4. When to Correct Spelling

My third grader loves to write stories. We’ve not yet started correcting spelling. Is this a good time for gentle correction? How should I approach this?

It’s wonderful that your student loves to write stories. This is an effective way for your child to develop literacy skills, and it is called Kid Writing. In Kid Writing, students use what they know to write their own words, sentences, and stories, and they make tons of mistakes because they are just learning.

A good time to start correcting spelling is as soon as the student starts doing Kid Writing, which is usually in first grade, so you are in the clear to correct your student’s spelling! However, the best way to correct spelling changes as the student develops more skills. The phases are a good way to determine how to correct spelling (as well as how to teach most aspects of literacy).

Literacy is not a natural part of human development. Education literally changes the brain to enable students to read and write. Students go through five phases as they are taught literacy skills. The phases show where the student is at in the process. The best way to teach literacy skills, including spelling correction, is determined by the phase the student is in rather than the student’s grade. Without more background information, it is impossible to determine if your third-grade student is in the Phonemic Awareness Phase, Pattern Phase, or Syllable Phase, so I will briefly introduce these phases (plus the other two) and show ways to correct spelling in each phase.

Emergent Phase

When students first start learning the alphabet, they approach letters as pictures. They do not realize that letters represent sounds. Once they develop the ability to hear the first sound in a word and pair it with the correct letter, they realize that the alphabet is a code.

During this phase, the goal is to get the student to be able to write the first sound (or any sound) he or she hears in a word. Spelling is not yet a factor.

Phonemic Awareness Phase

Once students become aware that the alphabet is a code, they need to develop the ability to hear all the sounds in words and manipulate those sounds (phonemic awareness).

This is the phase to introduce Kid Writing and to begin to correct spelling. First, teach the student to write the letters s/he hears in words using “Kid Writing.” (There is a full introduction on how to introduce this valuable practice in The Roadmap to Literacy pp. 304–306.) When the student is done, show him/her how to write the words using “adult writing,” which is how the adults do it. Directly under (or above) what the student wrote, write the same thing using correct spelling and punctuation. Praise the student for one or more features that are right (e.g., “Nice job spelling your sight word ‘the’ right!” or “Good job getting the first letter in every word.”). Continue correcting spelling this way as long as the student has a lot of spelling errors and is doing short pieces of writing.  It is a very gentle correction.

Another way to correct spelling is to put up a word wall. This is a wall with all the sight words the student has learned to date in alphabetical order. The student is expected to go to the word wall and correct spelling for these words before you do Adult Writing to fix the other mistakes.

You can also offer the student a handout with all the sight words learned to date in alphabetical order. (Update it every week.) The process for correcting spelling is the same as the word wall.

Pattern Phase

Once the students develop full phonemic awareness, they become aware of silent letters in words. They cannot hear these letters, but there they are: the silent E in bite, the silent A in meat, the silent K, G, and H in knight. They now are ready for the Pattern Phase, where they learn more advanced literacy skills, including phonics rules that govern the patterns of letters that represent sounds.

In this phase, you begin to phase out the earlier ways to correct spelling and replace them with more advanced practices. For example, stop giving the student handouts with all the sight words you have taught and replace it with a consumable spelling dictionary. This is a very short consumable resource that has lists of common words beginning writers need organized alphabetically. The student can then correct more words than just sight words. After the student does Kid Writing, s/he can underline words that are probably wrong and look them up in the spelling dictionary. The student can fix some of the mistakes before you do Adult Writing. You can also add words the student needs to the spelling dictionary to customize it.

There are many good consumable spelling dictionaries on the market such as The Quick-Word Handbook for Beginning Writers by Rebecca Sitton and The Quick-Word Handbook for Everyday Writers. As your student’s skills progress, upgrade the consumable spelling dictionary to one that contains more words.

Note: In this phase, begin the formal teaching of weekly spelling word lists from a reputable spelling program. Expect the student to spell any words he or she has studied correctly.

Syllable Phase

Students in this phase learn to work with words that have more than one syllable. They learn common prefixes and suffixes such as pre-, un-, de-, and -tion, ­-tive, -ture, -ment, -ly and they learn to spell longer and longer words by syllable.

In this phase, students no longer do Kid Writing and instead write compositions. The expectation is that most of the words are spelled correctly because the student will have proofread the composition before handing it in and corrected the spelling of words s/he should know how to spell using the consumable spelling dictionary.  If the student misspelled a word s/he should have spelled correctly, simply underline it and ask the student to look it up. Otherwise, just write the correct spelling of a word above the misspelled version in the assignment. This phase lasts several years. It is common for students to be in this phase in grades 3–6.

As the student progresses through the phase, discontinue the consumable spelling dictionaries and introduce real student dictionaries (usually grade 4). Teach the student to look up words in the dictionary to correct spelling. Continue to fix errors the student misses. The goal is to make the student responsible for fixing spelling as much as possible.

Latin/Greek Phase

Students in this phase learn to work with the Latin and Greek roots in English words. Most students are in middle school (grades 6–8) by the time they get to this phase. Correct spelling the same way you did in the Syllable Phase.

To determine which phase your student is in, consult The Roadmap to Literacy chapter 6.2: What Phase are Your Students In? Use this information to customize all instruction, including how to correct spelling.

About the Author Jennifer Militzer-Kopperl