33. What are the strategies for improving spelling?

Spelling strategies depend on specific languages. For example, spelling conventions in Polish are very different from spelling rules in Sanskrit. However, for languages that use the Roman alphabet, English and Spanish in particular, there are many strategies for improving the spelling habits of students learning these languages, both as primary or second languages.

We must remember that the Roman alphabet was NOT designed to write neither English nor Spanish. It was designed to express in print the ancient language of the Romans, Classical LATIN. As Roman soldiers expanded the Roman empire through Europe, reaching what is today Spain and England, the Roman alphabet was used to try to encode the sounds of languages never heard before by Romans. The Roman alphabet, with only 23 letters at the time ( J, U and W were added later), served also to encode the many changes that Latin experienced as Romans established themselves in distant outposts throughout Europe giving rise to new ways of speaking, new languages, which we call today English and the "romance" languages and dialects: Rumanian, Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, and many other regional forms of speech.

So, spelling in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and other languages that use the ROMAN alphabet, has truly NOTHING TO DO WITH THE PRESENT SPEECH PATTERNS used in these languages by their respective speakers today. Spelling in English, Spanish, etc., reflects TRADITIONAL patterns of writing established hundreds of years ago as a result of a historical accident: Roman soldiers, carrying the Roman Alphabet and the Roman Numeral System, tried to represent in writing, with only 23 letters, what they heard spoken throughout territories we call today Italy, Romania, Spain, France, Portugal, Catalonia, and England. Hundreds of years later, these languages expanded through the territories of North and South America, transforming themselves once again and changing. The spoken language changed with these new expansions, BUT NOT THE WRITING CONVENTIONS.

One of the most effective ways I have found in teaching spelling in ENGLISH and SPANISH, is always to keep in mind that there are four different ways of writing/spelling and reading, that is, of encoding sounds into print, and decoding back print into sounds. These four ways are, for ENGLISH and SPANISH:


In languages where there is a PERFECT ONE-TO-ONE correlation between sounds and letters, that is, in languages where there is ONLY one sound represented by each letter, and each letter represents ONLY one sound, then the writers of these languages could depend on their ears to correctly spell and write exactly what they hear. Unfortunately, neither English nor Spanish has PERFECT ONE-TO-ONE correlation between the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet we use today and the sounds of each of the languages.

English has way too many more sounds than the 26 letters in the alphabet. Spanish has fewer sounds than 26. Thus, English cannot possibly represents all its sounds with 26 letters, and Spanish has excess letters, too many letters representing the same sounds.

In word initial position, English has a few, very few one-to-one sound/letter correlation. For example, most English words that begin with the letter "m" also begin with the sound of /m/. Most English words that begin with the letter "v" also begin with the sound of /v/. That’s it!!!! All other letters of the alphabet in initial position in English words may represent more than one sound, or that sound may be represented by several other letters!!!!! Spanish has a very similar spelling situation. Most Spanish words that begin with the letter "m" also begin with the sound of /m/. We can say the same thing for the letters "f" and "l," representing the sounds /f/ and /l/, and that’s it!!!!

Thus, to say to a students learning to spell English or Spanish words "-SOUND IT OUT!!!" makes no sense. It is TOTALLY impossible to sound out words in English or Spanish!!!!


In both English and Spanish, students must FIRST SEE a word in print before they can spell it. Remember, students cannot depend on their EARS to write/spell words neither in English nor in Spanish. Thus, students must FIRST SEE, then REMEMBER how words are spelled to spell them correctly, both in English and Spanish.

How can we help students remember? Through spelling categories!!!!

In English we can depend on WORD FAMILIES, that is, words that have similar spelling patterns because they are written with PHONOGRAMS. A phonogram is a consistent sequence of letters that always represent the same sequence of sounds. For example: the phonogram -ink. Words like "pink, sink, wink, link, shrink, blink," etc., belong to the same word family. "Applause, cause, because, clause," etc., belong to the same word family. The more students can SEE these word families the faster they would remember how to spell these words. Teachers should have these word families POSTED (and dated) in their classrooms, so students can always remember how to spell these words. And students can and should be held accountable for remembering (after the posted date!!!)

