When I was a kid, we got a spelling list every Monday, took a pre-test on Wednesday, did sentence dictation on Thursday, and had a spelling test on Friday. In third and fourth grade we also had frequent spelling bees, boys against the girls, which I loved. There was always a spelling workbook, of which I remember nothing. There was no way to learn the words except practice and memorization.
I didn’t know there was any other way to teach spelling.
I’ve written a bit about Alex’s spelling lessons before. We use All About Spelling, an intensively phonics-based curriculum in which students are introduced, one by one, to the seventy-odd phonograms (combinations of letters that represent sounds) in the English language, and then to rules which govern their use to spell words.
We do spelling four days a week. Each time, I set a timer for 20 minutes. The AAS books are divided into “steps,” which, in the beginning, could often be completed in one 20-minute lesson. Now it’s not unusual for a step to take us most of the week. That’s one odd thing about AAS – the steps aren’t single lessons, and the books don’t correspond to years. Alex started AAS 1 in June, and right now we’re halfway through AAS 3. That’s not an unusual rate of progress. (It’s also not unusual to slow down dramatically, as we now have.)
We always start lessons at the white board:
These color-coded tiles are the heart of the AAS program. We started with just a single alphabet, vowels colored red and consonants colored blue, and worked our way up to this dizzying confetti of tiles: “consonant teams,” “vowel teams,” different ways of spelling the sound of /er/, suffixes, syllable types. Alex can explain all of them, too. Each time she gets a new tile she learns all the sounds that letter combination can make; for example, oo makes the sounds in school, book, and door, and ai is “two-letter-A-that-we-may-not-use-at-the-end-of-English-words.”
Each step of the program focuses on a different spelling rule or pattern. Right now we’re doing wh- words, and before this we were working on when you need to double the last consonant of a word before adding a suffix. We practice applying the rules and analyzing the spelling of different words by building words with letter tiles. For example, I might build the word “paddle” and ask Alex to divide it into syllables, explain why there are two d‘s instead of one, and tell why there is a silent E on the end. Sometimes there are other exercises. Level 3 introduced a “Silent E book,” in which Alex sorts words that end in silent E depending on what job it does in the word. (I didn’t have much of a phonics education, so I only ever knew about one thing silent E does.) Or she might be asked to do a word sort, like this one, where she practiced four different ways of spelling the long A sound:
Most steps have a list of ten words that apply the rule or pattern in question. The words are printed individually on index cards. If Alex spells them without difficulty, I file them in the “mastered words” section of my card file and she rarely sees them again. If she struggles, we keep reviewing them at the beginning of every step until they’re mastered. So each time she has a “spelling list,” it’s customized for her specific spelling issues.
A very popular feature of AAS at our house is the jail for “rule breaker” words:
Most of the cumulative review in AAS comes from sentence dictation. Kids start writing short phrases like “big dog” in level 1, and by level 3 Alex is writing sentences like “We have one box of priceless dishes” and “Whose toad is on the table?” Each step ends with a long list of dictation sentences. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to use them all – we never do. I give her a couple of sentences every day we do spelling.
AAS is a program with a lot of bells and whistles – cards and tiles and books and “word banks” and booklets and color coded everything. I have been very happy with it. As I’ve said before, Alex is a perfectionist who was extremely reluctant to write freely, and AAS gave her the tools to break words into their components and try out spellings. I don’t think I would bother with this program if I had a natural or confident speller. For many kids, this would be overkill.
I do think that AAS is a great choice for kids who respond well to rules and patterns, kids who aren’t great visual memorizers, reluctant writers (because you can do so much with tiles and with markers on the white board), and kids who lack confidence with spelling. AAS is also very good for kids who didn’t get much phonics instruction when they were learning to read, either because they were self-taught or because they learned via whole language methods. We never made it all the way through phonics because Alex’s reading took off so quickly, and although she’s an excellent reader now, sometimes her pronunciation is pretty strange. Through AAS, she can learn the rules she missed without feeling like she’s being asked to go backward.