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Discover what students know and need to learn by teaching rather than by formal testing.

The Spell of Language is structured so that teachers can easily:

  • determine baselines for the most basic skills needed for students to become proficient in reading and spelling; and
  • ascertain the progress of a student, or a class, through teaching without administering formal tests.

The process of informal assessment is illustrated in the flowchart below. That chart explains the order in which written language skills are most efficiently acquired, and, if a student has not developed a particular skill, what a teacher does to remedy the problem.

For example, many written-language users frequently need extensive practice to acquire vowel sound/spelling correspondences which can be completed with supervision or independently as needed on the website Vowel Assembly page.

Typical formal testing is designed to rank the performance of students or of a particular group and to provide useful information at the classroom, school, and district level in attainment of particular goals. The design of formal testing does not allow the use of enough test items to determine the strength of the foundation skills* which underlie advanced skills**.

Documenting the progress or specific skill deficits of young or beginning students provides information that enables teachers to determine the need for RTI (Response to Intervention).

*knowledge of the vowel system, ability to apply the alphabetic principle, recognition of phonetic patterns and their spellings whether those patterns are phonetically regular or irregular; ability to quickly produce sounds for spellings in words with which students may have limited familiarity (termed processing speed); etc.
**comprehension of written text; vocabulary development; ability to compose thoughts in oral and written language; etc. (It is hypothesized that strong foundation skills free up mental capacity for the development of higher-level skills.)

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Instructional material is designed for beginning learners, typically developing and advanced learners, remedial students, English Language Learners, and adults.

Success in instructing students of all abilities to spell—even those who failed for years and lacked confidence—led the authors to conclude that almost all students can learn to spell in the way that phonologically-competent students learn. First, they have knowledge of the vowel system. (It should be noted that all vowel sound/spelling correspondences are taught as soon as they occur in words students are expected to recognize rather than waiting, sometimes until as late as second grade.) Second, students learn to apply the alphabetic principle as they learn to read and spell new words. Finally, they learn to recognize and use phonetic patterns and their spellings whether those patterns are phonetically regular or irregular.

The underlying model used has been our analysis of how phonologically-competent students learn the fundamental elements of English and how they use tacit knowledge (understood without needing to be brought to full consciousness). We have concluded that fundamental elements are learned as patterns rather than rules. If learning of the requisite phonological skills has occurred at expected levels, words with morphological structures are present in students' mental lexicons and are available for analysis. What students already know can be extended, first, to understanding the morphological structure of English and, second, to acquiring more advanced vocabulary.

In summary, we defer to the knowledge that efficiency depends on recognition of most words as "sight words", on speed of processing, and on availability of word meanings for words recognized. Our experience confirms these results: when students with reading difficulties learn to spell the high-frequency words and content-area words appropriate to their grade levels, their reading levels likewise improve.

All of this applies whether students are young and just beginning to read or are older and read inefficiently. This also applies to adults who experience reading or spelling difficulty or to people whose first language is not English.

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Phonemic awareness and phonics are instructed as part of word learning.

The technique we call phonetic analysis is one that we have developed and used over many years to determine the number, identity, and order of sounds in a written word and the spelling for each sound whether the word is phonetically regular or irregular.

Beginning in Kindergarten, as seen in the chart below, phonetic analysis is incorporated within word learning; this empowers students to develop the phonemic and phonological skills listed in the left-hand column in the chart below. Furthermore, the phonetic representation provides a visual reminder of the phonological structure of words being learned.

Proficiency in the sound/spelling correspondences is needed by all, but mastered effortlessly or easily by only a few students. When these skills are taught systematically, students learn them and take the essential step to accessing the structures of written English necessary for both basic and advanced language development.

