After homeschooling 3 kids for over a dozen years, and working with many more, I can honestly tell you that the idea your child should be reading, writing and spelling all on a single “grade level” is a HUGE lie. Each of these skills is individual and develops in its own time and in its own way for each child. However, for most kids, there are patterns that these skills follow.
Ideally, a child will be reading slightly more advanced text than they can spell and spelling words they can’t necessarily write yet. At 9 years old, a typical child who has required reading instruction (i. e. she didn’t “magically” start reading on her own) could be working on reading 5-letter-words, spelling (with printing) 4-letter-words, and writing in cursive with 3-letter-words. This staggered progression is how to reinforce the different skills without overwhelming her. Each child is different, but the way those skills needs to emerge is much the same. Reading comes first, and spelling and handwriting need to each move at their own pace. The reasons for this have to do with the skills required for each one. Let me elaborate.
Reading is a skill that requires the brain and eyes to work together. You must recognize the patterns of letters as having meaning. This is a level of abstract thought that each child develops in their own time. We learn how to read by learning to visually recognize the shape of each letter. We learn about the phonetic properties of the letters, so we can decode new words. And we sometimes just memorize words, called “sight words.”
For most kids, reading has to come before independent writing and spelling. This means that they can usually read a word for quite a while before they learn to spell it and use it in their own writing.
Spelling is an interesting skill. It usually requires a child to have certain skills in reading and writing, and yet, it is separate. Knowing how to spell a word is actually all about memorization. Our brains have to do the work of remembering either the phonics rules or the way the word should look. Some children can memorize words almost as soon as they learn to read them. But most need to work to teach their brains how to retain a word and pull it out as needed. On top of that, we ask children to demonstrate spelling skills through writing.
Writing requires its own set of skills, that can complicate this situation. For some children, taking away the task of writing—and letting the child makes the letters with blocks, magnetic tiles, or even type it into a computer—makes spelling easier. But, because the child needs to memorize the words before they can spell them, they will always need to be able to read above their spelling level.
Handwriting is possibly the most underappreciated skill taught to children today. It gets glossed over or taught very quickly. Then we wonder why children struggle with it. Handwriting is a task that you do with your eyes, hands, and brains. We learn to form and shape of the letters, first by copying them, then by memorizing their shapes and the movement pattern to write them, so that we can write them from memory. When you ask a child to write for themselves, they need to recall how to make every letter, which means that their independent writing will be several grade levels below their reading and spelling levels. Copy work can help a child reinforce their skills in spelling and reading while improving their handwriting. But only if the words they work on are close to their actual reading and spelling levels.
To comfortably write out answers on a spelling test, a child needs to be able to write each letter from memory without much thought. If you have to think about how to form each letter each time you make it, your spelling will suffer as you focus so hard on those letters that you may leave some out.
Teaching cursive is like going back to the beginning of knowing how to write, for many children. And now they have to learn the form and proper steps to make two different letters. So, if you want your child to have fluent writing skills, you need to play games and work on writing activities that are firmly within the child’s reading and spelling skills. That way, the child can just focus on the handwriting aspect without working on decoding at the same time. This can be a great way to tackle handwriting in a new way without the baggage handwriting may have had in the past.
Putting It All Together
As we’ve discussed many times before, the most important part of educating your child is meeting them where they are. It is okay to have a child that can read Terry Pratchett’s novels but can hardly spell. And it is okay to modify lessons or expectations to remove the stress of writing so you can focus on learning. Their “grade level” isn’t the important part. Respecting the individual skills for what they are and working on each one in their own space and time will lead to less overall frustration in your homeschool.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.