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    Spelling for Freedom

    October 7, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    I have been thinking about how much I appreciate our spelling curriculum ever since a week ago Monday when I was picking up my raw milk and the gal behind the counter, a fellow homeschooling mom, showed me what they were doing for spelling. They are just starting out, and I think it is too soon to tell if they will be happy with it or not. However, looking over her program made me realize how the program we use is distinct from the traditional method of learning to spell.

    Defining the Traditional Method

    Just so we are on the same page, I think it’d be helpful to clarify what I consider to be traditional when it comes to spelling. What I mean when I say traditional spelling is that spelling is learned by memorizing lists of words. The general idea is that the words become more difficult over time.

    When I was in school, spelling lessons often doubled with vocabulary lessons. So, in order to attempt a sort of integration of curriculum, I was given a list of vocabulary words. I had to memorize the definitions and the proper spelling. Each week, there was at least one test on the words. And then we moved on to the next list. If the words were words that we encountered in our textbooks, I usually remembered them, and if they weren’t, they skipped my mind until I was older and learned the words again, all by myself.

    As far as I know, this is how spelling was done in one-room school houses, and this is how it is usually done today in school rooms throughout the land.

    My Original Ideal

    I originally thought that perhaps spelling would just “happen” as a sort of organic response to regular copywork. I have read stories about people who copied beautiful passages out of well-written books, and subsequently they could spell. Copywork was like magic.

    As a basic introduction to grammar, I find that copywork has been magical. Without being taught, my son has honed his instincts. He knows how the language works, that you capitalize the first letter of a sentence and end a sentence with a period. He has gradually grasped quotation marks, commas, and semi-colons. He doesn’t know all the rules yet {I do not plan to introduce formal grammar until third or fourth grade}, but as we have discussed his mistakes, he has learned the names of all of these things over time.

    When we begin formal grammar, these concepts will not be new to him; he will just be becoming better friends with them.

    However, comma.

    Spelling was another animal entirely. I was shocked, actually. My son was such a natural-born reader, I expected words to flow the opposite direction just as easily. But they didn’t, and the result was massive frustration during copywork. He painstakingly copied letter by letter, rather than word by word. I watched him struggle faithfully, day after day, never improving his speed by even a minute, for months.

    And so, I let go of my ideal, and sought out a spelling program.

    Spelling and Language Mastery

    My goal in all of the lessons I give is mastery. I don’t want my children to learn to spell, per se. I want them to master the language, and spelling is a part of that. People who cannot spell have not completely mastered the language. Period. There are a few types of words that I struggle with spelling, and I know it is not because I cannot spell a particular word, but rather that there is a portion of the language that I do not fully understand.

    Memorizing lists does not help us understand how the language actually works. I’m not saying this isn’t helpful, because it is in a general sense. Obviously, a person is better off being able to spell a word, in comparison with not being able to spell a word. However, lists usually contain completely disconnected words, or words that are connected, but not logically, within the context of how language actually functions, but rather associatively, through their proximity in the latest textbook.

    I wanted a curriculum that built language mastery, not a list of known words. I consider this to be similar to the difference between learning to read by memorizing sight words and learning to read by understanding the phonetic foundations of English or Latin or whatever language you are learning to read. Inflected languages have a logic, and learning the logic is what is required for mastery.

    How We Learn to Spell

    I do not pretend that the curriculum I use is the only one out there using the nature of language as the guide for learning how to spell. I have no idea what is out there. Finding this curriculum was a happy accident. My sister used it when she was homeschooling my nephew, and she was such a big fan that she sent me the information, right when I needed it (providence!), and the rest is history. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time shopping, which is the way I like my life to be as a general rule.

    Here is what we use:

    Sequential Spelling 1

    Now that I have used it, I can see how helpful it is to have completed all basic phonics lessons beforehand. I do wonder how this will work with my next student coming up. Perhaps we will not commence with spelling until second grade, if necessary.

    For phonics, for those of you who are wondering, we use a binder method based upon my own experience as a reading tutor, with a bit of inspiration from the Bluedorns mixed in. I know nothing about the reading curriculum available on the market these days. When I teach a child to read, I keep it really, really simple. I teach diphthongs and so on as we go through the Bob Books series. It is simple, fun, and mastery-based, the way we go about it.