What sets thespelloflanguage.com apart from traditional and current curricula?
Skill Traditional and Current Curricula The Spell of Language
Alphabet Learning the letters of the alphabet—in and out of sequence—is a priority in Kindergarten. Learning the letters of the alphabet—in and out of sequence—is a priority in Kindergarten.
Sound/Spelling Correspondences
Single consonant sound/spelling correspondences are taught in Kindergarten.
Consonant digraphs are taught in First Grade
Short-vowel sounds are taught in Kindergarten.
Vowel digraphs are taught in first grade.
Vowel diphthongs,
alternative vowel spellings, and r-controlled spellings
are taught in second grade.
Consonant sound/spelling correspondences are taught as they present themselves in the first words students are given to learn. Thus, all but infrequently-occurring correspondences are learned in Kindergarten.
Beginning in Kindergarten, all vowel sound/spelling correspondences are taught in two distinct ways:
  • as they present themselves in the most commonly used words; and
  • through a classification exercise which enables accurate discrimination and production of sounds.
Fluency training* according to grade-level norms develops efficient recognition and production beginning in first grade.
Failure to directly and systematically teach the above basic skills as early as possible results in many students being unable to catch up with peers who entered school already reading.
Phonemic and Phonological Awareness Beginning in Kindergarten, discrete skill instruction is employed:
  • Directionality
  • Word length
  • Alphabetic principle**
  • Alphabetic sequencing
  • Rhyming and word families
  • Blending and segmenting
  • Determining vowel sounds
  • Isolating initial, final, and medial phonemes
  • Adding/substituting phonemes
Beginning in Kindergarten, phonetic analysis, combines the discrete skills taught in Traditional and Current Curricula. As stated above, phonetic analysis is the program’s technique used to determine the number and order of sounds in a written word and the spelling for each sound whether the word is phonetically regular or irregular. In addition to supporting an auditory pattern, the phonetic representation provides the visual reminder for the phonological structure of words being learned.
The skills listed in the middle column would be better considered in relationship to one another and according to their contribution to word reading: 1) for rhymes to be perceived, it is necessary that there is sensitivity to vowel sounds; and 2) the alphabetic principle requires sensitivity to the number, identity, and order of sounds within words.
Word Learning
Words are taught according to levels of phonetic complexity and approximate frequency of use at successive grade levels.
Words are taught as separate entries in students’ mental lexicons.
Words are taught according to grade-level expectations for word knowledge.
Students use the alphabetic principle to add to their sight-word vocabularies by identifying new words that are analogous to those they already know.
After learning to read the primer level words, students have been exposed to almost all of the phonetic elements (reading/spelling patterns). After mastering the next 200 words, students will have been exposed to all phonetic elements of English.
Word Learning
(Spelling and Meaning)
Kindergarten – simple words based on sound-letter relationships
First grade– conventional spelling for frequently occurring irregular words
Second grade– frequently occurring, irregular plural nouns and past tense verbs
Third grade – Use conventional spellings for high-frequency and other studied words
Vocabulary – Demonstrate understanding of word meanings and relationships among words based on grade-level text
Kindergarten onward – when Primer-level words can be read; spelling, word-meaning, and writing exercises are begun to:
  • develop spelling ability that matches word reading ability;
  • develop phonemic awareness and insight into the spelling patterns of English;
  • develop vocabulary knowledge for words known by skilled language users at various grade levels;
  • develop knowledge of grammatical conventions;
  • develop the foundation to support learning to read and spell at the polysyllabic level; and
  • develop the foundation to support learning the meanings of polysyllabic words and their relationships to one another.
Phonological Features of Polysyllabic Words These skills do not appear in curricula. Students learn an organized system of endings (termed The Ending Classification) and develop knowledge of how vowels “behave” in unaccented syllables.
Morphology and Advanced Vocabulary Development These skills do not appear in curricula. Students apply morphological insight when spelling and connecting spellings to meanings.

*Fluency - The importance of the concept of fluency is recognized in research and most mainstream teaching methods. Beginning fluency training at the level of reading connected text, however, jeopardizes success when more basic, or 'foundation', skills are weak (proficiently naming letters, producing the sounds that they make, and recognizing frequently occurring words).

