That is, I practiced each spelling word written on my stack of index cards until I had mastered it and my teacher put the card into a small box; when all the word-cards from my list were in the box, she smiled and invited me to open the container where she kept her magical collection of ribbons. I got to select the three colors she would wrap around my box, tie tightly into a double knotted bow, and turn into a bouquet of curly-Q ribbons I’d only ever seen on presents. As I watched my words become ribbons my insides swirled with a feeling as bold, shiny, strong, and festive as those curly-q-ed strands of silver, magenta, royal blue—a feeling spelled p-r-i-d-e.
Spelling is the ribbon on the gift of language, yet, not all children experience it as a gift. Many come to it with anxiety for varied reasons— one of them being that spelling kan be konfusing! (Which is the inspiration behind my book, May I Have A Word?)
In English, a world of words arises from just twenty-six symbols; spelling and pronunciation often do not go hand in hand. We have rules that guide us for some of the time, but much of the time, spelling must simply be absorbed and memorized through repeated exposure and purposeful practice. So, how can we help children navigate the complicated land of spelling in a way that gets them excited to learn and unafraid of trial and error?
There is no way to learn how to spell without making many mistakes and while an essential part of learning is learning how to fail, very young learners need to taste success. I once had the fortune of working with a class kids through kindergarten and first grade at the City & Country School in New York City where I observed talented teachers and learned the school’s practice of using the terms “sound spelling” and “dictionary spelling.” With this simple choice of phrasing, I could now better support kids in spelling without telling them they were “wrong” or “incorrect.”
What Is "Sound Spelling" and "Dictionary Spelling?"
In this practice, kids are encouraged first to use “sound spelling.” They write words and stories phonetically by sounding words out-loud, writing what they hear, and reading their own writing out loud, making any changes they themselves hear are needed. A next part of the process then becomes discovering the “dictionary spelling” of words by looking them up, comparing them to sound spelling, and later changing sound-spelled words to dictionary words for final drafts. By using “sound spelling” and “dictionary spelling” (or other versions such as “invented”/”conventional”) we can encourage and reward intellectual risk taking, creativity, agency, while also teaching them the academic norms they need.
While schools and educators study, choose, and implement carefully devised system to teach literacy, any caring adult in a child’s life can increase confidence, joy, and knowledge. As a caregiver, one thing that can be helpful is to know the language your school uses to support spelling and reading. Another thing is to look up or ask about what kind of spelling to expect to see from your child at different stages of their development. (What might seem RNG to you, might be a totally typical stage of learning where certain sounds are heard more prominently than others.) I continue to use the terms of “sound” and “dictionary” spelling when I work with students in my author visits as well as when a five year old neighbor shows me a story they just wrote.
Some ways you might use these terms/concepts include:
Model sounding out of words at any time. Waiting at a light, for example you can sound out and spell the sign “S-T-O-P” or “B-U-S.”
Encourage observational learning by asking kids to notice the differences and similarities between words they spelled with “sound spelling” and the “dictionary” versions.
When presented with a sound-spelled word, instead of saying, “that’s wrong” or the word is “really spelled,” observe and reflect what phonetic correlations the child has succeeded at. Example, “I see you really heard the “kuh sound in cat. C and K can both make that sound and you chose K!” If the child is at a stage where knowing the standard spelling is developmentally appropriate or they insist, as some kids do, on wanting to know “the right” spelling, you can go on to say something like, “let’s look up the dictionary spelling of CAT. In the dictionary spelling, the letter C is chosen for the kuh sound. We use dictionary spelling in books, emails, signs...”
If presented by a letter or story you cannot decipher, instead of saying, “I can’t read your spelling” ask the child to read it out loud to you, or say something like, “not everybody sound-spells the same way, so I might need your help as I read this!”
Show kids it’s okay to make mistakes by modeling your own. Let them see you turn to a dictionary (in a book or online) for help.
And of course, read, read, read, and sound out words, together.
I have gotten to observe and talk with many amazing literacy educators over the years and to take away tips from them. Here are a few second grade tips from Elizabeth Hetzer, a Teachers College Readers and Writers Project Staff Developer:
Try spelling the word three ways and choose the one that looks right to you!
If you want your child to create a dictionary spelled text, you can compose it together. Have the child spell some parts of the sentence or word and you can spell other tricky parts. For example, a child could listen for the first sound in cap and write C and then you could say. “I'll do the next part” and write A-P.
Teachers and caregivers can cast a spell of excitement around literacy that lasts a lifetime. At the end of my kindergarten year, as I dropped the last learned word card into my last spelling box, my teacher discovered that collectively I and my classmates had spelled her out of what had seemed like an endless supply of ribbons. She was proud that she had only one ribbon long enough to go around my box, so she tied it and then used the short bits of all the colors she had left to create a whole rainbow celebration out of my spelling accomplishments. Decades later, I am often struggling to find the “right” word for whatever it is I want to convey, and when I do find it, I still fill with the feeling of ribbons.