    Looking at our spelling book, I can see how important it was to be familiar with the basic sounds before beginning, otherwise it might be too much of a struggle.

    For comparison, let’s review the traditional method. I googled “spelling lists for second grade” and got a list that a school somewhere out there actually used for a week. Here are the words: eddy, entry, envy, testy, selfish, civil, ditty, giddy, silly, livid, limit.

    Now, what our spelling book does is select a couple roots from which to learn to build words. Spelling is organic, and the roots are expanded and added to, as if they were growing stems and then leaves and the flowers, with longer words being built as the days go by. {Tests, by the way, are optional and not really the point.}

    A few days ago, we began playing with a new root word, end. On the first day, he spelled: end, bend, lend, blend, depend, suspend, spend. There were a couple other roots also, but I’ll stick to one example here. By this time, since we’ve been doing this a while, he has had many opportunities to add letters to the beginning and endings of roots, so this all goes quickly. The next day, he starts adding the -s ending. So the words are: ends, bends, lends, blends, depends, suspends, and spends. On the day after that, he practices the past tenses: ended, bent, lent, blended, depended, suspended, and spent. I take the opportunity to reinforce his phonics as we go, and we do not do a separate reading “program” at this point. Today, he added -ing to the words and got: ending, bending, lending, blending, depending, suspending, and spending. This goes on for days and days, and next week there will be new words with a root of end that he will be building: intending, extending, amending, vending, friendlier, befriending, attending.

    My son completely impressed his father by spelling misunderstanding the other day, but what I took away from that is that understanding the logic of the language means that a long word like misunderstanding is no more intimidating that a smaller word like stand or and because all of the words go together.

    We often joke that most words are like Legoes. You start with one block and make them bigger and bigger, but in the end, at the root of it all, is still that one little block that started it all.

    Result: Freedom

    This takes twenty minutes a day, unless someone gets a dirty diaper. My son understands the language better. His copywork is faster. He can spell words we haven’t studied because we are learning logic, not lists. {As a general rule, the only words we spell more than once are words that don’t fit the logic, like the word eyes.} Being familiar with the nature of the language helps him understand other words, and I have no fear that he won’t know a word just because I haven’t taught it to him.

    This isn’t a Charlotte Mason-style of learning, I don’t think. {I must plead ignorance because I don’t remember much of what she said about spelling except that we shouldn’t let a child sit and stare at a word spelled incorrectly.} However, I do think that this method respects the living nature of language. It brings all things back together, in a sense. Now, words are not individual unrelated symbols, but rather groupings of letters that make sense, and we can play with them and build different words using the same foundation, and in a flash we realize that our language is not chaotic and confusing, but rather possessing of a nature that is accessible to us, able to be understood by even some of our youngest members.

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts June 6, 2010 at 9:35 pm


    I was beginning to respond to you comment, and realized it was turning into a post, so I’m going to do what I have often done in the past, and reply as well as I can in tomorrow’s posting. You actually brought up a few issues that have been simmering in my mind for a while.

    I agree with you in part. For instance, I don’t allow our children to use machines to do their work for them. This doesn’t just apply to math. I’d include things like using a machine to knead dough for them, to sew for them, or even to entertain them. Once they have mastered the habits involved in, to use your example, math, I’d be much more likely to allow a tool to increase their speed. But, yes, I agree that one becomes better at math by doing math.

    There is a certain extent to which this can be applied to spelling–the more times we spell a word correctly, the more likely we are to spell it correctly in the future.

    However, comma.

    We disagree on a number of points. You appear to be representing a form of Dewey-based pragmatism/existentialism in learning (whether you realize it or not may be a different issue), while I was taking the standpoint of classical education through liberal (liberating ) arts.

    And so I thank you for your comment so much! It is giving me a chance to refine some of my thinking in this area. Hopefully, you will read tomorrow’s post and offer your ideas in the comments for further conversation.

  • Reply Anonymous June 6, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    All true knowledge is experience and everything else is just information. This is not to say that we do not need good information, of course we do. All kids and adults have their own best learning styles: listening, seeing, etc. but all learn better by Doing. You learn by doing. This is especially true for arithmetic. If you are homeschooling or teaching at all, you should Never Let a Kid use a Mechanical or Electronic Device such as a Calculator or Computer as a Learning Tool. After they have achieved 8th grade competencies in reading, writing and aritmetic, then give them computers and calculators as Tools but Do Not Let the Calculators and Computers Become their Teachers as the Computers and Calculators Do the Work with the kid never understanding the Concepts. By doing Math on Paper and learning the rules, a kids mind is being programmed and his rational brain and logic is being developed. If you side track this with a calculator or computer, the child’s rational brain and reasoning abilities will not be well developed.

