts more than it does other times.  In their private journals, it’s not so important, but when they’re writing to communicate with others, it’s important.  One sign of a successful speller is acceptance of personal responsibility for making sure one's own final drafts are excellent.  For poor spellers, that means asking a better speller to edit for them.

This is part of a long e-mail I received from a woman in Bosnia that again illustrates the judgments people make about bad spelling.

I’ve always thought that native English speakers must be perfect at spelling, grammar, etc. because it’s their own language and they should be better at it than foreigners.

When I started using the Internet and chatting to Americans and other native English speakers, I noticed that even the best of them made a lot of mistakes.  They misspell the most common words and most of them don’t know the difference between “to” and “too”....

Even here in Bosnia when you’re applying for a job they expect you to be good at spoken and written English.  But native speakers don’t even seem to care about spelling!

The e-mail went on and on, for pages.  She was astounded that her spelling and grammar were better than that of most Americans she encountered online!

Here’s a humorous true illustration I have to share for the sake of levity.

The movie “Take the Money and Run” is enjoying a revival in Israel these days—but not in theaters.  In banks.

In the movie, Woody Allen passes a note to a teller, but the teller can’t read his handwriting.  Arguments erupt over the spelling and syntax.  Bank managers and customers join in, and the robbery attempt just melts away.

In Israel, this actually happened—twice.  As tellers struggled to decipher atrocious handwriting, misspellings and slipshod grammar, the robbers, like Allen, slinked away as dismal failures.

Not that you want your kids to be successful robbers, of course.

Appearance v. Character

Spinach in teethBack to appearance v. character.  This person is likely blissfully unaware that he has food in his teeth, but it would be hard for others to ignore.  I am embarrassed to admit that this happened to me once.  I was scheduled to meet some important people one evening and the salad I ordered before catching the bus took a really long time to arrive, forcing me to race out the door in order to catch the bus. I arrived at the meeting and smiled brightly at everyone I met. Someone I considered a friend was with me but said nothing.  I didn’t realize until I went to brush my teeth that night that anything was amiss. I felt horrible. I decided my so-called “friend” wasn’t much of a friend.

Tell your kids that you are their friend.  You care about them and will gently tell them when their fly is open, when there’s stuff in their teeth, or when they’ve misspelled a word in a final draft, so other people won’t think bad things about them.  When kids make harsh judgments about people, use the opportunity to teach them that others can be judgmental toward them, too, and they might not even know why.  People make judgments before knowing the whole story.  It’s not right, but it’s so.

Let's admit it.  We care about our appearance.

American women buy an average of 1,484 tubes of lipstick, 2,055 jars of skin care products and 1,324 eyeliners, eyeshadows and mascaras every minute.

We should care about our spelling, as well.

Spelling Test

Now let’s take a short spelling test.  You can’t take a spelling class without a spelling test!  Number your paper from one to 18 and just do your best.  Don't worry.  You won't be graded on this.

  1. fade — Her jeans were starting to fade.
  2. braid — Here, let me braid your hair.
  3. played — The dog played with his new toy.
  4. freight — There were 100 cars in the freight train.
  5. great — You're doing a great job.  (By the way, did you feel a little bit good when I said that, even though it’s just a sentence in a spelling test?  Not just kids, but grownups, need affirmation.  In fact, most people need to hear about nine good things for every bad thing in order to be able to take the bad thing as constructive critique rather than discouraging criticism.  That’s a lot, but it’s OK to tell your kids the same good thing again and again as long as it’s true.  Notice good character qualities, attitude, effort, and improvement.  Focus on, "water" and nurture what you want to grow.  If you focus on the negative, it tends to grow, and you don’t want that.) 
    OK, back to the spelling test.  #6
  6. go
  7. though
  8. blow
  9. sew
  10. cherry
  11. very
  12. hairy
  13. bury
  14. scary
  15. marry
  16. flate (the last three words are not words, so spell them how you think they should be spelled)
  17. sary
  18. vrow

This is what it’s like for your kids, hearing words and trying to transcribe them without a visual picture of how they look.

How many people spelled #16 f-l-a-t-e?  In a large group, a majority always does.  It’s the most common spelling for the sound.  How many spelled it F-L-A-I-T?  That’s the next most common spelling.  How about F-L-E-A-T as in great?  No.  Great is irregularly spelled.  In old England it was pronounced like greet, as in beat.  The pronunciation changed over time but the spelling stayed the same.

The other two words, sary and vrow, are spelled many different ways in any large group of people, because there is no best guess.

Why Spelling Is Inconsistent

English spelling is inconsistent because sounds are spelled more than one way, as our spelling test showed.  I always used to wonder why kids spelled “played” plaid.  This helped me understand.  They need to be aware that played is a root word plus a suffix.

