23 Aug 2010

Spelling Wisdom

The gift of spelling depends upon the power the eye possesses to 'take' (in a photographic sense) a detailed picture of a word; and this is a power and habit which must be cultivated in children from the first. When they have read 'cat,' they must be encouraged to see the word with their eyes shut, and the same habit will enable them to image 'Thermopylae.' This picturing of words upon the retina appears to be to be the only royal road to spelling...

Charlotte Mason Home Education p 240
Quick! Hide me! The Ambleside Online Police may be knocking on my door some time in the next few weeks. I have strayed from the curriculum. I have failed them. I have gone my own way.

But only a little bit...honest, Officer!

For some time now I have been concerned with Jemimah's spelling. It is, to be perfectly honest, atroshus. Reely, reely terrabul even. Now this shouldn't surprise me unduly. I shouldn't even be worried, because unlike our local public school, where kids bring home their first list of spelling words within the first week of Grade Prep, Jemimah has never had a lesson in spelling in her life. She reads beautifully, she has been taught a few phonics rules - just a few, and that is it. The problem is that it shows. She can't spell.

Now I was a natural speller. I was always good at it. The idea that my clever daughter might not be horrifies me.

This kid can't spell basic words - like what and ball and when. Really common words. Words she has seen over and over and over. "Shut your eyes! Picture what the word looks like! Now can you spell it?" I ask her, almost pleading. But no. She can't. I could. Clearly Miss Mason thought this was the idea as well.

So now I have decided to do something about it. I am going to teach her to spell. And I am going to do it now - in the third term of AO3. Which is when, as her teacher, I have judged that she needs it and not in AO4 or AO5 when she is ten.

Which is why the AO Police will be arresting me any day now and taking me away for re-education with the peasants in Siberia.

Now when I think rationally I believe that if I introduced spelling at the stage AO recommends, it would work, but when I noticed that children of 8 and 9 were using dictation as an aid to spelling in Charlotte Mason's classrooms I decided that it was only logical to introduce it in my classroom as well. Especially since my student was aware of her poor spelling and was highly motivated to do something about it.
Dictation lessons, conducted in some such way as the following, usually result in good spelling. A child of eight or nine prepares a paragraph, older children a page, or two or three pages. The child prepares by himself, by looking at the word he is not sure of, and then seeing it with his eyes shut. Before he begins, the teacher asks what words he thinks will need his attention. He generally knows, but the teacher may point out any word likely to be a cause of stumbling. He lets his teacher know when he is ready. The teacher asks if there are any words he is not sure of. These she puts, one by one, on the blackboard, letting the child look till he has a picture, and then rubbing the word out. If anyone is still doubtful he should be called to put the word he is not sure of on the board, the teacher watching to rub out the word when a wrong letter begins to appear, and again helping the child to get a mental picture. Then the teacher gives out the dictation, clause by clause, each clause repeated once. She dictates with a view to the pointing, which the children are expected to put in as they write; but they must not be told 'comma,' 'semicolon,' etc. After the sort of preparation I have described, which takes ten minutes or less, there is rarely an error in spelling. If there be, it is well worth while for the teacher to be on the watch with slips of stamp-paper to put over the wrong word, that its image may be erased as far as possible. At the end of the lesson, the child should again study the wrong word in his book until he says he is sure of it, and should write it correctly....

Charlotte Mason Home Education pp241-2
At least when the Ambleside Online Coppers come a calling they will comforted to know that I am teaching spelling the CM way - through visualisation; that power of the eye to take a detailed picture of a word. Miss Mason was of the opinion that this was the key to good spelling.

With this as our premise, she then goes on to caution us about the danger inherent in a child being allowed to see incorrect spelling:
An error once made and corrected leads to fearful doubt for the rest of one's life, as to which was the wrong way and which is the right. Most of us are haunted by some doubt as to whether 'balance,' for instance, should have one 'l' or two; and the doubt is born of a correction. Once the eye sees a misspelt word, that image remains; and if there is also the image of the word rightly spelt, we are perplexed as to which is which.

Charlotte Mason Home Education p 241
She's right, isn't she? Lose or Loose; Chose or Choose? We all have words that trip us up because we have seen them being spelled incorrectly as often as we have seen them error free.

Fortunately, Miss Mason then goes on to explain to us a method that 'usually results in good spelling'. It is called Studied Dictation, and in the quote above she explains exactly how to go about it. Notice that there are no spelling lists. Words are learned in context along with the accompanying grammar and punctuation. The words are meaningful. The passage is from a living book - generally one of the child's literature texts. The child understands what is being said.

