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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.