English was first transcribed using the Latin language, which had fewer letters than English had sounds.  At first scribes used Viking runes for the extra sounds, but those had pagan associations and were dropped.  Then they used letter combinations, such as sh, ch, and th, as well as doubled up using some of the other letters.  This is one reason there’s not a nice one-to-one letter-sound correlation in English.

Letters spell more than one sound.  Notice the ea in break, pear, heart, treat.  This presents more of a problem in reading than in spelling.

Some sounds have dropped out of the English language over time, but their spellings remain in common words.  For example the gh was once a guttural sound, like a voiced h.  That sound still exists in Hebrew, German and other languages.  In English we spell but don’t say it the old way.

The infamous schwa is ubiquitous in English and can be spelled every imaginable way.  That’s the ‘u’ vowel sound we use in almost any unaccented syllable.  I remember being 20 years old in Spain, talking to a young man who had studied English in school and was practicing.  He had an interesting question:  “What does ‘gunna’ mean?”  He’d learned to say “going to”.  We say gunna, using the schwa sound.

Spelling rules have many exceptions. For the most part, I prefer to call them guidelines rather than rules.  People sometimes ask me if Spelling Plus is a rule-based program. It’s not.  Although I teach rules and guidelines, the program is based on the 1000 word list rather than a set of rules.

As I mentioned, it’s much easier to spell in languages such as Spanish and French, but it’s much harder to write languages like Chinese.  We don’t have the best of all possible languages, but we don’t have the worst either.

The history of the English language gives clues as to why spelling in English is inconsistent and difficult.  I’m sharing history with you because if you have upper elementary, junior high or high school students who can’t spell, this can be a back door to capture their interest.

First of all, our spellings reflect the way English was pronounced 400-500 years ago.  Vowels, in particular, are pronounced much differently than they were back then, but recognized spellings for common words did not change along with pronunciations.

The core of English is Anglo-Saxon, which is a Germanic language.  The Anglo-Saxons conquered Britain in about A.D. 450.  30% of English words, including almost all the most common words, have Germanic roots. Anglo-Saxons pronounced the kn.  The word know was pronounced cnawan.  Alaska natives pronounce the k to this day, so Knik arm is pronounced K-nik arm, not Nik arm.

St. Augustine brought Catholicism to the British Isles in 597, along with Latin.  He retained old spellings from the Greek such as ph and rh.  Those spellings were changed to match pronunciation in Spanish and other languages derived from Latin, but not in English.

The Vikings invaded Great Britain in the 790s.  Their language was very similar to Anglo-Saxon (Anglish).  The Viking word for a short garment was skirt.  The Anglo-Saxon word was shirt.  The words took on different meanings to describe different short garments.  Think of the words speak and speech.  One is a verb and the other is a noun.  This is the reason for the strange spelling of the word ache.  At one time, the verb was ake, spelled a-k-e, and the noun was ache, spelled and pronounced a-c-h-e.  Over time, one spelling with the opposite pronunciation came to serve as both the verb and the noun.

The Normans, French speakers, conquered England in 1066 and subjugated the English speaking people.  The English for farm animals included the words cow, calf, and pig. The rulers, who lived in castles and ate food provided by others, called the animals beef, veal and pork.  Now the words have separate meanings.  About 40% of English vocabulary comes from French.

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you have probably heard of grammatical gender.  In Spanish, for example, the word for “table”, mesa, is a feminine noun.  To speak Spanish properly, you have to know the genders of the nouns, because that affects every adjective and pronoun in the sentence.  German has three grammatical genders:  masculine, feminine and neutral.  English no longer has any, thank goodness.  Gender was dropped during the Black Death bubonic plague in the mid-1300s during which between 30 and 60% of Europeans died.

You might remember the musical My Fair Lady.  In it, Henry Higgins could tell by a person’s pronunciation exactly where they came from in Great Britain.  There were hundreds of English dialects in the Middle Ages and there are still quite a few.  In some cases, the pronunciation from one area of the country combined with the spelling from another area to contribute to the inconsistency of English spelling.  For example the word bury, which was on your test.  The spelling is Kentish and the pronunciation is West English.  The word one was originally pronounced one, as in lone and only, but a deviant pronunciation became the universal pronunciation and aspiring spellers today must cope with the sad results.