**The Alphabetic Principle – Appreciating and applying the alphabetic principle have their own complex requirements. Phonemic awareness is a necessary component, but the absence of a thorough knowledge of sound/spelling correspondences results in sensing when something has been misread or misspelled without being able to correct errors. As a result there must be a search of mental lexicons for matches based on context—a slow and mentally effortful process.

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Students master the vowel system to become fluent readers and writers.

Research proposed to expose the curious nature of vowels more than 40 years ago was not implemented, and, subsequently, it has been neglected. It has been necessary, therefore, to teach vowel proficiency without a well-researched, theoretical basis such as exists for other phonological skills. The lack of vowel knowledge confronts almost all students who struggle to learn written-language skills.

Vowels present more difficulty for readers and spellers than consonants even though there are relatively few of them and a vowel sound occurs in every syllable. Research has established that early exposure to language alters the physical structure of the brain and affects reading readiness. In addition, students who struggle in learning to spell very often lack vowel proficiency. In our practices we have found that inclusion of intensive and explicit instruction in vowel knowledge and vowel perception changes the trajectory of students' learning to read and spell. We have developed a scope and sequence of skills necessary to teach vowel sounds and their spelling correspondences. We have empirical evidence that our approach works for students of any ability.

Rather than attempting to teach vowel spelling correspondences through spelling—a recurring objective of most commercial spelling programs—The Spell of Language presents the vowel system as a classification which, when known, makes spelling tasks easier. This feature has been essential to the success of the program. In our experience, this explicit and systematic instruction in vowel knowledge and perception, improves the language performance of all students.

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Vocabularies are built through understanding rather than memorization.

At the same time students master the basic phonological patterns of English, they are able to develop their understanding and use of lexical and grammatical patterns of English in a progression that reflects what we would have all students know at various grade levels. With this combined knowledge base, they are ready to appreciate the combinatory principles of English found in the language's morphological structure. First, students are able to understand its morphological structure and, second, to acquire the identities, spellings, and meanings of more and more words.

In summary, the skills developed through The Spell of Language enable students to become efficient readers and spellers; they are able to read for meaning, integrate vocabulary knowledge with efficiency in word identification skills, and increase speed of processing. Not only are students able to make progress, but they also understand what they are learning.

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The Spell of Language is easy for a teacher to use. “The computer component is friendly; being able to print off worksheets saves valuable time. You know you’re doing it right; there’s no second-guessing.” –Deb Belaire, Teacher, Maine

Our purpose in creating The Spell of Language, as with Essential Word-Knowledge Skills, has been to create curricular programs that teachers can use easily. By using words as a basis of learning, it is possible to combine phonemic awareness and phonics, combine spelling and grammar, and combine spelling and vocabulary in creating interesting and efficient lessons for both students and teachers.

The opportunity to adapt curricula so that it meets the unique needs of students is an essential feature of The Spell of Language. The adaptations listed below are already used by the authors and their fellow teachers. We expect that the list will grow.

Teacher adaptations:

  • A teacher may choose to abbreviate lessons to move more quickly.
  • The level of assistance given in reading and completing the definition task will vary according to the abilities of students.
  • The PDF printouts can be used for any purpose and in any order. For example, classroom teachers may want to use the weekly “Lesson” PDF for homework and the “Homework” PDF for daily practice in class.
  • The Level 3 Matrix is an excellent way to teach supplementary lessons. The matrix may be projected onto a surface or displayed on an interactive whiteboard. Students may then be guided through any number of grammar or language activities in the context of the weekly word list.

