Monday, September 13, 2010

Understanding Spelling Errors to Raise Better Writers

Commenting on my last entry, AlwaysMomof4 asked a question that merits more than a cursory response:

I have a 6th grade daughter who struggles with spelling. She does well on spelling tests and well in reading. When she is writing, particularly longer pieces she has many spelling errors where she spells phonetically instead of remembering the rules. Any suggestions? 

Writing's challenging is the simultaneous coordination and feedback between:
  • higher order cognitive systems - analyzing, brainstorming and/or creating content ideas;
  • sequencing systems organizing what to say so it makes most sense;
  • memory - remembering what they are supposed to be writing about and how to do this while remembering the words they want to use, along with proper tense, spelling and grammar;
  • attention - continuous monitoring making sure they are responding accurately, appropriately, and with correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation;
  • graphomotor coordination -coordinating muscle memory while entering the correct letters/words; and
  • language - recalling vocabulary and rules of grammar and syntax.

Spelling's challenge is having to learn and focus on graphic and language details while remembering letter sequences (their rules and their exceptions) and memorizing an infinite number of words and their correct spelling format, all while making sure they are written down correctly. 

Analyzing spelling errors provides a window into your child's language, memory, attention, sequencing and cognitive skills.

What to look for in your child's spelling errors:
  • Phonetic accuracy.  Words that sound 'right' but are misspelled show that your child can distinguish between letter sounds and  knows the component sounds of the word she is trying to write.  She just either didn't notice the error or  could not recall the correct spelling.   These types of errors often arise because of overloads or weaknesses in attention or memory - which are understandable given the incredible demands writing places on the brain.
  • Letter sequencing.  Are letters reversed or a bit jumbled?  If so, your child may have trouble remembering or attending to sequences. 
  • Handwriting.   Is it getting sloppier as he or she writes?  IF so, her hands may be tiring.  Check the grip ((where and how tightly the pencil is held) and  how heavily she presses down.  If her grip is too tight, too light, too heavy, this could tire her and drain attention.
  • Inconsistent, random errors. Your child could also have trouble focusing on small details.  If this is the case, have her slow down when she works.  Also, point out details and how they are so important when following instructions or directions. The focusing on details, however, should be done during edits and not necessarily on the first draft.  [On the first draft, focus should be on generating and sequencing ideas.]

  1. Leave enough time between assignment and due date to write in stages.   FIRST - make sure your child gets her ideas down on paper in some informal outline or draft.  SECOND - review the outline/notes/draft making sure it responds to the writing prompt.  THIRD - make sure what's written is presented in an organized, flowing manner.  FOURTH - check spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation.  You may also want to reread it a final time just 'to make sure' you got everything.
  2. Edit.  Depending on your child's ability to attend to detail and multiple facets at a time, this may have to be done in stages, much like those described in the item above.  The first edit may be to simply focus on the flow of the paper.  The next on spelling and or grammar.
  3. To strengthen sequencing skills:  help your child focus on patterns and sequences around her.  Help her recognize the beginning, middle or end of a story; sing songs with multiple verses; have your child teach you or a sibling how to tie a shoe, cook a favorite dish, follow a familiar recipe.

Making Editing More Fun:
I am still working on this.  Part of the problem is that editing requires attending to detail.  Those of us who prefer the forest from the trees find this hard to do.  In my experience, the key is using reinforcements, prompts, and turning editing into a habit not a chore.  Point out and reinforce better grades and better teacher comments and reinforce their editing more frequently (maybe prepare a favorite dinner or dessert because they worked so hard, or allow them an extra half hour of television/computer/game time).  Some parents make charts of progress (in terms of frequency of editing or in writing/spelling grades).  Praise goes a long way!

A final note on spelling tests vs. spelling in writing:
As Alwaysmomof4 writes, there is a difference between our kids' spelling test scores and their applying their spelling prowess in their writing.  Spelling tests simply demand remembering the spelling patterns and attending to the task, making sure they produced the right result.  Writing demands much more.  Keep reinforcing studying and memorizing spelling because it will free the mind to focus on other aspects of writing, and keep that editing alive!

Hopefully this helps.  Let me know what works for you and what issues your child faces when writing or editing.  Also, please let me know if you want more detail on writing, outlining, or editing.


  1. Great post. As a speech pathologist/reading specialist, I see these errors all the time. Thanks for clarifying so parents understand.

    Thelma Z
    also on She Writes

  2. Meryl,
    What an interesting and helpful post. Not just for parents. I was catapulted back in time, remembering the rush I experienced when writing a longer text, because I didn't think I'd be able to get on paper what was going through my mind.

    Your suggestions are right on. To learn that writing takes time and deserves time taken is important to learn at an early age.
    That my mother insisted I'd write letters on scratch paper before using my nice stationery was not just for reasons of thrift and she made that clear as well.
    I'll be passing on your blog's address and will visit again.

  3. This information is so helpful. I'm going to show the part about all the different parts of the brain and body needed for writing. She'll be reassured in knowing that there are ways to make her writing even better.

    Editing is not her favorite thing to do. Luckily her teachers this year are reinforcing editing as part of the writing process.

  4. I am glad it helped. Keep me informed. And for the record, I don't recall one of my kids or students ever LIKING editing. That's why just getting them into the habit is a good thing. Just reinforce it at home and that will help too.

    Let me know how it goes!