Teacher Tip: Improve Spelling by Making Your Child a “Little Linguist”

By The Understood Team on Nov 30, 2017

When a child struggles with spelling a word, the classic advice is “sound it out.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work. That’s why we sometimes see kids spell words like two as too, every as evry, and does as duz.

Of course, phonology (the relationship between sounds in language) has an important role in spelling. But the English writing system is based heavily on meaning. For example, see and sea sound the same, but see means to look with the eyes, while sea means a body of water. When your child writes “I see the sea,” she must correctly spell the word that matches the meaning so it makes sense.

That’s why it’s important for kids to learn spelling by understanding meaning, too. Here’s a four-step framework I suggest using when your child is learning to spell a word.

Step 1: What does the word mean?

First, ask your child what the word means. The purpose here is to make sure she understands the word. No one should be asked to spell words they don’t know the meaning of.

For instance, with two, make sure your child understands that the word refers to the concept of the number two. Once meaning is understood, head to the next step.

Step 2: What’s the actual spelling?

Second, unpack the actual spelling of the word. It’s important to meet kids where they are. If a word comes up that can easily be spelled based on its pronunciation, like cat or slip, then you’re done. Move on to a new word.

However, many words aren’t so simple. For these, it’s important to ask your child what’s unusual or different about the spelling. With two, for example, most kids will say the w doesn’t seem to belong.

Step 3: What are other related words?

Third, ask your child to think of other words that share similar characteristics. Look for words with a shared meaning, or similar sound or spelling.

Again, using two as an example, many kids will say that it sounds like too, but has a different meaning. You can further guide your child with hints like, “What do we call two babies born on the same day to the same woman?” Twins. Your child may then start coming up with other examples like twelve, twenty, between, twice, and so on.

Once you’ve identified related words, ask her to tell you what they all have in common. The answer is that they all share a meaning related to the number two, and they all share the tw letter string. This will bring home to her why two is spelled the way it is.

Step 4: How are the letter strings in the word pronounced?

Now your child is ready for the last step, which is to talk about pronunciation. In this case, we don’t pronounce the w in two. This process will cement her understanding of the word.

The key here is to help your child understand that English spelling has a connection to meaning. Encourage your child to ask questions about other words she doesn’t understand or know how to spell, like every and does. Once kids start seeing the relationships between words, they can become little linguists. And that boosts not just their spelling, but also their understanding of the English language, which can help with reading as well.

—Kelli Sandman-Hurley

Kelli Sandman-Hurley, EdD, is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute. She is a certified special education advocate who helps families through the and process.


Read how certain learning and thinking differences can impact spelling. Get tips on how to handle tricky vowel sounds when spelling. And find out when it’s OK for your child to start using spellcheck.

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    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.