In the Middle Ages, these were all acceptable spellings for the word cliff:  clif, clief, cleove, cleo, cluf, clife, clef, cleve.  Here are acceptable spellings for the plural of cliffcliffes, clives, cleves, cliven, clifaes, cliuenen, cleues, clyf, clyffe, clyffez, cleoue, clyuen, cleuis, cleef, cliffe, cliuus, Kilffe, cleuys, clyffis, clyve.  Notice the “en” for plurals.  This survives in such plurals as oxen, children and brethren, but is now rare.

Creative spelling was once considered a mark of genius! Literate people, including kings and queens, prided themselves on never spelling a word the same way twice.  Each of Shakespeare’s surviving signatures is spelled differently. 

I sometimes tell my especially challenged spellers that it’s a pity they weren’t born a few centuries earlier when creative spelling was considered a mark of genius instead of a mark of ignorance. Neither is altogether true.  Some of the most brilliant people in history were bad spellers.  Some people are gifted with visual memory.  My niece told me she “snaps a picture” of a word with her mind and then visualizes and copies it letter for letter.  She’s an excellent speller.  Not all people have that ability.  They can learn to spell correctly, but it’s a challenge.

Written words were once considered sacrosanct. It was traditional to copy them letter for letter no matter how oral pronunciations had changed.

Another reason for our inconsistent spelling is the fact that in the very highest quality handwritten books, scribes carefully spaced the letters so that both right and left margins were straight, what we would call “justified.”  Early printers wanted straight margins on both sides as well.  To get them, they’d double letters, add or remove final “e”s, whatever it took.   

MaloryHere’s an example.  Notice the same word might be spelled two different ways just a few words apart. The letters j and i are interchangable, as are u and v.  There are LOTS of y's! Consistent spelling wasn't important, but nice straight margins were.

In the 1600s, it became fashionable to change spellings to reflect their Latin origin.  The world debt, which was spelled dette at the time and would have eventually dropped the final two letters, became debt, reflecting its Latin root, debitum.

Rime (spelled RIME) was changed to rhyme (RHYME) to reflect its Greek origin.

Samuel Johnson published the first English dictionary in 1755.  Remember the acceptable spellings of cliff and cliffs?  It would have been prohibitively expensive to list each word under all its various spellings, so Dr. Johnson had to choose.  Unfortunately, in some cases he chose the more difficult spelling.  For example, he chose soap instead of sope, which was also an acceptable spelling at the time.

When Noah Webster published the first American dictionary in 1828, he changed some traditional English spellings to distinguish America from England.  The English write centre, for example.  In America, the proper spelling is center.

Webster wrote the first American spelling book, and though he himself later worked toward spelling reform, people so revered his Speller that he met with limited success.

Every effort toward spelling reform in English has failed.  One of the last attempts was by the Chicago Tribune to change just a few spellings.  They encountered so much resistance that they gave up.  The final headline read, Thru is Through and so is Tho.

Ghoti isn’t a real English word.  It was created to illustrate the inconsistency of English. Pronounce the gh as in rough. Pronounce the o as in women.  Pronounce the ti as in nation. What's the word?  fish, spelled ghoti

While I was researching all this, I found an interesting headline in the Anchorage Daily News, "Tokyo’s disordered addresses do a number on nerves".  Our spelling system developed in much the same way as Tokyo’s addresses.

Michiko Kurosu lives on a street with no name, just off another street with no name, in a neighborhood where her house and five others are all number 33 and another 10 are all number 22.

Kurosu’s neighborhood is typical of Japan’s chaotic address scheme, handed down through centuries and modified by 1960s urban planners.  Few streets have names, and most places are described by a landmark.

In many areas, houses are numbered not consecutively, but in the order in which they were built.  Where several houses were built on property once owned by a single landlord, they all have the same number.

There is a rationale behind Tokyo’s addresses, but it’s based more on history than on reason.  Our spelling system is much the same.

How People Learn to Spell

So how do people learn to spell?  According to Sandra Wilde, PhD, professor of childhood education and authority on spelling, “Learning to spell should ultimately be as natural, unconscious, effortless and pleasant as learning to speak.”

My jaw dropped when I read that.  In a perfect world, maybe, but in the real world, EVERYONE naturally learns to speak. Speech is hard-wired into the human species. But lots of people never learn to read. Literacy, including spelling, has to be taught.  It’s not natural and it’s not always easy.

Another authority, Mauree Applegate, wrote something I found a lot more useful. 

Society charges teachers with the task of bringing students to the point where their use of language does not handicap them. 

Not every child will learn to speak, spell or write equally well, no matter how well they’re taught.  Your job as teacher is to be sure they know enough not to be handicapped by their use of language.  Not every line of employment requires people to spell well.  Some brilliant people are poor spellers.  They hire secretaries. 

Some kids will never become great at spelling, but they can become adequate.  For your handicapped spellers, that should be your goal.

