Category Archives: Phonics

Our Fifth Grade Curriculum: Spelling

PhonicsI couldn’t find a lot out there on How to Teach Spelling and How to Spell, so hopefully if someone is searching, this will help!  I just like this program.  Nobody asked me to review it.  If you want a logical and progressive spelling curriculum which answers “Why?”–then this may be for you and your students.

How to Teach Spelling

How to Teach Spelling (by Laura Toby Rudginsky and Elizabeth C. Haskell) is not your typical spelling curriculum.  I suggest it for teaching in-depth English spelling and phonics with an emphasis on understanding.  Most kids don’t need this program, although struggling readers and spellers may benefit from it greatly.  If your child is progressing fine in reading and spelling and you’re content with your child being able to spell good enough so that spell check gets them by (and there is NOT a thing wrong with that), this is not your curriculum.  Spend your time and energy elsewhere.  I chose it probably for myself and my own curiosity in understanding our language.  Plus, I had a late reader and wanted to make sure we were proactive in her spelling and phonics foundation.

Early on in elementary school we tried other spelling and phonics curriculums; I just didn’t like any of them.  So I have put together a core of texts that I like and I circulate among them, using them to complement How to Teach Spelling and its workbooks called How to Spell.

Parent Prep Time Minimal But Participation Essential

How to Teach Spelling doesn’t require much teacher preparation at all.  One can even read the lesson on the spot and teach it adequately.  However, it requires a lot of teacher participation (but not necessarily much time), and I do not recommend it for teachers who cannot devote interactive time together with the student.  With a child who is not reading and spelling challenged, it doesn’t take much time, maybe 15 minutes on average, but it requires the teacher to at least orally quiz and assess knowledge.  Because I am one-on-one with my learner, I can move more quickly and don’t require lots of the writing the text recommends.

Tell Me What You Bought

  • The main manual where topics and concepts are presented in an orderly, linear fashion:  How to Teach Spelling  This is not a manual for the students.  It is written for the teacher.  There are 49 chapters, and they progress forward sequentially, with the most complex, difficult topics at the end.  For example, letter sounds and syllables come at the beginning, and more complex suffix rules and letter combinations come at the end.  How to Teach Spelling is based on, and meant to be piggy-backed with, an intensive reading and spelling program called Orton-Gillingham.  I am not trained in the Orton-Gillingham method, but I have still found How to Teach Spelling to be great.  It succinctly marches out all the topics needed to master English spelling and phonics in ONE text.  I don’t have to buy a new one each year!  There are many recommendations for drills, flashcards, and writing exercises.  My girls seem to catch on quickly to the rules and patterns, so I have not needed to do the intensive writing and memorization drills that How to Teach Spelling recommends.
  • The four workbooks:  How to Spell  There are four workbooks.  Workbook 1 is intended for grade one.  Workbook 2 is intended for grade two and three.  Workbook 3 for grades 4-6.  Workbook 4 is for grades 7-12.  My daughter started Workbook 3 last year, and we continued with it through much of this year.  Near the end of the year, we moved into Workbook 4.  The workbooks repeat themselves, as is customary for cumulative type materials, but the higher the level, the more that is expected with each topic.  In addition, more topics are covered.  The workbooks are black and white and pretty dry.  They do a great job listing the “rules” of our English spelling and phonics system, and they expect the students to learn them.  Then, practice work is provided.  Some of the work pages are just phenomenal, and others are just average.  Sometimes, I have to go on-line and find some extra practice pages.  There is a lot of writing required if the student does the workbook thoroughly.  I have found that we can escape the writing if I am willing to sit and quiz my child, only having her write what she doesn’t understand.  In this way, we also avoid “tests.”

Pros and Cons:

1.  It is not expensive.

2.  I can buy one text and four fairly short workbooks, and they will last me through all the years of teaching spelling.