The only problem that I could see with Miss Mason's method was that it required prior preparation by her teacher...and that meant me. Now I am reluctant to commit to much that requires work by me out of school hours. Those hours are family time. It is my practice to prepare thoroughly at the beginning of the year; to revise at the beginning of each term and then to do very little more. I was a little reluctant to commit to this process of selecting passages that fit all of Miss Mason's criteria, but which also covered all of the basic spelling words - regular and irregular that my child would need to learn during her time at school.

Then along came Sonya. Hip Hip Hooray!

I'll leave Sonya to have a chat to you about how to do Charlotte Mason Studied Dictation the easy way. It's called Spelling Wisdom, and it's published by Sonya Shafer through Simply Charlotte Mason. Have a listen to her now:

To me, Spelling Wisdom is CM dictation the easy way. Today's 6000 most frequently used words are presented in the words or great writers, and many are from books or authors Jemimah has studied: Robert Louis Stephenson's poems; The Bible; Shakespeare; Hans Christian Anderson; Robinson Crusoe; Sherlock Holmes; Wind in the Willows; and more. Many of them, in fact, are the very same passages I would select myself if I were preparing dictation from scratch.

Even better, the programme comes in both British/Australian and American English. Spiffing!

We've only been using the method now for a few weeks, but already Jemimah's spelling has improved immeasurably. The spelling of ought leads to bought, sought, thought, fought and wrought. First begats thirst. Preach leads to teach, peach, and reach. More importantly, her confidence has improved. She is no longer embarrassed by the fact that her six year old cousins spell better than she does. She is coming ahead in leaps and bounds, and she knows it.

Jemimah is still a pretty lousy speller, and will be for some time to come, but I now have confidence that she will be able to spell reasonably eventually, and that allows this natural speller to breathe a sigh of relief.

When I tell all that to the Ambleside Online Policeman, do you think he'll let me off? Siberia gets pretty cold in winter I'm told.

Sorry - gotta go hide.

There's a knock at the front door.


  1. lol I know I'm only a passable speller thanks to the crossword puzzle. ☺ I'm pretty visual but know I also use syllabyls & phonics in order to spell correctly, especially longer & more difficult words. For the really odd ones I apply known rules: silent E, B or PH says F. However I agree with Miss Mason enough that I have never told Star to *have a go* at a word she doesn't know. I have always spelt it correctly for her because if eye has seen, ear has heard & hand has written incorrectly it becomes a very difficult habit to then correct a mispelling.

  2. "atroshus. Reely, reely terrabul "
    :-) :-) :-) :-)
    Wel sed, genie!

  3. oh reelly! dunno about how Rebekah will go with diktation when it comes to her time:) I'm taking mental notes for now from you:)
    btw, I think the AO police will definitely let you off the hook, after all isn't it CM we're supposed to go by and not AO? :)

  4. Good post. We are using the same spelling book. Joshua loves to choose his own words from his readers and study them and then spell them back, it's been a real hoot! ALso I have just set my kids up with a free spelling game on the net at http://www.bigiqkids.com/onlinespellingbee/. Jemimah and Joshua are similar in nature, and maybe Jemimah might like this game too. You never know! I really enjoyed reading this post and we love Jemimah! xxx

  5. It is lovely to hear you talk about Spelling Wisdom as I have this in the back of my mind to work through with Ess in a year or so on recommendation of my cousin. However do you think I should wait or start with her now? She's 7 at the end of this year, yet as an avid reader is already Wind in the Willows independently.

    Will be very glad to hear how you progress Jemimah and Jeanne.

  6. LOL, that's great. Love your take on it, I relate to the feeling of the AO police after you. Thanks for going ahead of me, and for sharing your experiences and tips...SO incredibly helpful, and I'm not just saying that. Promise.

    And it was good to see you for a brief moment on Sun.

  7. Wonderful post. I'm a natural speller, (in Spanish, don't judge me by my English mistakes), I was an spontaneous avid reader, and with two very different girls who are already proving not to be 'mini mes (is that a word?)', I may need this advice for spelling in the future.

    I look at some of the SCM materials with a mix of admiration and that sense of betrayal from the 'pure AO pioneer spirit' of doing it yourself the CM way, without watering down or mediators. So to know that JEANNE the purist, my icon and Australian idol is resorting to Spelling Wisdom, leaves my some room to mess up, and the prospect of having company in Siberia.


  8. On the bright side, maybe we can be roomies at the gulag.

  9. Thanks for doing all the work for me! Madison is as bad as Jemimah and while it does not bother me as yet, it really bothers Dad. So, this was on my list of things to research for next year. Alas, my beloved Jeanne did it for me. Woot!

