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By GreatSchools Staff
Research studies show that children progress through five stages on their journey to correct English spelling. Remember that each child develops at her own rate and has had different experiences with reading and writing. The grade-level correspondences here are only meant to be a general guide, and your child might reach a particular stage sooner or later than indicated. If you have concerns about your child's progress with spelling, talk to her teacher. The stages as described by researcher Dr. J. Richard Gentry are:
What it means: In this stage, children use letters and are beginning to understand that letters are the building blocks of words, but they show no understanding that letters stand for particular sounds. Pre-communicative spellers may not know all of the letters and may not write top to bottom and left to right. A child in this stage might write the letters E, A, M, B and T scattered randomly across the page to stand for "I had pizza last night."
What you might see in the classroom: Teachers will be helping students learn the alphabet, learn the connection between sounds and letters, understand that in English we read from top to bottom and left to right, and understand what a word is. For example, the teacher might read a story from a "big book" with the class. As the class reads, the teacher might pause to talk about particular words and the letters in them, and he might point to each word as they read it to reinforce that the words go from left to right and top to bottom.
When you'll see it: This stage is typically seen in the preschool years and very early in kindergarten.
What it means: Children begin to understand that letters stand for particular sounds. Spellers at this stage often use single letters to represent words, sounds or syllables and might use the first sound heard in the word to represent the whole word (M for "mommy" or U for "you"). A semi-phonetic speller might write "I M HP" for "I am happy."
What you might see in the classroom: Teachers will continue to emphasize the connections between letters and sounds, and will help children listen for all of the sounds they hear in a word. They continue to expose children to the conventions of writing, including using capital letters, writing from left to right, and the differences between words and sentences. Many teachers use a daily shared writing activity to work on these concepts. For example, the class might write a morning message as a group, with the teacher modeling and talking about when to use capitals or periods, and how to listen for and write all the sounds in a word.
When you'll see it: This stage is usually seen late in the preschool years and early in kindergarten.
What it means: In the phonetic stage, students use a letter or group of letters to represent each sound they hear in the word. In many cases, their spelling will not be standard, but their choice of letters will make sense and you'll probably be able to figure out what it says. Many simple "consonant-vowel-consonant" words may be spelled correctly at this stage. For example, words like "rat" and "hit" are likely to be spelled correctly, but you might see "fon" for "phone," "uv" for "of," and "kak" for "cake." A phonetic speller might even write: "byutiful" for "beautiful."
What you might see in the classroom: At the phonetic stage, students are ready to be introduced to word families, spelling patterns, phonics and word structures. They might talk about a common spelling pattern and then look for examples of it in their reading. For example, they might talk about the word "fish," and how it has a short "i" sound and a "sh" sound at the end. Then they might watch for other examples of that pattern in their reading: wish, dish, swish.
In their reading, they will begin to be exposed to "sight words." These are words that are very common, but are not spelled quite how they sound or are spelled with an uncommon pattern. Students usually memorize these words so they can easily recognize them in their reading and use them in their writing. Many teachers put these common words on a "Word Wall" so students see them frequently and can check their spelling when they need to.
When you'll see it: Many students are in the phonetic stage by the end of kindergarten or the beginning of first grade.
What it means: In this stage, students are learning to recognize common patterns and structures in words, and they begin to use those patterns in their writing. For example, students learn that adding an "e" to the end of a word usually changes a vowel to a long vowel, and they apply that rule to many words. They might spell "mate" and "take" correctly after learning this rule, but they may also write "nite" and "wate." Students also experiment with less common patterns like "-igh." A transitional speller might write "hiked" as "highked." Many very common, but irregular words like "was" and "have" might be spelled correctly as students see and use these words frequently.
When you'll see it: In first grade, students are likely to move from the phonetic stage to the transitional stage, where they might stay through approximately third grade.
What you might see in the classroom: Students at this stage will study common and unusual word patterns. For example, they may have a lesson on different ways the long "e" sound can be spelled: "ee" as in "need;" "ea" as in "meat," "e" with a silent "e" as in "here," "-y" as in "happy." They might sort a group of long "e" words by the way the sound is spelled and look for examples of the different patterns in their reading. They will probably continue memorizing the spelling of common irregular words. According to literacy specialist Karen Heath, some spelling programs for primary grade students also include movement-based practice of common words to help students get the feel of writing a particular word. For example, students might trace words in fingerpaint or sand, or they might write a word over and over on a white board.
What it means: By this stage, students have a large number of words they know how to spell, and they will often recognize when they have spelled a word incorrectly. They understand and use basic rules and patterns from the English spelling system, including prefixes and suffixes, silent consonants, plurals, and many irregular spellings. Students in the correct stage know how to find the correct spelling of a word using reference materials. They don't spell every word correctly, but they spell most words correctly.
When you'll see it: Students usually enter the correct stage in late third grade or sometime in fourth grade, although their spelling continues to develop throughout their school years.
What you might see in the classroom: At this stage, teachers often link the spelling of words with their meaning. Students strengthen their spelling and vocabulary by studying the meaning of root words, prefixes and suffixes, especially those that come from Latin or Greek. For example, upper grade or middle school students might study the root word "sign" that evolved from the Latin "signum," meaning "mark" or "token." They might learn how the meanings and spellings of other words like "signature" and "designate" are related to sign.
Movement through the five stages is gradual and a student writing sample will often show evidence of more than one stage, although children generally do not fluctuate wildly between stages, according to Gentry.
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