Category Archives: spelling

What parents want writing teachers / tutors to teach

When parents ask for writing help for their children, what kind of help do they want?Child writing

  • Grammar?
  • Vocabulary?
  • Sentence structures?
  • Organizing?
  • Transitions?
  • Introductions and hooks?
  • Conclusions?
  • Spelling?
  • Cursive handwriting?
  • Details?
  • Revising?
  • Particular types of writing (paragraphs? essays? book reports? short answer responses? long answer responses? summaries?)
  • Narrative elements (character development? plot? setting? foreshadowing?  point of view? conflict? dialog? voice? suspense?)
  • Verb tenses?
  • Paraphrasing?
  • Clarity?
  • Dialog?
  • Figures of speech?

Most parents have no idea so many elements combine to create good writing.  When they see a list like this, they are taken aback.

That is why it is important for parents and teachers to agree on what students should learn at various ages.  If a parent thinks the student should be perfecting grammar, but the teacher instead focuses on organization of information, the parent will not be happy.  Or if a parent thinks a student should be using a great piece of rhetoric as a model, but the teacher wants the student to develop his own way of expression, again the parent will be dissatisfied.

Only when a parent is aware of all that a student is expected to learn can the parent and teacher have a meaningful conversation about how to improve a student’s writing.

Spelling: What works, what doesn’t work

Because no national student tests focus on spelling only, experts can’t say how widespread spelling problems are.  But ask any teacher, and she will tell you many, many children learn to spell with difficulty or depend on phonetic spellings.


If you are the parent or teacher of such a child, what do you do?

Here’s what doesn’t work.

  • Teaching spelling rules rarely works. When students see a worksheet or test on one aspect of spelling, they can do okay.  That’s because they are focusing on one rule of spelling.  But if you test on several rules, or wait a week to retest on one rule, a poor speller makes numerous mistakes.  And if you ask the child to write a few sentences with words which use some of these spelling rules, spelling errors abound.  It’s as if you never taught the rules.
  • Having the child memorize often used words can work if the word is simple. But not always.  Many children spell “went” as “whent,” or confuse “then” and “than,” or use “b” for “d,” or spell “was” as “saw.”  These children might have great visual memories for colors and landmarks, but not for spelling.  Experts think this is because the brain’s “wiring” for spelling is part of the language processing part of the brain.  Poor spelling is one sign of underlying language processing problems.
  • Teaching word parts—prefixes, suffixes and roots—can help a child guess at the meaning of words, but it doesn’t help much with spelling. The child will say the word in her mind and spell it the way it sounds to her.  “Useful” might come out “youzful.”

Here’s what does work.

  • Accommodations, especially allowing the child to use electronic writing equipment, reduce some but not all spelling errors. Spellcheck alerts the child that a word has been misspelled.  She can click on the misspelled word and the correct spelling appears.  She clicks on the correct spelling and eliminates the problem.  You might think:  but then she will never learn correct spelling.    But how about you?  When you make a spelling error on your computer or phone, don’t you click and replace?  So why shouldn’t a student?  Because of ubiquitous technology, the same rules which applied to us when we were students shouldn’t necessarily apply to students today.  The SAT allows calculators.  It didn’t when I took the test.
  • Teachers who limit the number of points off for spelling errors would lessen the stress on poor spellers. What if teachers would limit the percentage of a writing grade devoted to spelling to 5%, no matter how many words are misspelled?  Spelling is a way of delivering a message, the same as sentence structure and vocabulary and type faces.  If teachers would focus more on the content of writing, on its organization and message, and focus less on spelling and handwriting, poor spelling would be less of an issue.
  • If a child focuses on learning the spelling of the 100 or 200 most commonly used words in English, and ignores the rest, her spelling would improve. If those “most used” words were posted in the classroom as a universal word bank available to any child any time, spelling would improve.  Or those words could be offered to each child in a little booklet which the child could keep in her desk and refer to at any time. Why not?  Do you remember every one of your relative’s phone numbers anymore?  Or do you let your smart phone remember for you?  Is it “cheating” for you to press a name rather than to key in a  ten-digit phone number?  Then why can’t a child look up a spelling word?

English is a tough language to spell–maybe the toughest.  So many rules, so many exemptions.  Let’s take away some of the energy that goes into spelling correctly and put it into more important skills, like writing well.

Use colored pencils to help students revise drafts

Most of my elementary and middle grade students write first drafts in pencil.  A few type theirs into a computer.  But when we revise–hard copies or electronic ones–we use colored pencils.


This book summary was written and revised by a third grader.

I ask students to circle verbs and verbals with one bright color, such as red.  It’s easy to find verbs when they are encircled in a bright color.  We list them, use tally marks to identify which ones are overused, and then go back to the copy to replace overused verbs or weak verbs.

Next I ask students to choose a different bright color, one that is easily distinguishable from the first color, such a violet, green or blue.  Now the student encircles the first word of each sentence with that color.  Because the color prominently displays the first words, those words are easy to spot.  I ask students to read them aloud, listening for repetition.  When we find the same word used frequently, the student rewrites the sentence beginning to add variety.

For older students, we look at those same sentence opening words and identify their parts of speech to see if the student is overusing one part of speech, such as adverbs, and under-using another part of speech, such as prepositions.  If he is, he makes appropriate changes.

Some children overuse particular words, such as “so,” “just,” “then,” and “and.”  If I notice this, I ask the student to choose another color and to circle the overused word.  The abundance of color helps the student to recognize how frequently he has overused a word.

Revision might mean moving sentences or paragraphs around, or inserting new information missing from the first draft.  That too can be identified with arrows and stars in bright colors.

For poor spellers, I either encircle misspelled words in a particular color or highlight them with a marker.  From those words, I create a spelling study guide.  At the next lesson I quiz the student on the misspelled words.

When students see a first draft spotted with color, cross-outs, X’s, erasures, arrows and inserted words, they know they have revised.  So do parents without reading a word.

Universal English spelling is American English spelling

Not sure what English to use on the internet?  Use American English.

When it comes to spelling color / colour or ton / tonne on the internet, American spelling dominates around the world. Research shows that 80% of the English spelling on the internet is American spelling.

In past years, English writing directed at a particular national audience would have deferred to that nation’s preferred way of spelling.  “Recognize” would be used for US audiences and “recognise” for British, Canadian or Australian audiences.

But with the internet reaching audiences on all seven continents—and with more than half of all internet content written in English—tailoring websites or blogs to particular English-speaking groups is no longer practical.  And so, in most cases, American English has become the default English of the internet.