3.  It is black and white.

4.  It requires lots of teacher participation and assessment.

5.  If the teacher cannot sit and assess, the curriculum will require lots of physical handwriting.

6.  It relies on learning rules for the English language (Yes, we do have rules.) and does not rely on simple memorization of word lists.  (For example, a student will understand when to use -ck versus -k at the end of a word.)

7.  It does supply sight words for those naughty, non-compliant words.

8.  All phonics and spelling topics are laid out in an orderly fashion in the How to Teach Spelling manual.  They are not arranged by difficulty level–but by topic.  However,  the manual tells you what is appropriate to teach to each grade level.  You have to pay attention as you teach from the manual.  However, the workbooks are by levels, and do not present more than is appropriate for each level of learner.

9.  The workbooks are succinct.

10.  I cannot find the answers to the workbooks anywhere.  Usually I know the answers, but I’ve had to look up a few.  I’m sure there must be answers somewhere!


Due to the new addition of a baby to our home this year, spelling occurred in cyclical fashion.  We’d do it for a few months on and then a few months off.  Most of it was by oral assessment based on the sequence laid out in the How to Spell workbooks, which my daughter completed on her own.  We pretty much just stuck to this curriculum for this past year.  However, near the end of the year, I assigned supplemental reading from Uncovering the Logic of English (I love this book.)

Please see last year’s spelling and phonics write-up for more!



Our Fourth Grade Curriculum: Phonics and Spelling



I think I have about one more post on what we used for our fourth-grade curriculum.  It is summer here, and we have moved into our lighter summer schedule.  Glorious!  I didn’t mean for this to be a write up on Orton-Gillingham, but it kind of turned out that way!  If you have a struggling reader, struggling speller, or you have been unhappy with phonics and spelling curriculums, you may want to read on!  If not, and you’ve nailed your phonics and spelling curriculum down, move on!

Our Homeschooling Spelling/Phonics Objective

How do I spell “knowledgeable,” “acreage,” and “truly?”

How do I know when to use a “c,” “k,” or “ck?”

Do I double the “s” in “buses?”

After we complete our spelling/phonics curriculum, may my kids never (okay, rarely ever) have to erase and choose another word—or open another internet tab to look up the spelling of a desired word (like I do)–because they’re not sure of the spelling!

Discovering Orton-Gillingham Intensive Phonics

Because there are a LOT more rules to our English language that are generally followed than most phonics and spelling books present, I have never been able to happily settle on a phonics and spelling program, instead choosing to piece together our own curriculum.  I can’t stand the hodge-podge selection of phonics that most curriculums put together.  I want it all covered in one spot in a logical, sequential fashion.  This year, I discovered the Orton-Gillingham Approach to phonics and spelling (through a site called Orton Gillingham For All). Although targeted as an intensive phonics program which is particularly useful for dyslexic students and students who have difficulty learning to read, write, or spell, I think it is simply a great foundation for ALL English language students. We use it for my fourth-grader who doesn’t really qualify as dyslexic, I don’t think–but maybe without intensive home instruction and intervention she would have had a label.  I don’t know.  She was a later reader (learned in second grade) who had minor dysgraphia problems. Her letters were formed backwards well into, maybe even through, third grade and she continues to have a disgust of penmanship, although it has improved nicely!  (Her father struggled greatly with phonics, spelling, and reading until about fifth or sixth grade when he says it all started clicking together and he zoomed to the highest reading class.)

Orton-Gillingham has been around since at least the 1930s and is described as an intensive, sequential, multi-modal phonics program. It addresses lots of problems I confronted when trying to use a few different phonics/spelling curriculums. In my lowly, non-expert opinion, many phonics/spelling curriculums run into the following problems, which Orton-Gillingham usually circumvents:

