Teaching spelling is one of the most challenging topics to deal with as a homeschooler. There are tons of curricula to choose from. Lots of different theories to consider. And whatever worked for your firstborn will definitely not work for your second.
Despite all of that, I have a few tips and tricks you can try using to take some of the stress out of teaching your child to spell.
Squares and boxes
In the first stage of writing, children need to listen for the sounds in the words they are writing and write the letter that goes with those sounds. This skill means they need to have a good grasp of basic phonics first. If your child is still struggling to match letters with their simplest sounds, you should back up and try a program like Foundations and Fundamentals that will help your child develop that skill.
However, even if a child knows what sounds the letters make, figuring out how many letters they need to have to complete a word can be tricky. The easiest way to work on this skill is to give your child a row of the right number of boxes to write the word in. For example, if you are going to call out words like cat, hat, and sat, you would give them a piece of paper where you have drawn three squares in a row on three lines, one box per letter, and one row per word.
You can then tell your child they will need to write one letter in each box to spell the word. Or you can explain it that each sound in the word will have a box where you write that sound. Use the same language or phrasing to explain this as you are using in other lessons on phonics. You want to reinforce the same language.
I have found this technique to be helpful with children who have auditory processing challenges where they struggle to count the sounds they hear in a word. This can also help dyslexic or dysgraphic students who tend to add extra letters or leave letters out.
Moving on to having 4 or 5 squares on the page can help students who are struggling to hear blends to once again have a better idea of how many sounds they are supposed to hear in the word.
Salt and Sugar
You have probably seen the idea of writing in salt, sugar, or other household substances like oatmeal or shaving cream. This method is often implemented with small children to help them learn to write their letters. However, it is also a good way to reinforce spelling words.
Give your child each word they are currently working on, or having trouble with, on an index card. Then have them write with their index finger in the salt tray the right way to spell the word, while either saying each letter sound or each letter name. They should say the word both before and after writing.
This method works well as a way to reinforce words a student has missed on a test or struggled to remember. When choosing what your child will write in, be sure to ask them how they feel about the options. If your child has a sensory issue with touching salt, changing to corn meal or another substance may make the lesson go more smoothly.
Chalk and Markers
For some children, the fear of making mistakes makes writing on paper too stressful. For others, the sensation of a pencil on paper is upsetting. If your student struggles with either of those, chalkboards or whiteboards can be a lifesaver.
The smooth feeling of markers on a whiteboard and the ability to quickly and easily erase the first attempt can remove a lot of stress from spelling lessons for students. Other students enjoy the feel of writing with chalk on a chalkboard. Whichever you choose, do check that your child is using an appropriate grasp on their marker or chalk.
You can take it a step further and give your student magnetic letters to spell with instead of writing. Several spelling programs suggest doing this for the first time you spell a set of words. Once the student knows how to build the word with letters, then they can add the challenge of writing the letters to make the words.
Singing and Dancing
Making spelling a whole-body experience is another way to make it multi-sensory that works for some children. You can use dance, clapping, hand motions, or even the legs and feet to move as you spell.
Have them use their hands and arms to make each letter as you chant it to a rhythm. Old-fashioned cheerleading motions and cheers are a great source of ideas for this one.
Another way to work on spelling is to turn the letters into a song. Here is one example of how Mississippi has been turned into a song.
Once again, cheers and simple rhythms can work just as well if not better than something complex. Experiment with what works best for your child.
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.