Built into The Spell of Language adaptations:

  • Teachers choose from various levels to meet their students’ individual needs.
  • Level 1 word lists are divided into two sections so that they are manageable for younger students.
  • Within specific levels, teachers may choose word lists in any order (keeping in mind that word lists are arranged from easiest to most difficult and specific sound-structural elements may have been introduced in earlier lessons).
  • In Levels 2 through 6, teachers also have the option to select an appropriate number of words within any individual list.
  • Teachers are encouraged to use their knowledge, experience, and intuition to develop new ways to use the curricular material of the website in meeting the unique needs of their students.
  • Curricular units need not be started at the beginning of a school term, and lessons within a unit may be condensed. We do recommend, however, starting with the initial word lists of the particular level because sound-structural elements of the words are introduced and reviewed as progress is made through the level. While the Spell of Language is effective as a stand alone program of instruction, it also can be used as a supplement to other core language arts programs.

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Technology supports the interpersonal connection between teachers and students.

It is our experience that students learn fundamental written-language (as well as oral-language skills) best when they interact with knowledgeable adults who have themselves spent their lives attaining language skills. It is our belief that all students deserve the opportunity to learn from these teachers and that use of computer technology should support teaching, not replace it.

Primarily, The Spell of Language provides teachers with a full range of instructional materials. There are two applications which do allow students to practice skills for accuracy, fluency, and automaticity so that, in turn, they may become more efficient readers and writers. Student practice may be individualized, self-paced, and independent, thereby freeing up teacher time to work with other groups of students on application of the reading and writing skills to be learned. At the same time, it is possible for teachers to regularly record and report student progress.

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The Spell of Language is flexible enough to work in tandem with other literacy programs, yet strong enough to produce results independently.

For teachers who find that the programs they like, are accustomed to, or must use do not meet all the needs of students in learning in basic skills, The Spell of Language enables them to identify and target the needed skills and to measure students’ progress. Templates are available which enable teachers to edit and combine material across multiple lessons which are in the domain of The Spell of Language. For example, using an Excel document, provided by The Spell of Language, teachers are able to construct lessons to fit particular needs.

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The Spell of Language reflects more than thirty years of research that is confirmed by recent brain studies.

Forty years ago, experts in the field of education and language neither knew how to help children who had a difficult time learning to read or spell nor how reading and spelling were learned when learned easily. Between 1965 and 2000, research and training studies conducted by teachers, psychologists, linguists, and other researchers developed a knowledge base to guide understanding and teaching practices. The results of those studies, termed behavioral research, have been confirmed by brain imaging studies such as those of Patricia Kuhl and Stanislas Dehaene.

This recent, relevant scientific research has yet to be incorporated into educational theory. The authors of The Spell of Language offer other research topics which seem to be essential. For example, although the phonological structure of words and its importance to spoken- and written-language skills is well researched and understood, formulating effective instruction remains a challenge for most teachers.

Furthermore, a paradox has precluded clear thinking, thoughtful implementation, and sustained action. The paradox is a consequence of the acquisition of literacy. Briefly explained, even if reading is not particularly accurate, it seems like a skill that could not be hard to learn, when in fact it is. Failure to understand and acknowledge the paradox has resulted in persistent reconstitution of what is already known or thought to be known rather than keeping to the routes developed through scientific research and training studies.

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Students love The Spell of Language.

Students are able to see their progress at intervals that confirm that progress. Phonetic analysis gives students both a visual reminder of the phonological structure of words being learned so that they understand what is required in order to work through print on a page and the confidence that they will be successful.

Moreover, students are open to having teachers guide their perception and assist in their processing rather than following their own attention wherever it may lead. The outcomes of lessons are purposeful and explicit for the students. Understanding the learning task motivates students to go beyond what is concrete in a lesson.

The success students experience supports the development of intrinsic motivation. The sense of competence makes it possible for students to direct their own thinking processes—to think about their learning rather than to react as best they can to what “hits” them.

⎼ A ten-year-old fourth-grader
I tried as hard as I could to read and spell, but I couldn’t ever work hard enough. I still work hard, only now I know I am learning. My mom and my teacher know it, too!

⎼ A sixteen-year-old high school student
Learning the vowel system and each of the vowel sounds enabled me to become an accurate speller and to read fast. Learning how words are put together in English has made it really easy to learn vocabulary, especially for science.

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