When I first began teaching our son Matt at home, I marked his mistakes in red like my own teachers had done, to help him notice his mistakes and try harder next time. He seemed oblivious to his mistakes, though. Matt disliked penmanship, for example, and our lessons failed to improve his attitude.
Then I read some good advice and quit marking mistakes. Instead I started drawing a red circle around Matt’s best work on the page. Then we talked about why those letters and words were his best. He had disliked having me tell him why his mistakes were so bad, but now he enjoyed hearing me tell him why his best work was so good. Matt started looking forward to seeing red marks when they meant success instead of failure. His penmanship improved, and so did his attitude.
After a few weeks of this new strategy, I started asking Matt to circle his best work himself. Once he began evaluating his own work, he found his mistakes himself, and his penmanship improved dramatically. The eye opener for me, though, was not how much the new approach changed Matt’s attitude, but how much it changed mine. Grading penmanship was irritating when I focused on finding what was wrong. When I focused on finding what was right instead, I cheered up and had more patience.
Later I was able to apply this new understanding to Matt’s spelling lessons.
Matt was a late bloomer who didn’t really “click” on reading until he was 10. Once reading clicked for him, his reading skills shot far above his grade level. But his spelling skills were poor, and he seemed unable to progress. He could make 100’s on his spelling tests using a traditional spelling curricula, but he could not seem to transfer what he learned in those lessons to the same words when he needed to spell them for original writing assignments. He behaved as if he had never seen that word before, and he could misspell the same word three different ways in one paragraph. He had great trouble proofreading as well. He could not catch his own mistakes.
He was so frustrated with his spelling difficulties that he began “dumbing down” his vocabulary in his written work to avoid writing words he didn’t know how to spell. His writing was way below his grade level and even further below his vocabulary level.
We finally had him tested at the local public school when he was 13. They said he could read at a college level, but he spelled at a second grade level. So he was “learning disabled in spelling.” I tried their suggestions for helping improve Matt’s spelling, but they didn’t work.
Then a schoolteacher friend of mine told me about a method for helping kids learn to proofread. I modified that method and came up with a good system that worked well for Matt. He began picking up two years in spelling improvement during each year that we used this method.
Today Matt has a Ph.D. in cancer research. He still struggles with spelling, but it is no longer an obstacle that prevents him from expressing himself in writing.
Here’s the method:
1. Use a spelling curricula that includes sentences for dictation, preferably a curricula designed for problem spellers. Teach the spelling lesson and do the exercises.
2. Then dictate three or four sentences using that lesson’s spelling words. (Use your judgment to discern how many sentences your student can do without feeling overwhelmed.)
3. Show your student the correctly written sentences that you just dictated and allow her to correct her own work before you even look at it. (Learning to find her own mistakes and correct them will be her key to learning to spell correctly.)
4. When your student thinks she has corrected all her errors, go over the paper with her. Make a little red mark for every correct word or punctuation mark on her paper. For example, if she capitalized the first letter of the sentence, make a red mark. If she spelled that first word correctly as well, make a second mark. When you come to an error, don’t make a big deal about it. Be matter of fact. Simply explain why it doesn’t get a mark and move on.
5. When you finish correcting the paper, count up all the red marks. Give your student a reward – a raisin or chocolate chip or other small reward for every red mark. (Chocolate chips worked wonders for Matt. He was disappointed when he missed a little red mark, and he tried harder next time to spot his errors himself. As his proofreading skills improved, his spelling improved.)
You can modify this system for original writing projects. If your student is too stuck on spelling to produce a writing flow, let her dictate to you what she wants to say (Dictation #1). Then dictate Dictation #1 back to her as she now writes down her own words (Dictation #2). Give her a corrected copy of Dictation #1. Allow her to check Dictation #2 using Dictation #1. Then proceed to steps 4 and 5.
Use good judgment. The important thing is to work with your child at her learning level and avoid her frustration level. Some horrible spellers, like Matt, are incredible story tellers who can dictate far more words than they can manage to write when those words are dictated back to them. In that case, dictate back only a paragraph or a few sentences – whatever your student can manage without becoming overwhelmed.
© Becky Cerling Powers 2012