Andrea Todd's son, Tommy, 10, gets glowing reports from his teachers about his writing—except for one thing. "His spelling is atrocious," says Todd, from Sacramento, California. "I kept a dictionary on my desk when I was growing up. He just types a word into the computer and the spelling appears on screen, so he doesn't feel like he has to look anything up."
Spelling in our wacky English language isn't always easy, even for adults, says J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D., author of the textbook series Spelling Connections. "We probably have more words than any other language, many of them with irregular spelling patterns; there are eight different ways to spell the long-A sound!" Despite Tommy's confidence in his computer's brain, autocorrect isn't perfect—and learning to spell is crucial for your child's future success. "When he's sending out college applications or applying for a job, a résumé or essay with a spelling error will go to the bottom of the pile," says Dr. Gentry.
As opposed to the days when children were drilled on spelling lists from Day 1, most schools now take a more creative path to spelling in the earliest grades. I remember touring my daughter's kindergarten class; as a writer and editor, I was surprised to see the bulletin board covered with drawings that had all kinds of crazy words under the pictures, such as: I wnt too tha perk nd sweng so hi. "Letting children use 'invented spelling' is the norm in kindergarten and first grade," says Emily Levy, Ed.D., founder of EBL Coaching in New York and author of the Flags & Stars series of spelling workbooks. "It allows their ideas to flow. When children are fixated on getting the words right, it can inhibit their ability to communicate." By second grade, however, kids should be learning the proper rules, Dr. Levy adds.
Because spelling is a skill like math or music, requiring not just logic but the ability to memorize some illogical patterns, it can be more difficult for some kids than for others (if your child is truly struggling, have her tested for dyslexia or other learning issues, says Dr. Gentry). But with help and these tips, your kid can become a confident speller.
Make spelling exciting. If your child thinks of spelling as a chore, sit together and watch the amazing 2002 documentary Spellbound or the 2006 feature film Akeelah and the Bee, both of which depict spelling bees as nail-biting and as thrilling as the Super Bowl. (Seriously!) Once your kid is caught up in the excitement, hold your own mini bee at home, with your child writing the words on a dry-erase board or spelling them in the air with his finger, suggests Dr. Levy. "That tactile sense of actually writing a word helps a child learn it," she explains.
A few other ways to make spelling even more fun at home: Write words on separate index cards, then cut them in half and play a matching game, or have your child pretend to be the teacher and explain to you how the word is spelled. "If he has a list of ten or 20 spelling words he needs to learn for the week, you can have a contest to see who can write the silliest story using some or all the words," suggests Dr. Gentry.
Nail down the tricky ones. If you see your child has gotten a word wrong on her homework, don't just tell her the correct spelling. Instead, see if she can try to sound it out on her own, and then look it up together in a dictionary or go to a reputable online dictionary like merriam-webster.com (bonus: your child can also hear the correct pronunciation of a word there). Even a spelling fanatic occasionally gets stuck on a word like, um, occasionally (remind me, is there one c or two?). For children, and for some grown- ups as well, certain word groups, such as your/you're, to/too/two, its/ it's, whose/who's, and they're/ there/their can be real troublemakers. If you notice your child is consistently getting these tricky ones wrong, have her write the group of them down on an index card with three separate sentences on the back using each word so she can see the different ways in which the word is used, suggests Dr. Levy.
Work with technology instead of against it. Despite the hand-wringing about a generation of kids growing up using "text-speak," there actually may be an advantage to typing "c u l8er!" Researchers in England have found that kids ages 10 to 12 who texted had improvements in spelling and literacy, possibly because texting shortcuts forced them to think about how words are created phonetically. So if your child is attached to that phone or iPad anyway, why not use it to help practice spelling?
Dr. Levy recommends several apps to her clients, including VocabularySpellingCity (iTunes and Android; free), which lets kids play word games using different spelling lists; Tricky Spelling (iTunes; $3), which quizzes children on words that don't follow traditional rules, such as uncle, travel, and final (they all contain a final ull sound, but it's spelled three different ways); and Montessori Crosswords (iTunes; $3), which helps spelling skills by having players build words in a grid using different phonics patterns.
However, the best way to have a good speller is to raise an eager reader (who also works on spelling). The more your child sees a word on the page the deeper he'll internalize its spelling, and the more words he knows the better reader he will be.