Increasing the Spelling Power of MKs

Posted by on May 30, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

Increasing the Spelling Power of MKs
We are so happy to welcome Jayne Cuidon as our guest blogger! Jayne, with her husband Scott, have served in Croatia for more than 23 years. Jayne earned her Doctorate in Education from Liberty University, with a special focus on Third Culture Children. She holds a Masters from the University of Alabama in Special Education and often helps  families struggling with special needs. Together Jayne and Scott have counseled couples and families for more than 20 years. Currently they serve as directors for the Barnabas Zentrum – Europe. Scott and Jayne are parents to six MKs, ranging in age from 17-24 years. They have served on staff with CRU for more than 30 years.


When talking to families about the educational needs of their children, the issue of spelling inevitably appears. Whether teaching their students at home or supplementing national schools, parents seem frustrated that their children don’t know the basics of writing in their “own” language. In my research on the spelling of TCKs, here are the basics of what I found and what we as educational specialists need to know:

1. TCKs on average are smarter than their US counterparts; and while their spelling abilities are average compared to US norms, the numbers are slightly lower than would be expected given their intelligence.  In other words, we know they’re bright, so what’s the problem?

2. Basically we know that you need to understand five critical elements for good spelling:

a. Phonology – the understanding that words are made of sounds (with vowels, consonants, blends, digraphs and diphthongs). To master phonics, students need direct instruction and practice (not just workbook pages assigned). Since decoding has the largest influence on a child’s spelling ability, the earlier we begin phonics instruction, the better the spelling. Parents sometimes do not understand that spelling is not a natural skill; it takes fluency in the lower order processes in order for students to succeed in higher order processes…therefore kids need practice in phonics and decoding skills.

b. Orthography – the understanding that words are written down in predictable patterns. We’ve all heard the moans of parents who lament how unpredictable the English language is (compared to some of the languages we speak in Eastern Europe where if you can pronounce it, you can spell it). But research has shown us that the English language is predictable 50% of the time, with another 36% only having one “mistake”. It’s the remaining 14% that throws us off.

1. For primary school children, there are basically 100 words that make up 60% of the words that they write in English, so if we can teach mastery of those 100 words, we have a solid foundation. Moving up to 300 words accounts for 75% of their written language and significantly expands their ability to write well.

2. We need to pay attention to our students’ mistakes in order to learn what they do not understand. For instance, if a child write “garash” for “garage”, we see that the mistake is in the /zh/ sound at the end of the word. Therefore, we must isolate the skill, instruct and then practice all the words consistent with the -ge ending. “Sbent” for “spend”? We must pay attention to blends at the beginning of a word and at the end of a word. Isolate, instruct, and practice until mastery…and then move to the next mistake.

c. Morphology – the understanding of the parts of words. Here we teach children that every word is made up of units of meaning (horses = 2 units of meaning; incomparable = 3 units of meaning). When we understand where a word comes from, then we are able to spell it better. For instance, when struggling with the following choices of spelling: compitition OR competition, a child can ask himself where the word comes from. Since compete is the base word, then spelling the word competition just made more sense. Teaching children Latin-based words or French- based words, for example, helps them understand how to spell those words correctly.

d. Mental Orthographic Images (MOI) – the mental lexicon where we store what words look like in our brains. MOIs are built on exposure and practice with words. About 40% of spelling depends on incorporating this skill of remembering what a word looks like. The larger the lexicon is, the better the spelling, reading comprehension, and reading speed will be. When a student does well on a spelling test but can’t transfer that correctly spelled word into his writing, he has a problem with the MOI. Students with strong visual memories tend to do better establishing and recalling an MOI.

e. Print Exposure – Last, spelling improves when children are over-exposed to English print. This is where our MKs are at a disadvantage. In our neighborhood, we have huge signs for Bauhaus, MediaMarkt, and Jana (/yana/). MKs often absorb these visual images and try to integrate the patterns into their English spelling. Our students need to see English all around them, as well as hear English words pronounced. While I loved using Sonlight curriculum with my children, our read-alouds did not help them SEE language. I would encourage families who read aloud to get several copies of books and encourage children to read along so that they are exposed to English language and are reinforcing their MOI.

So let’s get practical…below I’ve listed some bad ideas for teaching spelling followed by some ideas that work.

Bad Ideas:

1. Writing a word 10 times…while practice is good, paying attention to what she’s doing is better. The worst part is when we send a child off to copy the word 10 times and find out she’s written it wrong each time.
2. Only teaching phonics and expecting the rest to come automatically…while teaching phonics rules are helpful, they are only the beginning of the process.
3. Leaving students to figure out their own strategies – children need direct instruction on spelling strategies. Research has shown that poor spellers knew and used fewer strategies and relied on sounding out letter-by-letter. GOOD spellers used visual imagery, broke words into chunks, recognized certain parts of words, combined word segments with a visual image of the word, used phonics initially and then added visual and semantic information in order to spell accurately.
4. Sticking to their grade level workbook regardless of their spelling ability. If a child is struggling with basic spelling mistakes, he doesn’t need to be studying the 6th grade spelling workbook. We must teach at what Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development…just a step above what the child already knows.
5. Spelling words aloud…it doesn’t give them practice with the MOI.
6. Testing through dictated sentences…long written sentences require a lot of effort for most children, diminishing their focus on how to spell what is required. Dictation is good…just not as a spelling test.

Good Ideas:

1. Give explicit instruction consistently…a good rule of thumb is 60-75 minutes of instruction and practice each week.
2. Pay attention to errors…they provide great information about what a child does not understand.
3. Pretest if using lists so that the effort and focus are only on the words to be mastered.
4. Over-expose to English words – label items in the house, use flash cards, read aloud while children follow along.
5. Teach specific spelling strategies. Curricula like All About Spelling; Spelling Power; and Sing, Spell, Read and Write provide strategy instruction for children to learn and practice.
6. Keep a log of missed words to be incorporated into weekly practice until mastery is attained. Add misspelled words from writing to this list until a child demonstrates mastery.
7. Show a student his spelling error (“you wrote it like this”), and then show the correct way to spell the word right next to it (“and it is spelled like this”). This is called error imitation and has strong research support. You could even have him articulate where he differed from the correct spelling.

While these strategies may not help all students master spelling quickly, they will provide a strong foundation to help MKs strengthen their MOI and move them toward faster automatic spelling. If you have specific questions about how to help a child, feel free to contact me at

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