chicken image

If you were five years old and learning how to read, and you saw a picture like this one, what letters would you put together to caption it appropriately? In the case of my kindergarten student, j-i-k-n are the letters he chose. It looked like gibberish until I said it out loud, at which point I praised his hard work, then pointed out the other words he had spelled—‘pen’ and ‘men’—and asked if he could think of another word for “chicken” that rhymed with the first two words. Since we had read The Little Red Hen a few weeks earlier, it was easy to activate his prior knowledge and help him notice the rhyming pattern. But his creative, invented spelling stuck with me.

The Guardian recently posted a commentary on spelling, with the tagline: English is an uncommonly tricky language to spell. Is that why we put it on such a pedestal? The writer discusses the role of spelling of yesteryear: After spelling tests (or spelling bees), good spellers felt good about themselves and bad spellers felt bad about themselves. Spelling seems to be a badge of honor in the Puritan-rooted, Anglophone world. Is it unfounded? I can’t be sure, but it makes me wonder about the fate of English Learners, especially ones who have already learned to read in a more phonetic native language. On the one hand, my 4-year-old bilingual nephew experienced no angst when I told him that “j” says /dz/ in English and /x/ in Spanish (Need an IPA refresher?), but on the other, he learned to read in English first. How do other ELs fare?

The writer suggests incorporating lessons on etymology into spelling instruction in order to provide context and help students build ancillary knowledge of words derived from other languages. With younger students, word families and rhyming offer patterns that students can internalize.

What tricks do you use in your classroom? At what point is conventional spelling a requisite of writing? How do you provide feedback to students? Do you incorporate mini history lessons, word families, or other instructional supports?

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