“Just-Keep-Swimming” Spelling Strategies

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When emergent and beginning writers want to spell a word, what can they do? They are still learning letter sounds and spelling patterns, and dictionaries are far too complicated to be of use. If they take too much time to work on a single word, chances are they’ll forget what they were writing about.

Just like Dory, in the movie Finding Nemo, young writers can easily lose their way and forget where they were headed, especially if they stop for too long and lose their momentum.

So what can emerging writers do? Like Dory says, “Just keep swimming.” Give those tricky words their best try… and move on.

However, it’s not always so easy to just keep swimming. Especially if you are aware that the word you have written is not spelled correctly–but you want it to be. Many kids will enter a stage where they know just enough about spelling to realize how much they still don’t know. This can be incredibly frustrating.

This frustration leads to some unproductive behaviors. Some will insist on convincing an adult to provide the correct spelling. Others will sit and stare at the page, completely paralyzed. Or worse–choose a different, easier word to spell, at the expense of the quality of their writing.

To keep writers moving, here are a few tried and true strategies:

1. Coach the writer to say the word out loud. Often young writers have trouble spelling the word unless they physically say the word, slowly. Trying to “hear” the word inside their head, or listening to you say the word for them isn’t as helpful.

2. Teach your writers that when they aren’t sure of a word, give it their best try, circle it…and move on. Sometimes kids just need everyone to know that they knew that the word wasn’t spelled correctly. This is akin to an adult writing “sp” next to a word.

3. Try it three different ways on a post-it or a scrap of paper, then choose the one that looks right. Often each attempt gets a little closer to the conventional spelling.

4. Coach kids to keep their pen on the paper while they are working on a tricky word. When students put their pens down, their attention often shifts away from their work to other things, making it harder to focus and give tricky words their best try.

5. Teach your writers exactly how to use their alphabet chart and/or blends chart:

  • Say the sound you want to write (“/t/”)
  • Point to your alphabet chart, one letter at a time
  • Say the name of the letter, the picture for each letter, and the sound (“A, apple, /a/; B, butterfly, /b/…”). Do this the same way as your daily alphabet routine.
  • Keep going until you find the letter you were looking for (“T, telephone, /t/… hooray!”)

Too often we simply direct kids, “Use your alphabet chart,” forgetting that if they knew what the letter looked like, they wouldn’t need the chart. Going one letter a time and using the alphabet routine will help them find the letter they need.

6. Use the five-second rule – just like for food. When kids are totally, completely stuck, after five seconds it’s okay to “give it a try.” It’s important that we coach students to be both persistent and flexible – not to get stopped in their tracks for too long by a tricky word.

Just like Dory in Finding Nemo, your young writers can learn to just keep swimming. They can give tricky words their best try, using all the strategies they know, and then continue on with their work.