Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spelling Wisdom

My mother insists that there's no point in teaching spelling. People fall into two immutable categories: natural spellers and natural misspellers. I hope she's wrong, as the mother of both orthographically gifted and challenged children.

But I hate teaching spelling lists, words, and rules, so I've only taught spelling erratically. While I find learning to spell words by rote to be tedious, I find learning by spelling "rules" to be even worse, maddening because of the tower of exceptions. Neither option ignites a love-of-learning flame in me or my children.

Whenever I try to find a solution to an educational problem, I usually find it somewhere in the context of Suzuki's method for teaching music. Last year at a workshop I attended, a Suzuki teacher said that much of the beauty of the method is that the etudes (exercises) are taken directly from the pieces. Rather than go through drills that have little musical meaning, children work on sections of their pieces to improve technique and musicality, then place those sections back in the context of the whole piece of music.

For spelling, this should mean that words to study come directly from books children are reading. However, I'm not sure that I would cover all of the 6,000 most-frequently-used-English words by selecting passages from our current studies. In my search I discovered Spelling Wisdom, a Charlotte-Mason-style curriculum. The introduction explains that Charlotte Mason "taught spelling, not in isolated lists of words but in the context of useful and beautiful language." Most of the exercises in the five books of Spelling Wisdom are taken from literary works and the Bible. As such, they are full of meaning, with literary language and ideas, the food of thought.

The main appeal for me is that, at last, I have found a spelling curriculum I can actually tolerate teaching. My children study the words in the passage and when they feel ready, I dictate it to them as they write it. No more lists and rules! I enjoy the selected quotes, which often contain thoughts that stick with me, and I have even copied some of them into my journal. The approach's simplicity also appeals to me. I merely open the book, find the passage, and recite it to my children.

The approach is by nature synergistic, with spelling and language arising naturally from the study of a passage by a skilled writer. As I have discussed the passages with my children, I have found vocabulary, punctuation, syntax, interpretation of poetry, and the discussion of the authors' ideas all to arise naturally from dictation. I believe this detailed examination of the way a writer uses language for beauty and meaning will help them in their own writing, too.

I only regret that all of the dictation passages do not come directly from books they are reading or have read. One way I am remedying that is by selecting one passage a week from our current book. With my 5th and 3rd grade boys, we have done some from The Secret Garden and will soon begin The Westing Game. This lets them see how the part fits into a whole. I would also like to read several of the books the passages in Spelling Wisdom come from, but we haven't yet done that.

My 5th and 3rd grade sons are doing Book One together, my 8th grade daughter is doing Book Three, and my 10th grade daughter is doing Book Five. Each book is intended to take approximately two school years to complete. You can purchase it spiral bound or as an ebook.


  1. I was actually going to call you to ask you what spelling program you use! Thank you for this!

  2. Dictation is a big part of the German curriculum. I had to do it with my German exchange teacher in HS. It is a good way to work on spelling, grammar, and helps with writing too. I think I am a natural non-speller, although I still remember the rules from elementary school.

  3. Hi! I realize that you wrote this post quite a while ago and am wondering after using Spelling Wisdom for that long how it ended up working for your kids. I have one natural speller and one natural misspeller and I've just started using Book 1 with my misspeller. She's been spelling the words correctly so far, but I suspect that the correct spellings are simply in her short-term memory, so that she only has to remember them long enough to quickly write them down after studying the model. I, too, chose this curriculum because I read that it followed the Suzuki Method, but am confused because the Suzuki Method relies heavily on review, and I don't see how Spelling Wisdom reviews old words (perhaps it does later, as we are only on the 6th exercise). Anyway, I'd appreciate your perspective now that you've used it awhile.