In my experience, there are several problems with spelling textbooks. 

  • There is little if any transfer to student writing.
  • The word lists often confuse kids rather than clarify.
  • Many of the exercises are a huge waste of time and don't have much to do with spelling.
  • There are too many different sets of directions.  My students spent much of their time figuring out what they were being asked to do rather than learning to spell.

Spelling TestHere’s an example of a word list that confused a young relative of mine.  I imagine this list was titled something like “Ways to spell the long o sound.”  Clearly, this child learned there are a number of ways to spell the sound, but sorting out which word took which spelling was beyond her at that point. 

I wondered, Could this be part of the problem?

Spelling texts weren’t working, but the writing process had its shortcomings, too.  Kids didn’t catch their own errors.  Their mistakes looked correct to them.  The more they wrote, the more they practiced misspellings.  There were so many misspellings in first draft writing that editing and recopying took an inordinate amount of time. 

Worst of all, I had to admit I cared about spelling.  I had to do something to try to make it better.

Though all kids won’t become great spellers, they all can become successful spellers.  These are the signs of a successful speller.  The handout includes this list.  This is what you need to aim for.  The child:

  • Accepts personal responsibility for correct spelling in his/her own writing.
  • Has mastered the most common and useful words and rules.
  • Has a systematic and adequate method for approaching the study of new words.
  • Can independently use the dictionary and other memory aids.
  • Recognizes regular v. irregular spellings (state / great).
  • Understands word construction:  roots, prefixes, suffixes (made / played).

The method I settled on for teaching spelling is consistent with this list.

Here's what research shows.  Not all research concurs, but the best research seems to indicate that it's best to:

  • Teach high frequency words.
  • Use spelling lists for instruction. "List" is considered by some educators to be a four-letter word!
  • Overpronunciation is helpful. (pe-o-ple, choc-o-late)
  • Self-correction is important.
  • Use word-sentence-word testing.

I was amazed when I learned that 90% of English text consists of just 1000 base words.  Just 1.5% of words used by students in grades 9-12 accounted for 28% of misspellings in one study.  Just 6% of words used by high schoolers (388 words) accounted for 51% of misspellings.  In other words, in English, a rather small set of words goes a long way.

Here are the first 27 words on the list of most common English words:  the, be, of, and, a, in, he, to, have, it, for, they, with, I, not, that, on, as, at, by, this, we, she, from, do, but, or.  A few of these words are frequently misspelled, including they, with and from.

Here are the first 27 words on a list of words most frequently used and misspelled by high school students:  their, too, receive, there, all right, separate, believe, until, coming, whether, interesting, writing, tried, privilege, decided, finally, beginning, character, surprise, humor, business, grammar, definite, disappoint, description, studying, friend. 

The list of 388 words from which this came was the basis of my first program for 6th grade students which has since morphed into Spell Well: A One-Year Review for Older Students.  I used this with 6th graders and it’s appropriate for anyone in junior high, high school, or even college.  A mom who applied for a job as a secretary came in to tell me that these were the very words her prospective employer used to test her for spelling competence.  Spell Well is reproducible and dictation sentences are included to follow each list.

Then I moved from teaching 6th grade to 5th grade and then 4th grade.  The program was good, but I needed more age-appropriate lists.  In a perfect world, I'd read thousands of student papers from all levels and develop a core list based common misspellings at each level. Instead, I compiled all high-frequency word lists I could find, took note of frequent misspellings by my own students, and compiled a list of 1000 core words. 

I then organized the list according to commonalities and patterns.  Each list after kindergarten consists of 165 words: 11 lists of 15 words each.  I have to tell you, though, that the choice of 15 words per list was for convenience, so I didn’t have to make the book longer.  There’s nothing special about 15 words per list.  One mom who pulled her 4th grade daughter out of public school to home school her did so because her daughter’s spelling was atrocious.  She started teaching spelling with lists of just five words, and before long her daughter was asking for more.  As a teacher knowing your own students’ needs, adjust this program as needed to fit.  The goal is mastery, meaning kids learn to spell these 1000 words correctly anywhere, any time, in first draft writing. 

This spelling program is more of a method for teaching spelling than a curriculum per se.  I already mentioned that the program is not based on rules, though it incorporates rules and guidelines.

Spelling Plus is the basic book, the teacher’s manual, if you will.  It utilizes direct instruction.  You’ve probably heard about the difference between the left hemisphere of the brain and the right hemisphere.  The left hemisphere controls the right half of the body.  Its the part of the brain that deals with facts and order, sequence and nitty gritty details. The right brain, by contrast, controls the left side of the body.  It deals more with creativity and holistic thinking, and is less bound by time.