  • Reply Jeana November 2, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Thanks, Brandy!

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 2, 2009 at 10:42 pm


    The book is really for the teacher, and it is not a consumable. The first few pages explain exactly how to “do” Sequential Spelling. For instance, the author suggests that you say the word, and then say the word in a sentence, and lastly say the word again. Also, he has a way of “color coding” when you write out the word so that they can better see the root within the word. I don’t do his method exactly, but pretty close.

    There is something called the Student Response Book that I bought when we started, but I don’t plan to buy one again. There is no reason why you can’t use a simple sheet of lined paper, and if you like to hold onto things, put it all into a binder as you go along. The point really is that each day they start fresh and unable to see the roots from the day before. This is important because they are likely reusing the roots from the prior day, they need to remember them rather than copy them.

    I have never heard of SS for homeschoolers, but my guess is that the instructions are written with a one-on-one situation in mind rather than a classroom. But the instructions are very easy to modify; I don’t think that having a homeschool version is really necessary.


    Now that I think of it, a while back I wrote a little review on SS and the one thing I didn’t like was the sentence selection. There was, if I recall, talk of bullying, or hating your homework, or whatever. I basically rewrote the sentences myself. My guess is that the version for homeschoolers is a better fit for the homeschool culture.

  • Reply Jeana November 2, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Brandy, is this a workbook, or can I use the same book for all my kids?

    Also, there is one on Amazon called SS for homeschool. Do you know what the difference is?

  • Reply Mystie October 9, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Rachel, we use TATRAS, too. πŸ™‚ My mom discovered it at a homeschool convention when my next brother was beginning to learn to read. The author was actually the one at the table; he lives about 150 miles from here, in Tacoma WA.

    Supposedly you can use the TATRAS word lists as spelling lists as well, but they aren’t grouped into consistent families, so I didn’t want to. I’ve also heard that natural spellers are usually the visual ones, because they can see the word. There are spelling programs geared for kinesthetic learners (Spelling Power), but it’s one of those “systems” sort of programs that give me a headache thinking about. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts October 9, 2009 at 2:11 pm


    Interesting thoughts! I am actually not sure if my oldest is a visual learner or what he is exactly, but I will say that my daughter that i assume will start later than him is VERY kinesthetic when compared to her siblings.

  • Reply Rachel R. October 9, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    One of the things that I appreciate about the author of our phonics program (TATRAS) is that he acknowledges that spelling is harder than reading. This is because there are so many different ways, in the English language, to form a particular sound, that the student not only has to recognize that all of those variations make that, but has to be able to choose the correct one to use in his particular instance.

    I suspect that, with familiarity, spelling comes much more naturally to visual learners than to others. I am, for the most part, an excellent speller. I can just look at a word and tell you whether it looks right (in many instances, even if the word itself is unfamiliar), but I could not tell you why I recognize one spelling as correct and another as incorrect. It just looks right!

    And I would guess that kinesthetic or tactile learners have the hardest time, because they are not only likely to naturally “see” the word as correct or incorrect, they’re also less likely to naturally “hear” the letter combinations the words make.

  • Reply Kansas Mom October 9, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks, Mystie & Brandy. I’ll watch how things go and consider adding spelling next year.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts October 8, 2009 at 10:30 pm


    I think Mystie and I are pretty likeminded when it comes to spelling. E. is still in SS1 because I didn’t start him until Term Three of Year One. I was waiting to see if his copywork would “click” for him, and I waited a good six months. I mainly decided to do this to see if it would ease his frustration, and it did…almost entirely.

    My son was only an okay student when it came to writing, so I made sure that I spread out his assignments that required writing, much as CM suggests (well, she suggests that you do no do like things back-to-back, but rather use different parts of the brain). So, last year, we started off the day with copywork before breakfast, did math midmorning, and spelling in the afternoon. Now, he can write for longer periods of time without a problem; I think he mostly required muscle development.

