Teaching Spelling: Subject by Subject, Part 14

Charlotte Mason Homeschooling Subject by Subject: Spelling

I’m a list person. As I sit at my desk and type these words, I’ve lost count of how many items I’ve added to my to-do list already today. Lists can be effective tools for many things. But when it comes to spelling, Charlotte Mason showed us that lists are not the most effective way to learn.

Charlotte taught spelling in context, not in lists. And her methods make total sense when you see the progression from beginning reader to advanced student.

Build the Words (Beginning Reading Lessons)

From the time the young children begin to learn to read, they are encouraged to look closely at words and try to remember their spellings. In Charlotte’s method for teaching reading, the child uses letter tiles to build the words he is learning. The letter tiles are a great way to make the path smooth for beginning readers, because they don’t have to concentrate on forming each letter, only putting the letters in the correct order.

Charlotte also emphasized the importance of making sure the children see the word spelled correctly as much as possible. If the child is not sure how to build the word with his tiles, don’t let him guess. Write the word on the board and let him use that correct model for his guide. In this way you will reduce the chances of his seeing the word incorrectly spelled and getting it confused in his mind. We all have certain words that stump us—”Is it -er or -ar?”—because we have seen them spelled both ways. Charlotte’s method helps eliminate that mental debate.

Notice the Spelling (Practice Writing)

Once your child is past the beginning-reading-lessons stage and is just reading aloud to practice, and is past the learning-how-to-write-the-letters stage and is just doing copywork to practice and gain fluency, you can use his copywork to continue encouraging him to look at how words are spelled.

An easy way to do this is, when he has finished copying the line (or two lines) for today, ask him to spell one or two of those words. Let him know beforehand that you will be asking for a spelling or two. You can allow him to spell any word he likes or you can select a word for him to spell aloud.

That consistent, gentle expectation will do much to motivate him to keep alert and notice spellings of words even as he practices beautiful penmanship. It is a simple technique that will continue cultivating that important habit of learning spelling in context.

Prepared Dictation (Grades 4–12)

Once your child is nine or ten years old, you can take the next step and increase the expectation with prepared dictation. Here’s how it works. Select a passage from a good living book or a beautiful poem or Scripture, just as you do for copywork. But now have your child read through it and identify the words he doesn’t already know how to spell. Those are the words he should study.

Once he is sure he knows how to spell all of the words in the passage, dictate it to him a phrase at a time (saying each phrase only once) and watch as he writes to make sure he is spelling every word correctly. As he gains experience in prepared dictation, you can add the responsibility of learning the capitalization and punctuation too.

You can watch a video of a prepared dictation lesson on the Spelling Wisdom page of our website. The Spelling Wisdom series contains pre-selected dictation passages that cover the 6,000 most frequently used words in the English language.

Teaching Tips for Spelling

Allow me to offer two teaching tips for the subject of spelling.

First, slow down. Charlotte believed that a key to being a good speller was being a fluent reader. However, some children are prolific readers but poor spellers. How can that be? The problem is that they are reading too fast; they are not looking at how the words are spelled as they read. That habit of looking at the words’ spellings as you read is what will enable you to be a good speller and continue to increase your spelling proficiency the rest of your life. So encourage your child to slow down enough to notice the spelling as he reads. It can make a big difference.

Second, don’t confuse phonics and spelling. I’ve spent years traveling to homeschool conventions across the country, and I’ve met mom after mom who lament that their children are spelling phonetically. Phonics are one tool we can use to help our children learn to read, but phonics rules can create a lot of confusion when applied to spelling. Know the difference.

Learning spelling in context gives your child a big advantage. With a traditional list method, there is often a disconnect between the spelling list and the child’s writing those same words in sentences. Children who get 100% on the spelling test, later misspell those words in a writing assignment. But with Charlotte’s method of teaching spelling, you don’t have to deal with that disconnect, because your child is seeing the words used in context all the time. Plus, you are cultivating within him the habit of looking at how words are spelled as he reads, a habit that will equip him to continue learning new words for the rest of his life.


  1. Sonya, it makes sense that you mention to slow down the reading to pay attention to the spelling of the words. What happens if you have a child already struggling with comprehension and now they need to watch the spelling too? Any thoughts? Thanks for your time.

    • Good question, Leslie. Some of it depends on the stage of the child in the reading process. But one principle that would probably work across the board is to reduce the amount of material the child is working with. If comprehension is a chore, back off the length of the passage and take it in littler chunks. And you might read first for comprehension (tested by narration), then choose one sentence to focus on and do the spelling exercise with. Small consistent efforts can pay great dividends.

  2. Charlotte-

    This makes so much sense! I have a child who reads all the time but has a problem with skimming too much – way too much. She is a very poor speller. Also, I did not do a good job of teaching her the decoding habit. She just turned 10. I was planning on doing sort of a phonics review this year with her and having her read aloud to me for at least 20 minutes per day.

    I used Spelling Power for a short time but was often bothered that it used phonics somewhat to teach spelling. My question was always – what about the words that don’t fit into category “x”?

    Any thoughts about this?