This paragraph, which I read in a text during a speed-reading class, helped me organize my language arts program.

Creative thinking leads to the birth of new ideas, while critical thinking tests ideas for flaws and defects.  Both are necessary…yet they are incompatible—creative thinking interferes with critical thinking and vice versa.  To think creatively, we must let our thoughts run free.  The more spontaneous the process, the more ideas will be born….  A steady stream of ideas furnishes the raw material.  Then critical judgment selects and refines the best ideas….  Though we must engage in the two types of thinking separately, we need both.

"Though we must engage in the two types of thinking separately, we need both."  One thing that struck me about this was that creative thinking interferes with critical thinking and vice versa.  When kids are writing, they should be thinking creatively.  Spelling is a critical, left brain skill.  As adults who have mastered writing, it’s a seamless process.  We don’t separate it into creative and critical.  When we revise, we also edit.  We switch from one side of the brain to another without even realizing it.

Creative writing involves brainstorming, writing a rough draft, editing and publishing. It’s mostly a right-brain process and the focus should be on ideas.  I have a different workshop to help you teach creative writing.

Creative Critical Bridge

Spelling, capitalization, punctuation and grammar are nitty gritty left-brain things.  The focus on the critical side is form rather than ideas.  If you separate those two functions in your mind and in your instruction, you can help kids eventually work them back together.

If spelling, capitaliation, punctuation, etc, are to transfer into writing, you have to build a bridge from one to another and back.  The goal is that children eventually master writing and can use both sides of their brain while doing it, without one interfering with the other.  The bridge is built by teaching kids to edit their creative writing, using dictation after spelling, and collecting “personal words” from creative writing to feed back into kids’ spelling lists.

Five Steps to Mastery

Few if any kids master spellings after just a week of practice.  Here are the five steps to mastery:

  1. Correct on a weekly test.  Most kids do well on this if they have enough practice after the list is introduced.
  2. Correct on a mixed review test.  Any words kids have supposedly learned can be brought back up in any test thereafter.  You don’t want kids to think that after they’ve passed a test, they can delete that information from their brains.
  3. Correct in dictation.  Dictation spreads and mixes spellings and language mechanics over time until they show up correctly in first draft writing.
  4. Correct in a final draft.  Child can see and fix mistakes.  Kids lacking the gift of a visual memory may never do well at this.
  5. Correct in first draft writing.  Word is mastered.  It's second nature.  There's no need to consciously think about how it’s spelled.  The spelling flows automatically while the writer is engaged in thinking about ideas.

Teaching Techniques

In the end, I used just three basic techniques for teaching spelling:  daily practice, homework, and daily dictation.  The word daily is key.  Every day, a little at a time, day after day after day.  In a way, your kids are training their minds.  Thinking about something, not thinking about it, thinking about it again, not thinking about it again, recalling it to memory and using it, forgetting it, relearning it.  All are part of the process.

Daily Practice Activity

The daily practice activity takes place on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday when there is a new weekly list.  If you’re just starting with this program, especially if you have older children, I recommend first testing the kids starting with Spelling Plus Level B. Compile your own list of review words, then using that list to teach the kids (and yourself) how to do the daily practice activity.  I recommend between 5 and 20 words per list.  The number of words is up to you. 

I was amazed to learn that it takes between 35 and 75 practices to learn something like a spelling word.  If an incorrect spelling has been practiced 35 to 75 times, it can take 2000 practices to unlearn the wrong spelling and relearn the correct spelling!

I compare it to slashing through thick brush.  The first time through, you find a route.  When you retrace that route again and again, it becomes easier to travel.  If you take a machete and hack your way through the brush, it becomes even easier, and if you travel the route often enough, it’s widened to a path, then a road, then a paved road, and finally, hopefully, a Roman road that will be there forever.  With enough practice, it becomes easier to spell a word correctly than incorrectly.

When I first heard the idea of having kids respond orally en masse, I was shocked.  Ask them to talk out loud in class?  I spent too much of my time trying to get them to be quiet in class.  I have to admit, though, that having kids respond orally got them talking about what they were learning.  It engaged all modalities: seeing, hearing, saying and doing.  I’ll show you how this worked in just a minute.

Directives are basically directions, but in this case, they’re exactly the same, over and over, for each word practiced.  After awhile kids know what to do and when to do it even without teacher input.  The activity becomes routine, almost singsong.  Once I was in the middle of directing the daily practice activity in my classroom.  The principal arrived at the door and drew me into the hallway to discuss some urgent matter.  I went back into the classroom and the kids were still moving right along without any leadership.  They knew what to do by then.  My job of directing had moved to the background for them.

