Spelling and the path to abstraction

Sharon Caldwell posted this at Montessori on-line – in response to  questions about teaching spelling to an older child:

“What is the sensitivity of this age group? – a fascination with rules and why and wherefore. So, let us for one minute ditch the
misconception that English spelling is irrational and that there are too many exceptions – there are not. The rules follow the origin of the words the words with Celtic origins are generally spelled one way, those with French origins another, Greek another and Latin another. So exploring the meaning and origin of words give sense to the spelling – the type of sense that children on the second plane are looking for.

A good place to start is with the Spalding list that gives 29 spelling rules that cover the large majority of words. Learn one rule a day and in a month you can spell. This is what two home-schooled, ex Montessori children I advise have done and it is wonderful. Learn five words a week and, well, it is a lifetime before you learn to spell all the words you need.


Another thing which I think someone else may have mentioned is to learn to touch-type – so to go back to my favorite invention (spellchecker). If your daughter starts learning to touch-type and she makes a mistake she gets the red underline … goes back to check the word, and has to think about the spelling (either using the right click for opitons – then she needs to make a choice) or use a dictionary. This is intelligent – not simply drill and kill – it is also involving the hands so her fingers get to learn the spelling at the same time as her brain. If she keeps watching the keyboard she can simply cover her hands with a scarf.

So it turns out to be very much a Montessori question. I have seen way too many Montessori schools trying to teach spelling in the same old boring and irrelevant way it is taught in regular schools. Homeschoolers, on the other hand, tend to opt for the approach I have outlined above, which is, ironically, far more in line with Montessori.”

Gosh! This, again, fells, so right! It is a God-send.  I do think some children are just more “natural” when it comes to spelling and some children less so, but Sharon, as always – is spot-on! The 10-year-old in my class is constantly interested in rules and for a long time, I was silly enough to try to get him to learn things intuitively, which I notice younger children do so easily.  We just need to meet children where they are at, and I wasn’t doing that.  Somehow, the younger children (and I mean early elementary) are still sort of in an “in-between” phase – they want to learn things abstractly but are still able to intuit concepts by working on the materials.  The 10-year-old, on the other hand, is just about beyond that.  He wants to know the reasons behind things and approaches this abstractly.  I gave him the 29 rules today and he seemed happy to receive them.  Meanwhile, I’ve also introduced some geometry cards to him (from Conceptual Learning – absolutely great!) and he’s been teaching himself geometry nomenclature (he didn’t have the benefit of an earlier Montessori background) – but at HIS level, i.e. abstractly, without the geometric cabinet.  He is enjoying those a lot.

I wonder if he’ll enjoy the geometric stick material, though.  I think deep down, we can all still learn things sensorially (and sometimes, we just need to approach it from that perspective).  I can’t wait to show him that!


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