In Spanish we need to do the same thing: help students group together words that begin with "h," words with "c"/"s"/"z," words with "b"/"v," etc.

ALL THESE SPELLING PATTERNS MUST BE MEMORIZED!!! There is no other way!!!! In English we can help students remember by sounding out the phonogram and words that have the phonogram. For example – The Teachercan suggest: "Because belongs with cause, applause, clause. Can you remember how to spell this phonogram?" No such help is available in Spanish, thus all EYE words must be memorized by grouping them into spelling categories.

  1. RULE WRITING/SPELLING (and Reading)

In both, English and Spanish, we can depend on some very specific rules that can help us remember how to spell/write, and read, some words. In Spanish, for example, the syllables "ja," "jo," and "ju" are always written with "j." "Ga," "go," and "gu" are always written with "g." "Gue" and "gui" always require "gu," and "ge"/"gi" always require "g."

In English we have language-wide rules based on whether the last sound of an English word is pronounced with vibrations or without vibrations of the vocal cords. For example, all regular verbs in English end in either a voiced (with vibrations) or a voiceless (without vibrations) SOUND. For example, "talk," "help," and "match" end in the voiceless sounds /-k/, /-p/, and /-ch/. On the other hand, "renege," "scrub," "smile," "love," and "judge" end in the voiced sounds /-g/, /-b/, /-l/, /-v/, and /-ge/. In writing, the past tense of these verbs follow similar rules: the letters "-ed" or "d" are added, and the final letter of the word, if a consonant, may be repeated. THESE ARE THE RULES FOR SPELLING THESE PAST FORMS. "Talked, helped, matched, reneged, scrubbed, smiled, loved, and judged." The pronunciation of these past forms, however, is totally different: "Talked, helped and matched," end in the sound /-t/. "Reneged, scrubbed, smiled, loved and judged en in the sound of /-d/. THESE ARE THE RULES FOR SAYING THESE PAST FORMS. Students MUST learn BOTH types of rules.

The final SOUND of English nouns, proper and common nouns, is also very important when trying to spell, write or read the plural forms of English nouns, for example. SPELLING RULES AND RULES FOR SAYING the plural forms of nouns MUST be taught.


English and Spanish have many words that are said in exactly the same way, but their spelling varies depending on the intended meaning. For example, in English "BEAR" and "BARE." In Spanish, "HAYA," "HALLA," "AYA." In English some words are spelled exactly alike but pronounced in different ways depending on the meaning or the function of the word. For example "TEAR," or "PRESENT." These words need to be taught together, as part of a large category of contrasting words, and need to be posted constantly, for students to remember which one to choose to express the intended meaning.

A teacher who keeps in mind these four ways of WRITING/SPELLING, and Reading, will approach the teaching of spelling differently, depending on the kind of word a student is learning or trying to spell.




For more in-depth information, classroom demonstrations, and "coaching" of new and/or experienced teachers, Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK offers:

1. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
2. Cross Cultural Diversity - Multicultural Strategies
3. Effective Instruction for English Learners (L.E.P. students) Parts 1, 2, 3, 4
4. Promoting Academic Success in Language Minority Students
5. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
6. Oral Language / Literacy Skills / Higher Order Thinking Skills
7. 50/50 Dual Language Programs: design, planning and implementation
8. The Structure of English / The Structure of Spanish
9. Transition: Introduction to English Reading

Web Site Programs for Teachers: Numbers 1, 5, 7, 8, and 9.
Web Site Programs for
Paraprofessionals: Number 3.
Web Site Programs for
New Teachers:
Enhanced Cultural Sensitivity - The Challenge of Students Diversity
Identifying / Responding to Students' Language Needs
Phonemic Awareness: Teaching English phonics to L.E.P. students
Relationship Between Reading, Writing and Spelling
Improving Reading Performance -- Building Oral Language Skills)

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