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Why Isn’t My Spelling Curriculum Working?

It's my pleasure to share some thoughts about why your spelling curriculum might not be working for you the way it should, and to tell you a little about one that might.

It’s my pleasure to share some thoughts about why your spelling curriculum might not be working for you the way it should, and to tell you a little about Spelling You See. There are hundreds of things I could tell you about this curriculum, but I will stick to a few things that I think are really important.

My Journey with Spelling

As a homeschool parent, I made the mistaken assumption that if a student is a good reader, that they can spell well; that’s not necessarily the case.

My oldest daughter was a fabulous reader. When she was in 3rd grade, she tested out of the Stanford testing protocol, which was at a 12th grade reading level. She also couldn’t spell her way out of a wet paper bag.

One of my sons was a natural speller; he could spell pretty much anything you could throw at him, and his spelling and reading skills worked together well.

My other children were a mix of their older siblings in regards to spelling.

I honestly believed that being able to spell was something that you could either do or not do. It wasn’t until I became familiar with the Spelling You See curriculum that I learned that there were specific reasons why I had children who were great spellers, and two children who were hesitant spellers.

Enter Spelling You See. Teaching my dyslexic child convinced me that Spelling You See is a radically different way to teaching spelling.

Why Are There Students Who Can Read Well But Can’t Spell?


When good readers encounter a word they have not seen before, they rapidly scan words before and after it and continue reading seamlessly.Most of the time we have no idea that that has even occurred. That’s why you’ll hear a fluent reader read through words perhaps they haven’t encountered before, but they can do it without a challenge.


Spelling is the opposite skill. It’s encoding, so not only do we have to think about the sounds or the phonemes that make up a word, but we have to think about the differences in the way those phonemes are formed in order to construct the word accurately.

In English we have 26 letters that make 44 sounds, and they can be combined in 256 different combinations. So, frankly it’s a miracle that any of us spell well at all in English.

What About Spelling Lists?

We have taught spelling according to a traditional pattern for generations. This is where a student is given a list of words. They’re going to practice with this list of words, and, at some point in time, they’re going to be given a test on that list of words. When they misspell words, they will be asked to spend more time on them.

Spelling lists are a negative proposition; in the extreme, it can cause an enormous of stress for students. The reason it works haphazardly is because our brain treats a static list, with words given no context, as item memory.

Have you ever written a shopping list? If you write the list and leave it at home, how many of those items do you remember when you get to the store? Probably not a lot. This is because our brain has retained that list for a period of time, but it hasn’t made it to long-term memory. That also is the succinct explanation of why you might have a student who does very well on their spelling tests, but when you ask them to write their thoughts, the words that you thought they had mastered on their spelling test are not truly mastered because they’re not coming back.

We know, from studies of learning and the neurology of behavior and how we learn, that we begin at a global level and then we take it down to the small pieces whenever we learn something new. And because of that, when we’re asking students to work with components of pieces without giving them a framework on which to hang that paradigm, it is more difficult for them to recall.

Learning Spelling in Context

There are some very popular spelling assertions that would have you group lists of words together, sorted by kinds of words, or words that have particular endings; i-g-h-t comes to mind. However, taking those words out of the context of the list and reproducing them out of your head when and where you want to use them is a complex process.

The most complex process we ask students to do in an academic environment–whether home, public, or private–is to put their thoughts in writing. The number of things that the student has to do in order to express their thoughts accurately on paper are enormous.

Everything from holding the pencil correctly, to having the paper facing the right direction, to thinking of what they want to say, to thinking of how to spell what they want to say, to thinking, “do I have the words in the right order for how I want to say that?” And now all that information needs to come down from the brain into the pencil, in my case into my left hand, and be written out on paper. Not an easy task for anybody in any situation.

However, we can create an opportunity to set kids up for success in a wide variety of environments.

When Stress Enters the Equation

Sometimes just asking your student to sit down and do a spelling quiz or test is enough to send them into a spelling-induced panic.

The thing that I found most remarkable about Spelling You See is that it is designed to work in cooperation with the neurology of learning to give a student an opportunity to be a successful speller without ever introducing a test or a list of words.

The Spelling You See curriculum is designed with passages of instruction for the student to work with in context. Spelling research tells us that students commit information to long-term memory when they have the opportunity to study words in context within a passage. Being able to work with the same passages for several days in a row gives the student the benefit of engaging with it.

The repetition of these passages may seem boring to us as adults, but it’s actually part of a process called fluency, and it’s essential to your student’s spelling education. I had one parent tell me that they used eight different spelling programs in their homeschooling journey, and this was the only one that worked. Another parent told me that,

Spelling You See has rocked our world because we’re no longer dreading the Friday spelling test. Instead, we’re excited to see how much progress we’ve made by using the dictations to be able to reveal that to us.

Where to Start in Spelling You See

Placement in Spelling You See is really important, and it is nuanced. It’s designed this way because we want a child’s spelling experience to be easier than their reading experience. In order for us to do that successfully, we have a set of guidelines.

If you experience any hiccups with placement, we encourage you to get in touch with us so that we can help you. We want you, and your student, to be successful in your spelling journey.

It's my pleasure to share some thoughts about why your spelling curriculum might not be working for you the way it should, and to tell you a little about one that might.

About Gretchen Roe

Gretchen Roe educated her children at home for 21 years. With a degree in child development, she laughingly says it was not necessarily helpful for raising her own six children. She owned her own business for 15 years, as well as being involved in several nonprofit boards. She has spent the last 10 years in positions of homeschool advocacy and comes to Demme Learning as a Placement Specialist. She loves the outdoors, all things furry, and is in the process of learning farming and beekeeping skills.

2 thoughts on “Why Isn’t My Spelling Curriculum Working?

  1. Jammie Fisher

    Is there also the learning of the sounds, blends, rules that govern spelling taught in the program?

  2. Gretchen Roe

    Jammie, you ask a really good question. Yes, in the learning of the first level of Spelling You See, we do focus on the phonemic awareness component of learning to sort letters and sounds. But once the code of reading has been cracked, sound can become errant. Context becomes the overarching premise by which we teach spelling proficiency. Here is my simple example: I ask you to spell a word – the word I want is “due” — but in English there are three ways to spell this word: due, do, and dew. Context is important so that you can deliver to me the correctly spelled word. In fact, 47% of the 300 most commonly used words in American communication are not spelled as they sound.

    Rules are also unhelpful in spelling in American English. Depending on your resource, there are up to 85 “rules” in American spelling, but each and every one has at least one exception, if not more than one. In fact, the most common one that parents usually state is “i before e, except after c”, but that “rule” alone has at least 23 exceptions in American English.

    Research conducted at UVA tells us there is a natural progression through which every confident speller walks through, and it is upon that research that Spelling You See is based. We teach spelling successfully without the traditional approach of spelling lists or tests. You are welcome to be in touch with me directly if this generates more questions for you. You can text or call me at 717.524.5692, or send me an email. Happy to answer further questions.


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