  • Separating phonics from spelling. Orton-Gillingham incorporates the decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling) together.
  • Some kids are not quite ready for phonics and spelling in the early elementary years, when they are most commonly hit the hardest. Later then, the basics are never re-represented, and those kids miss out completely on phonics and spelling fundamentals! (Late bloomers then struggle to read aloud fluently and spell.) Orton-Gillingham gives RANGES on the appropriate age/grade level for each concept, paying heed to the fact that you may need to refrain from teaching a particular concept OR make sure you re-visit it in another year or so. Orton-Gillingham is based more on ability and development than it is first grade, second grade, third grade, and so on.
  • For the sounds our language makes (phonemes), most phonics programs only present a couple of the spelling possibilities (graphemes) at first.  Logical, sequential learners and struggling learners get confused. (“First you taught me the /k/ sound is made by a “c” or a “k.” Now a year later you’re telling me it can also be made by a “ck” or a “ch?” I give up. You can’t keep changing the rules on me.”) Orton-Gillingham would present the sound /k/, the letter combinations (graphemes) for the sound, and then offer the available rules, which do exist, for selecting the correct letters to spell the words with the /k/ sound. Exceptions to rules are presented at the time of learning the appropriate rule. Exceptions are not left to chance. They are presented right up front.  Orton-Gillingham also coaches you through how much to tell the younger/less developed students so, although you’re supplying the information so they have heard it, you’re not overwhelming them with difficult concepts they’re not ready to absorb.  Next year they’ll dig deeper.
  • Too much rote memorization.  As mentioned already, Orton-Gillingham supplies rules to promote understanding, thus removing a lot of the need for flat-out memorization.  Not all, obviously.  English is a crazy, mish-mash language.
  • Too much time spent on words that are known already.  Orton-Gillingham provides lists of words for each concept, and as a teacher, I am able to pick and choose. If my kids understand a concept and spelling pattern, we simply skip those lessons.
  • Reliance on only one way of teaching phonics/spelling.  (That is usually writing the word over and over. I HATED writing words over and over in spelling. Didn’t you?) Orton-Gillingham uses speaking, listening, reading and writing. Encouragement for tactile learning is encouraged.

How We Implemented Orton-Gillingham Into Our Phonics/Spelling Program

Since I didn’t stumble on Orton-Gillingham until this last year or so, we obviously didn’t jump right in at the very beginning of the material.  My fourth-grader had a good grasp of most of the basic material, and we skipped it.  I’d quiz her on a few words, and then move on quickly.  (Note:  I also use Orton-Gillingham with my second grader, too.) For my fourth-grader, I just am so excited to have concepts logically organized and categorized with the exceptions provided immediately. For example, types of syllables are broken down concretely. Concrete and discrete rules for dropping the “e” before adding a suffix are delineated. Mnemonic (memory) devices are often provided to help remember exceptions.

We will continue to use Orton-Gillingham as my main guide to covering phonics and spelling. I plan to stretch phonics and spelling out through sixth grade. Once we have mastered all that is in the Orton-Gillingham resources I purchased, I will then proceed to again read through Uncovering the Logic of English by Denise Eide to see what further I can teach her about English phonics and spelling that got missed using Orton-Gillingham.  (I highly recommend Uncovering the Logic of English if you are teaching a child phonics and spelling.  I loved it!)

Our phonics and spelling instruction

  • Is very reliant on teacher instruction and “quizzing.” Most of the time, I cannot just hand a worksheet. We do have some worksheets, but usually, I am asking her to recite spelling/phonics rules and then spell me some words based on those rules. Sometimes she spells out loud. Sometimes she spells on paper. Sometimes she spells on a chalkboard. Sometimes she traces the word in the sky. I’ll occasionally go back a month or two and ask her some of the words and concepts she had trouble with for memory reinforcement.
  • Is flexible and allows us to speed up and slow down based on the child’s ability in the lesson. Certain lessons we spend a week or two on. Certain lessons we fly by.
  • Occurs about 3-4 times weekly in 10-20 minute time allotments.
  • Uses two Orton-Gillingham manuals, a workbook series to go along with Orton-Gillingham, internet resources I print off, and pages from old phonics and spelling workbooks I picked up here and there. The two main manuals provide the order in which concepts are taught, and provide the “rules” and tips on teaching the “rules.”

