Monday, March 25, 2013

Spelling and Vocabulary and Writing

It seems like there has been a lot of advice and comfort coming from stories, stories of success or unexpected outcomes.  I have been encouraged by stories myself a lot lately, and been telling my own.  I think I will blog some of my stories to see if maybe someone may benefit from them as well.

I will apologize at the outset that this is not smooth story.
Having a homeschool graduate, a senior, and a junior, I feel like I can say with some authority, “don’t worry about it.”  That’s not to say that I am not doing my own worrying about what lies ahead. But today I am talking about spelling, vocabulary, and writing.  There have been a plethora of questions, conversations, and concern regarding spelling and vocabulary, most specifically, and that naturally ties into writing as well.   

What did I use for spelling and vocabulary curriculum?  The answer is many things but nothing consistently.  This is mainly a story about my boys education through spelling, vocabulary and writing, a potentially worrisome route with a surprise ending. 

For Daughter 1, my oldest, we did Spelling Workout, these were workbooks and I liked the incremental way that they focused on similarly spelled words.  She probably did the first 4 -5 books. She also read at age 4 and taught herself cursive in first grade. Classic first child. 

Then came Son 2, although he was reading at age 6, he cried about any writing until he was about 9 years old, almost like it hurt to write. I finally asked a friend with a degree in early childhood development about handwriting and some possible solutions. Her  short answer was, “don’t worry about it.”  She asked me, “Amy, how often does your husband write?  How is his handwriting?  How does he generally communicate with others?”  The answer was, of course, he types emails and IMs, and on rare occasions, will hand write a note.  His handwriting isn’t that great.  Come to think of it, most doctors have notoriously bad handwriting.

So, I didn’t worry about it.  He still read and did math and wrote short answers for other subjects, but most of our learning was through reading and listening, so writing didn’t come up much.

Then Son 3 did not read until he was almost 10. So there was no writing, except some phonics, until then.  Fortunately, when he did start reading, it was right at grade-level, so we could dive right into writing.  His handwriting was (and still is) horrible, but legible.  I don’t worry about it.  

We joined a co-op, when the boys were probably 11 and 12.  There was a writing class.  For the first in-class assignment, Son 3 wrote, “I can’t spell” on his paper  The teacher showed me the assignment, and I just sighed.  I was worried!  

I went home and read Ruth Beechick’s “The Three R’s” book, the writing section, and Susan Wise Bauer’s book, “Writing with Ease”.   Both recommended dictation.  I sat the boys down at the kitchen table and told them.  “I am going to read something to you and you are going to write it down.  You may correct your work from the original when I am done and you can ask me to spell any word you don’t know.”   I read to them a Shel Silverstein poem (can’t remember which one),needless to say, they were chuckling as they wrote.  

It was like a miracle.  All it took was 2-3 dictation lessons for them to realize, “Yes, I can spell reasonably well, and I can always correct it if it is wrong.” , “I can easily put what is in my head onto paper.” and “Hey, writing can be creative and fun.”  Shortly afterward, Son 3 wrote a novel about my husband.  The title was, “Stephen in Fantasy World”.  Friends, relatives, and acquaintances were main characters.  It was quite humorous. The handwriting was horrible, but he brought it to me regularly to check the spelling and make corrections before showing it to his co-op teacher.  

I should mention that Boy 2, handwriter-with-tears, was still not great at getting much on paper, but his handwriting ended up being BEAUTIFUL!  He may not have had much to say, but he  could be a calligrapher.  

I should also mention Daughter 4 here (currently age 10).  She is another struggling reader, auditory learner.  If she hears it, she remembers it. Dictation was also crucial to her learning.  She seemed to turn a corner when I started spelling by dictating words to her.  I say it, she says it back, and spells it.  The combo of hearing and writing has, been the key to her finally jumping from sounding-out to some whole-word reading.  Whew.  I was worried for a while there. (Just a note, that I got this phonics dictation idea from the blog at

Back to the boys’ story.  

I bought Sequential Spelling.  My boys grew quickly bored with it.  

I bought Vocabulary from the Classical Roots.  It was okay. I think they may have each completed a book.....maybe.  

I bought some Sadlier-Oxford vocabulary workbooks.  We had those in school and I loved them.  But my boys did not get the subtle differences in meanings for words that seemed obvious to me and Daughter 1. 

Meanwhile, Daughter 1 was (is) an avid reader and was working through Wordly Wise vocab books for some grades and Vocabulary from Classical roots for others. She was constantly reading.  Every free moment.....reading, reading, reading.  And I think that IS the key to spelling AND vocabulary AND writing.  

We were also reading a lot as a family.  As part of school each day, I read new and classic literature, history, historical fiction, science, etc. aloud to the kids.  My husband read to the kids at night.  Eventually, the boys started reading for pleasure and for school assignments as well.

When the boys were about 13 and 14, I decided to start a boys‘ writing class with them and a few of their friends.  I used the curriculum Write Shop. The accountability and competition of writing with friends really spurred them on.  I had read the book “Boy Writers” by Ralph Fletcher and it gave me different goals and expectations for the class.  We were not going to be discussing feelings here.  I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised at the material that was eventually produced.  All of the boys really improved over the course of the class and gained confidence in writing.  

In the following years, they had writing assignments for history and language arts, but honestly, they did not produce much. 

At ages 15 and 16, I did do a short SAT essay prep class with them and two other homeschool students.  This was a new level of difficulty, timed essays.  They did fine.  Their reasoning was clear, their spelling mostly correct, and their vocabulary commendable.

Since then, they have not done much formal spelling, vocabulary or writing, aside from the “you must use correct spelling and grammar on Facebook” ultimatum.  Did you ever think of spell-check as a good spelling teacher?  A red line warning you each time you spell something wrong, seems to be a good teacher to me.

So, how are they doing now? 

I have caught them reading the dictionary, vocab flip books, and cartoon vocab books on their own.

They scored “okay” on their PSAT and SATs. Boy 3 may improve his scores, he still has a few more tries at it.

They scored very well on the Accuplacer, placement test for CCRI.

They are both taking a CCRI Intro to Lit course, heavy on the reading and the writing.  They have both said how much they really love it and have completed all their assignments without (many) reminders from me.  I will have to update with a grade, but they are holding their own in a college class at the ages of 16 and 17.  

Perhaps they could have gotten better scores on their SAT (one still may), If they did “all the workbooks”.  Despite or Because of the ad-hoc spelling, vocabulary and writing education they have received, they like reading, they like writing, and they like words, which I think is key to them continuing to pursue these subjects as they continue their education out from under my guidance.  

Not sure what we learn from my story, but I guess it is: if your child is a language lover let them go with it.  If they are not, try something else.  Read, read, read, either them to you or you to them.  And......don't worry about it.




  1. Thank you for the reminder not to worry about it. I keep wondering if we aren't doing enough for Language Arts - it's very hodge podge. And maybe we should do vocabulary building workbooks. But then I look at how much my boys CONSUME books and decide they're doing ok. Considering they are 8 and 9 and just finished reading The Hobbit and parts of the LOTR trilogy, I think they are doing OK. I doubt they understand even half of the words they read but they'll get there.

    1. Book consumption is awesome!! Just have a lot of good stuff hanging around and (almost) always allow reading to trump other activities. I used to say, "why am I going to make her come in here and 'do school' with me when she is reading a book?"