On each Spelling Plus list there are blank spaces after the list.  People often ask me what to do with them.  I used five a week for personal words, and the other five for mixed review words.  When we studied a rule, like doubling a final consonant before adding -ed or -ing, I used the spaces to extend practice to words not included on the list.  You don’t have to use the spaces at all.

To prepare for the daily practice activity, reproduce the weekly list four times, two times on the front of a piece of paper and two times on the back.  The first list will be used on Monday, the second on Tuesday, the third on Wednesday and the fourth on Thursday.  Friday they’ll take the weekly test.

Some people fear this will be boring.  In my experience, not even the best spellers were bored.  Some of them ended up practicing their own select lists of 20+ "words of the champions" rather than the weekly list.  The worst spellers saw objective progress and that encouraged them to try harder.  We settled into a routine and just did it. 

Mastery requires more than a few practices.  Even virtuoso pianists practice their scales regularly.  It’s not because they don’t know the scales.  They’re second nature.  It’s to keep themselves sharp.  So don’t worry that it will hurt kids to practice a word they already know or think they know.  It takes lots of practice to achieve mastery.

Daily Practice Directives.  Here are directives for the word, complete from Spelling Plus List 60.  Teacher words are in green.  Student words are in blue.

  • Look at the first word.  Read the word.   complete
  • Spell and read.  Point to each letter.  c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete
  • Trace, spell and read.   (tracing)   c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete
  • Cover, write, spell and read.  c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete
  • Check and correct.  (from original)   c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete  (word just written)   c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete
  • Look at me.  Spell and say complete.   c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete

Here’s an old, not-so-great video of one child doing daily practice for that word.  Note that I combined some steps that I no longer combine, but this should give you an idea how the process "looks."

If you are home schooling and have several kids at different levels, you can do this with everybody together as long as they speak quietly enough not to distract each other.

I also have have audios for sale of me teaching the lessons, giving the tests, and dictating, if that might be useful to you. 

Homework Directives.  Homework simply provides extra practice.  Kids need a copy of the weekly list including their personal words, spelled correctly, and a blank sheet of notebook paper. 

  • Read the word aloud from the list.  complete
  • Spell and read; point to each letter. c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete
  • Write, spell and read (on own paper).  c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete
  • Check and correct; point to each letter.  (from original)   c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete  (word just written)   c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete
  • Repeat steps 3-5 twice more.  Always check from the model.
  • Close your eyes.  Spell and say the word.  c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e complete

Here is a video of one child doing the homework procedure for the word fascinate.  I have kids do the homework procedure in class until they can do it quickly without wasting time before assigning them to do it at home.

Homeschoolers can have kids do this instead of the daily practice activity, or have kids do the daily practice activity and skip the homework. 

Dictation is where it all comes together. Daily practice and homework is just to forge the first path through the synapses of the brain.  Dictation is where kids travel that path back and forth until a word is mastered.

Daily Dictation Directives.  The directives for this as well as the daily practice activity are on the front page of the handout. Begin dictating sentences the week after kids pass a weekly test using the words in the sentence, not the same week.  Keep using the word in dictation on and off until it shows up correctly every time in writing, until it’s mastered.  Here’s how dictation goes.  Teacher words are green and student words are blue.

  • The sentence is, "I was referred to the library."  Say, "I was referred to the library."   
  • I was referred to the library.
  • Write, "I was referred to the library.  
  • Students write the sentence.
  • What do you need to remember in this sentence?  (capital letter, punctuation, anything else you've taught)  
  • Teacher writes and students say:  Capital-I, w-a-s was, r-e-f-e-r-r-e-d referred, t-o to, t-h-e the, l-i-b-r-a-r-y library, period.
  • Check and correct your own sentence.

Notice that the child hears the sentence four times and says it once before he writes it. 

Here’s a short video of me doing this activity in a classroom.  Notice that I’m walking around and using this time to monitor, compliment and sometimes correct individual kids.  It’s a great opportunity to work in a little one-on-one time.  When a child finishes writing his sentence, he looks toward the front of the room.  I wait until most kids are finished before moving to the next step—having them spell and read each word in the sentence, then checking and correcting their own.

Since this film was made in 1987, I’ve added a step.  I ask them to tell me what they need to remember to write the sentence correctly.  They say capital letter, period (or other ending punctuation), any homophone and why they use the one they do, any spelling word with a mneumonic, any roots with prefixes or suffixes, any words that need to be capitalized and why, any punctuation and why.  In short, anything I’ve previously taught them when it’s incorporated into a dictation sentence. They tell me about anything they need to remember before we move on to checking and correcting.

