Educator says teaching children how to spell means more than just sounding out words

Written by: 
Dani A. Castro

Educators, parents, and prospective teachers learned from Dr. Barbara Hong, associate professor and coordinator of special education, that the ability to recognize and teach spelling patterns early to children can have positive effects on their literacy development.


On Feb. 17, Hong held a public workshop at the School of Education to assist students, parents, and educators who desire to improve their abilities in teaching children how to read and express properly.


“You cannot teach what you do not know,” said Hong. She held a two and a half hour training focused on the systematic delivery of instruction in helping children identify patterns of words, including the etymology or origin of words for older children.


Hong taught, “We think that just because we speak English that we ought to know how to spell in English. It is important to emphasize that spelling is actually more consistent in the first three grades. ... Consequently, it will be remiss to not teach children to understand patterns of how words are formed from the onset.


“For example, why do we double the final consonant in puff, hall, loss, and jazz, and why is the middle consonant doubled in rabbit, cottage, and traffic? Why is the ending sound ‘k’ spelled with a ‘ck’ in duck, stick, crack but with only a ‘k’ in dark, spark, park? Why do we drop the ‘e’ for valuable but not manageable? Why do we use ‘ible’ for invisible, divisible but ‘able’ for agreeable and desirable?”


Mother and educator Kara Mataia, an alumna from BYUH, shared how difficult it is teaching her child to spell. “I am trying to teach my son to read and write and there are a lot of things I don’t know myself. Sometimes I just tell him, ‘Oh, just because,’ and, ‘There are a lot of exceptions.’ It didn’t make any sense.” Mataia described the learning process as “definitely slower because he is always asking me questions. I think to myself, ‘I can’t explain that. I don’t know why.’ So that’s why I came to this class.”


Geoffrey C. Lewis, relationships manager at the Alumni & Career Services, shared his struggle as well when teaching his children why certain words have certain sounds. Lewis shared, “I have kids who are learning to read. I have a preschooler as well as a toddler and I feel like although I know how to read English. There is a lot stuff that I missed growing up. If I had been taught better strategies, I would be able to better help my son.”


Hong offered encouragement when people shared these struggles with her. She counseled, “If you don’t know, explore together. There is no way you’ll know all the rules or all the words and where they come from, but don’t say, ‘Sound it out.’ You can’t teach what you don’t know and if you don’t know, explore with the child together.”


Having never seen one of Hong’s lectures before, Melisa Tobon, a senior from Colombia studying elementary education, said, “The biggest takeaway I got was that spelling can be fun. I really enjoyed how Dr. Hong talked about how you can take one word and learn the whole history behind it, a whole story, a whole reason for why it’s written that way, the rule behind it, and how it affects other words.”


Lewis shared how the patterns he learned will change his teaching style. “By looking at those patterns and teaching them in a more strategic, more simplified and informed way, I can actually teach my kids. Instead of just, ‘Okay sound out the word.’”


Hong commented that learning “the proper way to teach spelling can enhance reading and eventually lead to better writing. A lot of times, we tell [children] that spelling is difficult, that there are a lot of exceptions. The truth is we don’t know the consistency of how words are formed so we simply assume there are lots of exceptions.


“There are also a lot of myths about how the brain learns. We assume if we learned it one way then that must be the correct or best way to teach as well.”


Being patient with a child’s learning process is an important factor as well, Hong taught. “The last thing you want to do is to correct a piece of writing with red ink all over it. The message you’re sending is that spelling or writing is hard and a reflection of your ability.


“More often than not, it’s not a learning disability but a teaching disability that’s the problem. The person teaching, whether it be a parent or an educator, struggles in delivering the information in a succinct and systematic way that the child can understand. And so when [their teaching] is all over the place, the child’s learning is all over the place too. Messy delivery of instruction could lead to resistance in learning and behavioral problems.”


Hong described the lecture as a huge success. “We had more people than we anticipated. What I noticed was that a lot of students returned now that they are in the field practicing what they have learned. They noticed the gap in their own understanding and fortunately are willing to help themselves so they can be more effective teachers. I was pleasantly surprised that students wanted to come back even though [many] have already taken my class. What went well too was that parents commented they were glad to see teachers from the public schools in their midst learning side-by-side with them.”


Tubon shared, “There was one quote that she said, that I really loved: ‘From first grade to third grade you learn to read and from third grade on you read to learn.’


“I want to empower the parents to know that whatever the school teaches or does not teach, you can do a lot at home to enrich your child’s learning. That’s because you know your child better than anyone else. You see their struggles and their strengths. In all that you do, remember that you’re not just teaching the curriculum–you are teaching the child.”

Hong also expressed gratitude for the sponsors of the event. “This event would not have been possible without the generous funding of Harold K. L. Castle Foundation and the collaboration with the Leadership in Disabilities & Achievement of Hawai’i (LDAH). We like to thank them for their support and advocacy in contributing to our community.”

Date Published: 
Friday, March 2, 2018
Last Edited: 
Friday, March 2, 2018