    I agree with Mystie, that spelling is for children who are reading fairly well. This is why I assume that my next student won’t begin it until at least second grade–she is almost two years behind her brother when it comes to reading. (We are working right now on identifying the lower case letter symbols.) For my students, I plan to perfect phonics and reading first, and then use spelling to reinforce the phonics later. Of course, all of this might change as my daughter progresses and what she needs to strengthen her language mastery is revealed over time. I try to hold my plans loosely. πŸ™‚

    Mystie, I am glad to hear that SS isn’t the only curriculum doing this. I can see what you mean about this being a more straight-forward approach than what you did as a child, but I’m still glad to hear there are people out there considering the nature of the language.

    I did see a few lists out there that tried to integrate spelling with phonics, but they were going about it entirely the wrong way. So, for instance, all the words on the list would have the short-a sound. But instead of using closely related words like mat, sat, and cat, they were all over the board with mad, batter, and can. So the spelling itself had no pattern, no commonalities other than the letter-a, which wasn’t much to go on.

    Interesting that your boys are good writers…For me it is the reverse. My little girls were born with pencils in their hands! My son? He is better off holding a hammer!

  • Reply Mystie October 8, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    I started with my oldest when we began “first grade,” but I don’t consider it a hard-and-fast necessity. I wasn’t going to do any at all until I saw Brandy’s first post on Sequential Spelling and the store I was already ordering things from had it used, so I thought I’d give it a try.

    My oldest is already reading smoothly, and I don’t think I’d begin until a child was reading and familiar with sounding words out. I also wouldn’t start if the child labored over writing. My son likes writing, and actually likes spelling as long as we keep the lessons short. We are still working on handwriting too, but he writes all the time on his own, so I thought spelling made sense. He’s now more likely to try to figure words out on his own than ask how to spell them. We’re working on handwriting and making his letters look better, but he can easily and legibly write all his letters and numbers. In spelling I focus on getting him to write with lower case, but he writes them capital-letter size (on wide-rule notebook paper) and isn’t tidy about the lines.

    My second son also appears to enjoy writing, and makes letters anytime he draws anything, but he’s not picking up phonics as quickly as Hans. I’m not going to do much of any other instruction for him (he joins most of Hans’ school anyway) until he can read. My mom’s rule of thumb was you were in first grade (with workbooks and such) once you could read, and I plan to keep the same general approach.

    How about you, Brandy?

  • Reply Kansas Mom October 8, 2009 at 3:07 am

    Mystie, when did you introduce spelling? First Son is still working on handwriting. (He’s been introduced to the whole alphabet and is starting numbers tomorrow.) I intend to continue with practicing and to introduce our address and phone number in the near future (hoping that writing them down will be good handwriting practice and lead him to memorize them).

    I’m not sure how to know if he needs spelling. He asks us how to spell things and we’re trying to teach him to sound them out. I guess I don’t really expect him to be able to spell very much at all right now, but I don’t know if that’s right.

    From what I remember of Charlotte Mason style teaching done by other homeschooling moms, they were of the copywork persuasion. Write it and it will be learned. The most experienced mom I know personally uses lists of words from the upcoming Sunday’s readings as her spelling words for the week (written out every day, more difficult words selected for the more advanced students).

    Me, I had to memorize. I memorized every word I know how to spell. It would be much better, I think, to work in groups. And, based on my experience with Spanish, writing them over and over again is going to make a big difference.

  • Reply Mystie October 7, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    I am so glad you posted about spelling originally while I was putting our first grade together. I bought SS 1 used for $7, paid $2 to have it spiral bound (the cover was falling off), and I will be able to use it for all our children!

    We have been doing half a day 4 days a week, and that takes my son about 15 minutes, but he’s not burnt out by the end (25 was burning him out).

    I learned spelling with a Bob Jones workbook, and it was a similar “word families” arrangement. This, however, is more to-the-point and straightforward. With the workbook you copied them, then played with them in various activities (crossword puzzles and other “fun” excuses to get you to write the words several times), and then on Fridays you were tested, and any you got wrong were added to next week’s list. I had several words I remember spelling half the year. πŸ™‚ Learning families makes sense, and I like this non-workbook, bare-bones approach. With it it’s easy to not let them see a word misspelled for more than a couple seconds, too.

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