I also stopped making charts ahead of time and just wrote the sentence on the board.  That saved preparation time.

I don’t try to make spelling fun.  I try to make it efficient.  I tell kids it’s like cleaning the house or washing the dishes.  It’s not necessarily fun but we have to do it.  I’ll try to make it as painless and success-oriented as possible for them.  It only takes a few minutes a day and if they cooperate, we can move quickly on to other subjects that are more interesting.

What makes daily dictation powerful is that it’s DAILY.  Daily, kids are required to retrieve information they’ve learned in lessons along the way and apply it, not to their own sentences but to MY sentences. 

If you correct kids' spelling in their own sentences, to which they often have emotional attachment, you risk stamping out what desire they have to express themselves in writing.  When kids wrote me notes that said, "Your a nice teacher," spelled y-o-u-r, I thanked them warmly for the sentiment.  When a child wrote "You're a nice teacher," with you’re properly spelled as a contraction, I got REALLY excited, not only about the sentiment but about the correct spelling.  I’d almost dance for joy and tell them how few notes like that I receive that are not only encouraging but spelled correctly.  I showed the principal and other teachers and asked them to congratulate the child on the correct spelling.

In other words, I figuratively “water” the things I want to grow and pass over the rest.

Daily dictation provides extended and mixed review that continues until kids really master the words and concepts.  All their senses are involved, as I said before.  They see the word, say the word, hear the word and write the word.  Unlike in some daily language programs, kids don’t see any intentional errors.  The only errors they see are their own.  I don’t want kids to proofread the work of others until they’ve become pretty good at writing correctly.  Some kids with poor visual memories will never become very good at proofreading.

I have to say I found dictation to be the single most worthwhile and efficient teaching technique I ever used.  I could work so much into it, everything in the reading, language and spelling texts other than creative writing. 

I compare dictation to a vehicle, maybe a van.  It’s purpose is to move things from one place to another.  The things themselves can vary.  In a van, you might move kids, groceries, lumber, plants, or any number of other things.  With dictation, you can incorporate spelling, homophones, capitalization, punctuation, paragraphing, letter form, roots/prefixes and suffixes, and grammar, one little concept and one little step at a time.

I write a dictation book because not everybody was using dictation when the only book available was Spelling Plus.  The Dictation Resource Book has sentences to follow every Spelling Plus list.  For the upper levels, there are additional sentences on my web site from the Bible and from children’s literature.

With homeschoolers, I kept a list in front of me with words and concepts each child needed to practice. While they wrote one sentence, I was thinking of another sentence to dictate next.

If you have kids at many different levels, you might write two sentences everybody can write, then a harder sentence for a middle child and a really hard sentence for older kids who are ready for it.  You can teach language concepts such as homophones, capitalization and punctuation to kids at all levels at the same time.

I recommend four sentences a day, day after day, for every child, if at all possible.  You will see results, if not immediately, eventuallly.

I wrote a worksheet for each common set of homophones in the Homophones Resource Book.  We called them homonyms when I was a kid, but homophones, meaning "same sound", is the correct term. 

I recommend having kids do only the worksheets they need.  It may never occur to some children that the words dear and deer sound the same, because the mental images are so different.  Unless they confuse a set of homophones in their writing, there’s no need to teach them.  Don’t introduce confusion where it doesn’t already exist.  Pick and choose what you need from this book.

Personal Words.  If you’re home schooling and well organized, your kids’ spelling lists can be based largely on personal words—words they’ve misspelled in their writing.  In a classroom situation, personal words allow for individualization.

Don’t try to introduce personal words until you’re comfortable doing daily practice and dictation.  One thing at a time.  Remember, you’re learning, too, and you don’t want to overload yourself.

If your kids are 4th grade and older, the first thing you might want to do is test them on levels A, B, C, and D.  On my web site are recordings of me giving the tests as well as a blank master and sentences you can use to pretest.  Stop testing when kids miss a lot, seem to struggle or become frustrated. 

Compile words they missed into review lists, the first maybe just five words long.  Gradually teach them, and learn yourself, how to do the daily practice and dictation.

If a child misses a word on a spelling test, it becomes a personal word on the next week’s spelling test.  Remember it can take up to 2000 practices to unlearn a misspelling that has been mastered and relearn the correct spelling.  Be patient and encourage the kids to be patient.

I use the example of a teeter-totter with a bucket of sand on one side.  If you place an empty bucket on the other side of the teeter-totter, nothing changes.  if you put a spoonful of sand in the high side bucket, nothing changes, but if you keep doing that, you’ll eventually reach a tipping point.  That’s what is happening when the same word is on a child’s personal word list week after week.  Mastery takes time and practice.  No need to hurry or worry.  Just keep on keeping on.