The Texts

How to Teach Spelling Teacher’s Manual with its How to Spell Workbook Series (4 books): I started out with just the teacher’s manual. I love that the How to Teach Spelling Teacher’s Manual is full of sequential, logical rules/concepts, teaching suggestions, rule exceptions, and the unique sentence dictations. (Sentence dictation helps to reinforce the spelling concept when the child uses it in an actual phrase or sentence! This helps students to be able to not only spell when mom “tests” the word, but also to integrate the process of spelling into writing! How many times have you noticed that your child can spell a word, but when she goes to write a letter, she misspells the word?) One thing that is confusing is that the manual is organized by concepts/rules, not by age/grade level of the student. So there are times you have to pay attention and realize that the next concept up shouldn’t be presented to your student yet! That doesn’t keep me from testing it out, but I usually concur that it is above her head. Because of this, the manual is “layering.” You will not simply use the manual in first grade and put it down. You will use it every year, adding in the appropriate lessons that you skipped the last years. I like this because, as I add in the new lessons, I can also remember to review older concepts. However, it does require you to pay attention, assess your student, and skip pieces of the book depending on mastery.

I decided I wanted something that would provide extra practice and organization of the rules/concepts in a little bit better layout than the manual. So I bought the How to Spell Workbook Series later in the year. I am pleased with the workbooks and like that if I can’t sit down and “quiz” my daughter on the words and rules we are mastering, I can have her do an assignment in the workbooks. We quickly moved through the second book, skipping a lot, and we have settled into the third book and are about done with it now at the end of fourth grade. She could fly through it all a lot faster, but I make her review a lot of old words and concepts so they stick.

Unlocking the Power of Print: I also bought this manual. There is no workbook series to accompany it. I have found that it is very similar to How to Teach Spelling in its layout, which makes sense because they’re both based on Orton-Gillingham which teaches in a sequential manner.  The manual does not feel as “busy” as How to Teach Spelling and the type-print is a little bigger and easier to read.  At first I used it more until I became more comfortable with How to Teach Spelling and bought the workbooks.


That’s how we approached spelling and phonics this year.  Some people love trying new curriculums and materials and look forward to choosing new homeschooling books each year.  Me, I love finding the strongest curriculum I can for my child and hanging onto it for many years, getting all the worth out of it we can.  Orton-Gillingham will be with us, I think, through the next three kids.  As needed, I will fill in with Explode the Code and internet worksheets for extra reinforcement.  Finally, I will use  Denise Eide’s Uncovering the Logic of English as a final checklist to our phonics and spelling curriculum.



Long Vowel Chart

Although I’m feeling this post should actually be titled “The Learning Curve for Stupid, Ignorant, Non-Savvy Bloggers”, suffice it to say that I finally got a semblance of a table up.  You ought to be able to print it off if you are interested.  It can only go better and more quickly the next time around.  Short vowel sounds and schwas–watch out!  I will eat you alive.

How we use this chart:  When it’s time to learn the long vowels–probably around first semester of first grade–we learn the actual long vowel letters, the sound the vowels make when they’re long, and the sign to show they are long (macron).  Then, I show them the chart and say something like, “The long vowel SOUNDS can be made by other letters and letters all mixed together!  Isn’t that crazy!?  So we will keep working on all the different combinations to make the long vowel sounds in phonics and spelling this year and in the years to come!  But don’t get confused!  A long “a” sound can be made many ways!  Let’s work on a couple.”  Then over the next three years, we layer it all on, as some of the combinations are quite tricky.  Then they’re not thrown for a curve when “ea” says long A sound and long E sound!  And as I go along the letter combinations, I’ll point out what else the combinations can say.  For example, the “ea” also says short e sound as in breakfast!  I don’t linger on it all–I just point it out.  So when we formally study it or they see it in passing, they’re not frustrated and misled.  Sometimes at a good vowel review point, I’ll have them list all the combinations they can think of for each long vowel and write a word for it.  My first grader doesn’t do really well yet.  But she gets the common ones presented in early phonics primers.  My third grader has really blossomed with this this year.  And now, she automatically lumps the words in spelling categories in her head.

