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Spelling with Word Families: The Thinking Approach

Spelling patterns and word familiesThe brain likes to discover patterns.

Because of their natural inclination toward patterns, children can effectively learn words with similar spelling patterns in the same lesson (“Look! Keep and sheep are both spelled with ee!”). It's also easy for the brain to recall patterns ("I remember that would, could, and should are all spelled with -ould."). If the student is learning to spell the word musical, he or she can group and learn many other words that share common patterns—such as critical, electrical, and logical—at the same time.

Teaching spelling patterns is similar to teaching the multiplication tables: it’s easier to teach all the “times two” facts together, and the same for the “times five” facts, the “times eleven” facts, and so on. When you group similar math facts together, children can see the patterns and logic behind them, which provides a foundation for building advanced skills.

That’s why we group words into “word families.”

Word families are groups of words that all follow a similar pattern. Grouping words is an excellent way to teach a large number of words in a relatively short period of time. When we teach the ee vowel team, for example, we teach words like tree, feet, deep, week, and green in the same word list. When we teach the gn phonogram, the word list includes design, resign, assignment, and campaign.

With word families, the number of words your student can master increases significantly.

Instead of learning one or two words per spelling pattern, your student can learn eight to twenty-five words without much additional effort, so it's an efficient way to learn. And the recall of individual words is improved because similar words are stored together in the student’s brain. That’s all great news.

But there's bad news, too.

If you stop there—just teaching word lists grouped by word families—you will be severely disappointed in your teaching efforts.

Why? Because if you use word families incorrectly, students may end up just following the “pattern” of that particular lesson, blindly zipping through the spelling words without really learning them. What you intended to be educational and insightful becomes an exercise in following patterns—and the time you spent teaching spelling goes down the drain because your student can’t actually spell those words outside of the neatly organized list.

So as helpful as word families are for speeding up learning and helping with recall, it’s important to take spelling instruction to the next level. At All About Spelling, we know that after your student has a good handle on how to spell the words on the list, it is absolutely critical to move on to the next phase.

The solution: a fail-proof system to prevent your student from blindly following the spelling pattern.

You want your student to be able to spell correctly outside of spelling class and away from the neatly organized lists—and All About Spelling gives you a fail-proof system to prevent your student from mechanically following the patterns. It’s a simple system, and it’s built right into the lesson plans.

Just as it's important to drill random math facts to ensure mastery, it’s essential to mix up spelling words with different patterns after they have been learned. The idea is to keep your student’s mind on the spelling of the words and not on the simple repetition of a pattern.

Our system for breaking up patterns and improving retention is three-pronged:

  1. Every lesson begins with a short review of previously-taught Word Cards. The cards are shuffled so that words with different patterns are presented in different orders, and the words from the same family are no longer grouped together. 
  2. Each lesson ends with sentence dictation featuring a wide variety of previously-learned words of every spelling pattern. 
  3. Starting in Level 3, the Writing Station feature requires your student to write original sentences using suggested words with a variety of spelling patterns. 

With the “Thinking Approach to Word Families,” your student will steadily grow in spelling ability and confidence. And with our step-by-step lesson plans, everything is laid out for you so you don’t have to wonder if you are doing the right thing. Just sit back and watch our method work for you and your student!

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