For personal words, you should keep a list of words each child uses and misspells in his/her own writing.  No need to mark the child's paper with the errors, just put missed words on a personal word list and feed it back into their weekly list.  When you respond to their writing, respond to their thoughts and expressions, not the spelling.  An exception would be when you serve as "editor" for a child so he can make a perfect copy to be read by someone other than the teacher.

You can use index cards or paper-punched business cards on a key ring for a personal dictionary.  That makes it possible to add new words in alphabetical order.  You can use the Personal Dictionary I wrote, or any system you prefer.  My Personal Dictionary has the 1000 words, challenge words for reference, and a page for each letter on which you (preferably not the child) can write words needed for writing.  When a word is needed a second time, the childcan look in the personal dictionary rather than the big dictionary to find the correct spelling.  The Personal Dictionary should be one source of personal spelling words.

Some people use the glued part of medium sized post-it notes in the Personal Dictionary so kids can arrange and rearrange words, as well as take words out once they’re mastered. 

Suggested Daily Schedule

People often ask how I incorporated all this into the daily schedule.  Here’s how.

10 minutes
Handwriting / Keyboard
10 minutes
Daily Practice Activity
5 minutes
Language lesson (homophone, capitalization, punctuation, etc.)
10 minutes
Dictation (four sentences a day)


Handwriting.  In the early part of the year, I always taught kids handwriting so I was sure they knew how to properly form cursive letters.  Once I knew they knew, they could choose to use cursive or manuscript.  When I got through teaching all the letters, I taught keyboarding.  You don’t want kids to master the wrong way to “type” so it becomes hard for them to unlearn and relearn how to do it properly. 

I looked and look for a handwriting book that simply reinforced correct formation of the letters and didn’t add in a lot of other stuff that wasted time.  I finally wrote my own, Manuscript Handwriting Masters and Cursive Handwriting MastersI introduce each letter and show how to write it properly, then write it improperly a few times and see if kids can tell me what I did wrong.  Then they trace, complete, and eventually write the letter several times.  I walk around and notice the really good letters, maybe putting a star on them and explaining what’s so good about them.  Remember the whole point is to learn how to properly write cursive letters.

Daily Practice Activity.  The daily practice activity with 20 words (15 from Spelling Plus and 5 personal words) took about 10 minutes.

Lesson.  Before dictation, when it was appropriate, I taught a “lesson”.  It could be one of the homophones worksheets, something from the language text, or something as simple as, “When you use the word too at the end of a sentence, meaning “also,” you have to put a comma after the word before it.”  Think of sentences that end with the word too meaning “also."  “He’s coming, too.”  "They want to play, too."  etc.  Use that in every dictation sentence that day and for a few days, then in a few sentences every day.  Every time, they have to tell you there’s a comma after the word preceding the word too, meaning "also."

Daily Dictation.  Last is daily dictation.  Four sentences a day.  It takes about 10 minutes.  I recommend you start with short sentences and gradually work your way up to longer ones.  This gradually increases auditory memory and helps kids gain skills they’ll need to take notes.

When the sentences are long, I often repeat them softly as the kids are writing them, to help them remember.

The first week there’s no dictation, just handwriting and daily practice.  After we go through all the letters and keyboarding, that segment drops out.  If you have a super busy week, you don’t need to introduce new words.  You can do some review maybe, or just skip it.

Dictation, however, should be daily, as often as possible.  Four sentences a day, preferably, day after day after day.  It’s powerful.

Spelling in Writing

I want to finish this session with some comments on how to address spelling in student writing.  This is kind of a recap.

First of all, focus on ideas when reviewing kids' creative writing.  Be positive, not critical.  Tell the child what is correct as far as spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc., (especially if improved).  Because you don’t want to send anything out for critics to use against you, there will be times you will correct spellings etc. so the child can recopy them properly.  When you do that, let the child know that you are acting for the time being as his editor.  Eventually, he’ll know enough to be his own editor. 

As far as mistakes, make a note to yourself.  Put misspelled words on the personal word list.  Reteach and review homophones, punctuation, and capitalization. When you see that a child has applied something you taught, celebrate!

It’s a dynamic process.  You have to have kids write a lot so you know what they need to learn.


The objectives today were to convince you that spelling is important, clarify why spelling in English is inconsistent and difficult to learn, share specific procedures that can lead to improved first draft spelling, and, most important, increase your confidence as a teacher of spelling. 

So, go for it!  Please contact Susan to ask any questions or let me know how this program worked for you.

Source:, ©Susan C. Anthony