Best wishes!

Part 3 of “Our Third Grade Curriculum”: Spelling and Phonics

I have posted a long vowel chart with all the letter combinations I could think of that formed those sounds:  Long Vowel Chart.

Today M1, my third grader, and I did a brief, oral phonics review.  I started with the letter A, and I asked her to tell me all the sounds she could think of that the letter A made and word examples.  Next came B.  Then C.  And so on.  We proceeded through the entire alphabet in this manner.

  • “A says short ‘a’ like cat, long ‘a’ like cake, ‘a’ as in ball…”
  • “B says /b/…”
  • “C says /s/ like city, /k/ cat…”

Some days, we reverse that a bit.  I will say a sound, and she must then list all the letter or letter combinations that can say that sound, giving me word examples.

  •  Me:  “What makes the sound of long A?”
    M1:   “‘A’ as in ‘a’, ‘ay’ as in ‘day’, ‘ea’ as in ‘steak’, ‘eigh’ as in eight, ‘a consonant e’ as in ‘make’,  ‘ai’ as in ‘daisy’, ‘ei’ (veil), and ‘ey’ as in ‘they’, and I can’t remember the rest!”
  • Me:  “How about the sound /h/?”
    M1:  “An ‘h’ as in ‘heat’ and ‘wh’ as in ‘who’.”
  • Me:  “And how about /k/?”
    M1:  “A ‘ck’ as in ‘back’, ‘ch’ as in ‘Christmas’, ‘c’ as in car, and ‘k’ as in kitten.”

About a year ago I decided to embark on my own phonics and spelling curriculum for my daughters.  We had already finished consonants and short vowels.  We had worked through an Abeka first grade phonics primer and supplemented with Explode The Code books.  I had just bought Spelling Workout, and we had started through it.  Well, when we hit long vowel sound a , I just knew I couldn’t take it any longer.  Only one lesson devoted to long vowel sound A.  Only ten words; only two letter combinations , “a_e” and “ai”.  Sure, later in the book, “vowel pairs” were introduced and “ay” was introduced.  But what about “eigh”, “ey”, and “ea”, which all can say long vowel sound A?   Abeka phonics, Explode the Code phonics, and Spelling Workout do not present the letter combinations that can make the vowel sounds together as a group.  They are spaced too far out in sequence and may even be in separate books.  Some consonants make more than one sound (or even two sounds), and the possible sounds were presented in disparate lessons–and maybe only the most common sound was presented. Mary learned “s” says /s/ as in “yes.”  Later on she learned that “s” can say /z/ as in hers.  Certain brains don’t learn this way.  These brains want to know all the ways to do it all at once.  Why not present it this way?  Each curriculum has some great strengths, but they just don’t seem to put it all together.  Not comprehensive and not logically sequential! Or if it’s comprehensive, it’s not logical.  Or if it’s logical, it’s not comprehensive.  That it be logical, sequential, and comprehensive is important to me.

You see, M1’s father, a highly intelligent orthopedic surgeon (basing this biased statement on grades, board scores, and absolute level of smart-alecness), struggled in early elementary language arts.  Hated it.  Struggled with the material.  Struggled with his teachers.  A terrible reader and speller until sixth grade.  Then at 11 years old, his reading miraculously kicked in, escalating him from the absolute lowest reading class to the highest reading class.  He remembers distinctly the feeling of reading all coming together for him.  Spelling, on the other hand, well, it continues to stink!  He doesn’t know the combinations of letters that can come together to make the sounds.  Sure, he knows some, but as his reading skills developed past the point where phonics and spelling were being taught formally, he has huge gaps.  Clearly not in understanding or reasoning.