    Thanks so much,
    Alicia Hart

    • I would encourage you to focus on quality and fluency more than quantity at this point, Alicia. You will probably make more progress if you reduce the amount that you require her to read and focus, instead, on making sure she has the ground solidly under her feet. So for her daily reading time with you, don’t worry about how long she keeps at it but rather how much attention she is paying to the task. Short lessons with full attention will accomplish more than longer drawn-out lessons with partial attention.

      As you mentioned, not all words fit neatly into spelling boxes. Really, we cannot be sure of the spelling of any word until we actually see it. That’s why Charlotte went right to the seeing part. You don’t have to come up with a rule or an exception to a rule for every possible word in the English language. It is what it is; turn the full gaze of your mind’s eye upon it and you will learn its spelling.

      • Sonya-

        So, you mean that she should read aloud until she seems to start to tire out?

        Could it be soemthing that we could break down into two different shorter sessions?

        Since she has a habit of skimming should I conitnue to allow her to read to herself? This may seem like a silly question, but I am just concerned about her reinforcing the habit of skimming.

        • The trick will be to stop the reading before she tires out. The fresher her brain is, the better she will be able to pay full attention. Two or three shorter sessions would be ideal.

          At this point you probably don’t want to shut down her leisure reading; that could make these sessions seem like punishment and cause hard feelings toward the sessions. You still want to encourage her to read and enjoy books. Use the daily sessions to help her develop a new habit that will hopefully transition over to all her reading eventually. Think of it as equipping her with a new skill.

  3. Thanks so very much. Your site is such a wonderful blessing! I hope to be able to hear you speak in Kansas City some time soon.

    God Bless,
    Alicia Hart

  4. Sonya,
    First I would like to thank you for your website. It has been a great encouragement and help!
    I was wondering about the letter tiles if you make them yourself or can you buy them somewhere? Do you think this method would work for a teenager that struggles greatly with spelling…or should I go with the dictation?
    Thanks so much,

    • You could make your own letter tiles by typing the alphabet in a computer document — large font and spaced apart — then printing it and cutting the letters apart. Or you can use the wooden tiles from a Scrabble game or buy some ready-made plastic ones online. There are many possibilities.

      For a teen, I would recommend a combination approach that follows these steps:

      1. Select a passage and look over it with your teen to identify words he doesn’t already know how to spell. In the beginning, especially, try to find passages/sentences with no more than three or four he doesn’t already know. We don’t want to overwhelm him.
      2. Have him take some time to study the passage, focusing especially on the words he needs to learn. Part of this study time could involve his copying the passage/sentence. When he comes to one of his focus words, he copies it, then tries to spell it with word tiles without looking, then checks to make sure he spelled it correctly. So he is putting a double emphasis (or triple, etc.) on those words.
      3. When he is ready and comes to tell you that he is ready, you set him up for success by using either the letter tiles or a whiteboard or chalkboard. Ask him to spell each of his focus words. If he misspells one, quickly erase it or spread out the letter tiles so he doesn’t get that false image stuck in his mind. Help him study more as needed. Your goal is to make sure he will succeed at the dictation step.
      4. Last, dictate the passage/sentence to him in short phrases. This is not an exercise in rote memory, so feed him the phrases little by little as he is ready for them. Watch carefully as he writes to make sure he is spelling every word correctly. If he and you have done the preparatory work well, mistakes should be few and far between and he will continue to improve and gain confidence as he progresses.
    • Jackie-
      There is a games called Bananas that comes in a little bag shaped like a banana. It is filled up with letter tiles. This works really well for us. It is a fun game too!

  5. Both my 13 yr. old and 11 yr. old struggle some with Spelling, but more so with my 11 yr. old. I’ve used different programs and I worry that my 6 yr. and 8 yr. will have the same struggles. I used A Beka, Spelling Power, games on the computer etc.. Recently I put everything down, and when they ask how to spell something I ask to spell it/clap it out or when I see in something that they wrote wrong in a story I do the same thing asking if there are any rules in the word, and we do it together if they are telling me the word incorrectly. We don’t touch the word again unless it comes up again. Is it not being ingrained, because we tackle the word but we just leave it at that? Is this approach okay or is there a better way. I’ve been reading lots on here the last few days. Thank-you!

    • It sounds like you are moving in a good direction, but I would encourage you to take the next step and try to make sure they see the correct spelling as much as possible. When they ask how to spell a word, tell them the correct spelling, rather than having them guess at it first. Also, go ahead and do the three steps above with your various aged children. If your 6yo is still in the beginning stages of reading, do the Build the Words step with him/her. Your 8yo would probably be ready for the Notice the Spelling step. Do Prepared Dictation with your 11yo and 13yo. All of those methods will encourage them to look at how words are spelled as they see them and read them, which is what makes a good speller.

      • I think I missed something. What three steps above are you referring to? I feel I am missing something. What is the Notice spelling step? I’m new to all of this, so maybe this is why.

        Thank-you for all of your help, Kelley

  6. How many times a week is recommended for Spelling (dictation) for an 11 yr. that has trouble spelling. I also am wondering in other areas of her work that she gets wrong like just writing and she spells it right if I point it out to her and if so how just pointing out the correct spelling?? thanks!

    • Usually dictation is done about twice a week. The student may be studying the passage on other days as needed, but a dictation exercise is scheduled on two days.

      One thing you can do is to keep track of the words that she spells incorrectly in other places and find dictation exercises that use those words, thus reinforcing the correct spelling.

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