Developing a child-centered spelling program

iStock_000003219917XSmallWhen her school district discontinued use of a commercial spelling program, Aileen Wheaton, a third-grade teacher, was charged with developing spelling lessons as part of the language arts curriculum.

Wheaton did not want to use lists from literature or children’s writing, which seemed too random and dependent on memorization. So she collaborated with Mary Jo Fresch, Ohio State University/Marion, to develop a child-centered spelling method that individualizes instruction for a wide range of grade levels.

The approach, called “Sort, Search and Discover,” integrates theories on teaching spelling, including the known characteristics of developmental stages of learning to spell with classroom practice.

Applying their philosophy and knowledge of research, Wheaton and Fresch came up with the following key elements for a child-centered program:

1. Because children learn to spell at different rates, the program has to be flexible and organized according to the individual needs of the child.

2. Activities should focus on words and word components, using a variety of activities.

3. Children should be tested frequently.

4. Words should be learned through using language, not by memorization.

Before the new spelling lessons began, Wheaton tested students’ spelling proficiency using the Qualitative Inventory of Word Knowledge, a list of 20 to 30 grade-level words, which identifies developmental levels. 

The five-day instructional plan begins with a pre-test of words selected by the teacher to illustrate a certain phonetic spelling pattern. Teaching Spelling, by Ed Henderson, was a valuable resource, with its lists of words sorted by grade level and categorized by patterns.

The teacher pulls words from both below and above grade level in an attempt to develop a flexible word list that works for all the children in the class. Students who score correctly on 80 percent of the pretest words search for more difficult words that illustrate the same spelling patterns. 

Using one sheet of paper, students write the words three times in three columns. One column is sent home for study with parents. One is stapled to the student’s writing folder and one is cut up for the word-sorting activity.

Word sorts valuable for developing word knowledge

Research has shown the value of word sorts as a good way for children to develop word knowledge. In an “open” sort, children sift through different words, compare them and establish categories. In a “closed” sort, teachers use key words to guide the sorting in order to show the relationship of phonetics to spelling.

On day 2, children sort their words on the basis of the sounds they contain. They are then asked to make a generalization about the letter combination that makes the sound of a particular word.

The teacher collects all the words, and with the input of students, discusses the letter patterns of each word. In this way, students learn from one another and from the teacher’s modeling of responses. A word hunt follows, in which students hunt through books, magazines and newspapers for other words with the same patterns.

On day 3, children use these words to write texts that their peers then edit. Day 4 consists of group word games designed to be fun and to stimulate interest in language. On day 5, students are tested on the words.

Those who score under 80 percent correct are targeted for further work on that particular spelling pattern. Wheaton found that, with a few adjustments, the Search, Sort, and Discover method worked well with inclusion students.

Wheaton widened the grade range of words on the word list. Inclusion students needed extra guidance during the word sort, and adult or peer help in talking about and categorizing the words. During the word hunt, pairing inclusion children with other children helped to promote cooperative learning. If students are unable to write, they can dictate or tape-record a story using the words for day 3 activities.


“Sort, Search, and Discover: Spelling in the Child-Centered Classroom” Reading Teacher, September 1997, Volume 51 Number 1 pp. 20-31.

Published in ERN November/December 1997 Volume 10 Number 5

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