It seems crazy that, I on the other hand, following the exact same curriculum and having the exact same teachers as my husband, excelled at both reading and spelling.  In fact, I won my school’s fifth grade spelling bee.  I was always in the highest reading classes.  My husband and I attended the exact same elementary school!  We both did great in college and medical school?  What gives?  Why were our elementary language arts experiences so polar opposite?  As M1’s brain seems to follow her father’s brain wave patterns, alarm bells were going off all around me as we struggled through Abeka, Explode the Code, and Spelling Workout.  It wasn’t working for her.  As I searched and learned, I stumbled across Uncovering the Logic of English by Denise Eide.  Lines from her book jumped out at me:

Logical students do not tolerate inconsistent rules.  The smattering of phonics usually given to them is not only unhelpful; it is damaging…But why don’t all students struggle?…Though intuition [in young, learning students] is a great strength, their logical/literal counterparts who are attuned to detail should not be marginalized.  Teaching both [all] sounds right from the beginning allows all students to succeed and prevents student and teacher frustration by eliminating unnecessary exceptions…If they [students] can learn advanced mathematics, physics, chemistry, business structures, and even other languages, they can easily learn the 104 pieces that explain English.” (pp 27 and 28, 1st edition)

Aha!  Intuition versus logic.  I am intuitive.  It’ll work out fine.  Brandon is not.  Show me how it will work out fine.

Rather than waste time and money on a new, published curriculum, I decided that with the internet, the books we already owned, and the couple of books I purchased to help me understand phonics, we could master phonics and spelling in a logical, sequential way.  To make sure I wasn’t missing anything due to my independent streak and superiority complex, in addition to Uncovering the Logic of English by Denise Eide, I bought Handy English Encoder Decoder by Harvey Bluedorn.  I read Uncovering the Logic of English from cover to cover right away.  Absolutely wonderful.  It will be my checklist as I continue homeschooling my three children.  My girls will have a great grasp of the English phonics and spelling system if I make sure and hit each point in this book.  I don’t plan to do it in one year.  I plan to layer it in from first grade through probably fifth or sixth grade–unless the child masters it all early.  Layer, layer, layer.  My first grader doesn’t really get it, but as we repeat it each year, I believe she will grasp more each time.  M1, my third grader, seems to be really grasping it.

I continue to use Spelling Workout, Explode the Code, and internet sources for worksheets in each area that we cover.  And I peruse them routinely to make sure I’m not excluding anything I need to cover.  I have Spelling Workout B, and I will not purchase the next books in this series.  However, I did buy all of the Explode the Code books, and I will continue picking and choosing what I need from them throughout the upcoming years.  Although I wish the curriculum was more sequential and grouped topics differently, I really like the lessons and do feel they are pretty comprehensive.  I use the words from the lessons as spelling “tests.”

Let me here point out that I don’t see the point of separating spelling from phonics.  I absolutely see the difference between decoding (reading and phonics) and encoding (spelling), but something in me doesn’t think they should be separated.  However, from my own experience (n=2, this means sample size of 2, which does not really make it a good study!), I clearly see that decoding and early phonics come first.  My first grader is an awesome decoder but not so great encoder–YET.  I firmly believe it is developmental and will come as I feed the machine.  Again, no sources to quote.  Somebody may be able to enlighten me.  I am pleased with my third grader’s interest and progression in spelling and phonics.

In upcoming posts, I will post the tables that I have/am constructing for us to learn from.  We have been hammering the long vowels intermittently for the last year to year and a half.  If you think that’s too long, perhaps you’ve oversimplified long vowels.  The more complicated long vowel spelling patterns she has seen–but we have not focused on.  But when we see a word in a poem or read-aloud, I point out the unique spelling pattern and show it to her on the chart.

And early on, we really liked our set of pretty complete flashcards.  We used those quite a bit last year.  We have one set just for vowels and one set for consonants.  I found once she knew these, she had mastered a lot.

Our phonics/spelling also includes segments in the past and in the future on:  consonants, blends, diphthongs, “r” controlled words, schwa sounds, syllables, some rules, and some etymology (as it applies to helping us understand phonics/spelling).  I will post our summaries in future posts.