Reading and writing are companion activities. Learning to be successful at each involves learning many of the same skills. Children who develop effective early reading skills are primed to become successful writers. Many of the abilities that they build when learning to read can be applied to their writing. This is especially true when learning to spell.
Moving from Reading to Spelling
The primary building block of a child’s reading ability is her phonemic awareness. Before she can begin reading print words on a page the child needs to develop an understanding of how language works. Phonemic awareness or the understanding that words are comprised of units of sound is the basis of language. Children usually begin to develop phonemic awareness early in their lives as they listen to the words used by the adults around them. Over time they come to an awareness of how words are constructed out of phonemes or units of sound. From here they are primed to move towards decoding the written versions of the words they have learned to construct orally. The same holds true for spelling. Without phonemic awareness children are not able to learn to spell the words they want to use in their writing. They must understand that words are constructed from “pieces” of sound before they can begin writing them.
Learning to spell a word naturally follows learning to read it. When a child learns to decode and read a new word he is integrating it into his internal vocabulary. The word becomes part of the “bank” of words he knows how to read. Once the child is able to control the word internally, he can use it externally by writing. Learning to spell a word that is already a part of one’s reading vocabulary allows the child to exert external control over the word. He is able to demonstrate and extend what he already knows by turning the tables and creating a text using words he previously experienced others using in their writing.
Using Reading to Build Spelling Skills
Because children rely heavily on their phonemic awareness and understanding of phonics (relationship between sounds and print letters) when reading new words it stands to reason that they use they also use these skills when spelling unfamiliar words. Many young writers (and even some older writers) use phonetic spelling in their writing. Phonetic spelling occurs when a child does not know the standard spelling of a word and instead uses her knowledge of phonics to create a logical approximation of its spelling. This is different than inventive spelling, a core concept in Whole Language instruction. When a child uses inventive spelling, she creates her own version of the spelling of a word she does not already know. Inventive spelling, unlike phonetic spelling, does not necessarily rely on phonics. The child can use any combination of letters to “invent” the way an unfamiliar word is spelled. Phonetic spelling is systematic, relying on a core understanding of the ways that words are typically spelled.
Teaching children to spell new words phonetically is an important part of literacy development and is an extension of reading instruction. Parents and teachers should encourage children to use the understanding of phonics that they have developed through reading when writing. They should ask children to draw on their knowledge of sound-letter connections to “sound out” words they want to write, but are unsure how to spell.
Spelling Sight Words
One of the ways young people become more effective and efficient readers is by learning to identify the words most often used in texts “on sight”. These words are known as sight words. There are 220 general words and 95 nouns that have been identified as the most frequently occurring words in children’s texts. Parents and educators have made these words the core of vocabulary instruction in the early grades. Most children have integrated these sight words, also known as Dolch words, into their reading vocabularies by the end of third grade. This means that when they encounter these words in a new text they are able to quickly identify and understand them in context.
Because sight words are already a part of a child’s reading vocabulary they are perfect material for teaching him to spell. He knows what each sight word looks like in print and therefore can easily and smoothly transition into spelling it. Teachers and parents should use the sight words that a child has mastered in reading as the basis for spelling instruction. Spelling lists should be comprised of words that a child encounters in on a regular basis in reading and in daily life.
Mutually Beneficial: Spelling Instruction Enhances Reading Ability
While reading skills such as phonemic awareness and the ability to apply phonics provide the basis for spelling instruction, the benefits of learning to spell are not confined to writing. Though it is true that good readers are more likely to become good spellers the opposite is also true. Spelling instruction enhances a child’s ability to read. Studies have shown when children receive regular, explicit spelling instruction their word recognition skills increase. It is believed that while drawing on their phonemic awareness and phonics skills to spell, children are reinforcing these abilities. This in turn makes these skills more effective when children are reading.