  10. I've been looking at the Simply Spelling, too! I think it looks terrific. I've been contemplating it for my first grader this year. He'll be turning 7 in October, which is below the recommended age of the program, but he is an avid writer and I cringe to think of all of the misspellings he is becoming accustomed to.

    Maybe we'll wait another year and hopefully beginning copywork will help his spelling progress.

    I'm as much of a purist as the next person, but if there are tools to make your job simpler and will still communicate what your child needs to learn, well, it's all to the good, isn't it?

  11. I have one child who is a natural speller. It is truly amazing what she can spell correctly without having been taught it. But unfortunately, this does not extend to my other kids. We all learn and process things in different ways. If a kid can't visualize words, I don't think that is their fault. They may need other ways to learn to spell. I don't think Miss Mason is rolling over in her grave on this one.

  12. I was happy to discover your blog today. I was unable to find a contact link. I hope it's OK that I'm contacting you through a public comment. I've developed an educational program for Windows called SpellQuizzer that helps children learn their spelling and vocabulary words without the battle that parents often have getting them to sit down and write them out while the parents dictate to them. The parent enters the child's spelling words into the software making a sound recording of each word. Then the software helps the child practice his or her words. It really helped my children with their weekly spelling lists.

    I would appreciate your reviewing SpellQuizzer in A Peaceful Day. If you are interested in hosting a giveaway of a SpellQuizzer license I'd be happy to supply a free license to the winner. You can learn more about the program at http://www.SpellQuizzer.com. There's a video demo you can watch at http://www.spellquizzer.com/SpellQuizzer-Demo.htm and a community site where SpellQuizzer users can share their spelling lists with one another (http://www.SpellQuizzer.com/Community). Finally, there's a page targeted to homeschooling families at http://www.spellquizzer.com/spelling-software-for-homeschoolers.htm. I'd be happy to send you a complimentary license for the software. Please let me know if you are interested.

    Thank you very much!

    Dan Hite
    TedCo Software

  13. You ARE quiet silly you know, doen't you deer? All that talk about the AO police and all... I LOVE Spelling Wisdom. I'm glad that you've showcased it so well. Now I know where to link people back to if I ever decide to confess. shhhhhhh.

    amy in peru

  14. Don't fret Jeanne, the knocking is not the AO Police, it is only me at the door, with coffee! :)

    I have had the same problem with all of my children as well - all natural readers, all natural writers....but the spelling!?!?!?! Oh my.

    I was a natural speller, but I learned the phonics way .... so I ended up going that route. Phonics, combined with copywriting, was all it took to get my girls back on the right spelling road.

  15. I am a terrible speller, always have been and always will be, but thanks to spell-check I can get through each day. My mind goes blank and I can't even imagine what the word would look like. I also get very nervous when other people are watching me trying to write a word - I don't want people to think I am "dumb" "silly" an so forth!!

  16. Loved reading this! I have a complete nonspeller as a child, and I suspect it will always be a challenge for him. I was a natural speller. I wish I had known more about the CM methods when my dyslexic child was young. Not that it would have changed much for him, really, but maybe...


  17. With my elder child the AO people would likely ask me to take down any references on my blog to their curriculum!! lol...... When my daughter last did homeschool [AO] in 6th grade everything dramatically improved--comprehension, spelling, sentence structure--you name it. However, when it was "out of context" [i.e. back in public school] it was like she never learned anything from the experience. Moral in this ramble is: You know you child best and AO is just a list of suggestions! Deviate at will. I actually did a CM Carnival post on using a workbook program in a CM way [gasp!!!]

  18. I use and enjoy Spelling Wisdom, also! It's a life-saver for me as there is no way I could compile all the dictation lessons needed for all my kids each day.

  19. I was doing my final research today and preparing to order Spelling Wisdom and found your blog post. You're very funny about the AO police. I have felt a bit guilty too. My son and I will start AO Year 3 next month.

  20. Yes, we are doing this as well :)

  21. Did you use Book 1 or 2 at this point? Did you have Jemimah use the text as copy work first? Did you do dictation once a week or more? I do have SW book 2 leftover from the big kids. Amelia still struggles with some dyslexia and may need a few more steps than most, but I will take this out and look at it again! Betty (using daughter's Google account).

  22. Hi Jeanne, I've enjoyed your posts over the years. I seem to recall that at some point you used a different dictation book--something very similar to Spelling Wisdom, but with a few spelling rules. Am I remembering correctly, and, if so, can you tell me the name of the book and whether you liked it? Thanks, Bonnie


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