How do spelling errors impact vocabulary?
Updated: Nov 11, 2022
Max, a 7th-grade student, was participating in a sentence writing activity. He was working on different types of verbs (action, helping, linking) and was writing a sentence using fly as an action verb. He wrote, "The bird flu in the sky." Now, if you were just paying attention to the intended meaning, he successfully completed the task. However, after taking the extra step to look at his sentence with a literacy-focused lens, it's clear there is a notable problem. Flu and flew may be made up of the same sounds, but they are two different words with two different meanings. They are homophones.
It wasn't until I started working with children with language-based learning disabilities that I understood how common (and confusing) homophones are. Plane & plane, road & rode, main & mane.. the list goes on and on. With each error, I recognized how spelling errors can affect vocabulary growth. Many students implicitly pick up on the differences in how the words are spelled and map them to the definition. But, many need to be explicitly taught the difference. Here's the thing: no matter which category a child falls into, they will not be harmed by direct teaching. On the flip side, those students who won't learn it implicitly will fall further and further behind. Unfortunately, for many students, by the time people start to notice their errors, the list of words they need to re-learn seems endless.
It's not just homophones that are problematic. In our last blog post, we talked about how one sound error can change the meaning of a word. The same goes for spelling. If we consistently misspell a word, chances are we have the word wrong. Some spelling errors are caught easier than others. If you misspell coach as couch, chances are you'll recognize your error once it's read out loud. But other errors, especially for new words (remember: we are always growing our vocabulary- there is no limit), are not as easily noticed. What about the student who spellers moniker as monker? They missed out on the opportunity to acquire a new vocabulary word.
So, what can we do? Here are our key takeaways:
Don't turn an eye to spelling errors. Better yet, teach spelling in evidence-based ways so your students can develop the skills they need to become strong spellers (a free webinar by Dr. Louisa Moats https://www.pivotlearning.org/resources/teaching-spelling)
Don't assume a child knows the meaning of a word. There is no such thing as too much good ( refer to Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Second Edition) vocabulary instruction.
Don't teach in a vacuum. Integrate meaning with spelling instruction, and integrate spelling with vocabulary instruction.
Don't over-rely on spell check!! This one is big. Technology is great for many reasons, but it also limits our ability to detect spelling (and potentially, vocabulary) errors.
No matter how old your child is, encourage them to handwrite. As stated above, we don't want to over-rely on spell check. Good ol' pencil and paper is the best way to go when helping your child become a better speller.
Assist your child with spelling, but don't just give them every word. You can help them while skill fostering their skills. For instance, draw their attention to sounds in words. Trying to spell snake? "Hmm, I hear a "ssss" at the beginning- what letter makes the "sss" sound?" When the letters don't map to the expected sounds, you can show them which letter to use instead. The heart word method is a great resource for teaching the spelling of irregularly spelled words (https://www.reallygreatreading.com/heart-word-magic)
While engaging in different activities (writing, reading, playing a game, etc.) draw attention to different vocabulary words. While doing so, comment on extensions of that word.
Keep an eye out for spelling and/or vocabulary errors. If you become concerned, consult with a specialist. Knowledge is power.
As always, email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments about this week's post. Better yet, if you're interested in connecting with The Learning Doctor, visit www.seattlelearningdoctor.com to inquire about a free consultation.