Help your child with S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G

February 23, 2007|by LISA PREJEAN


I never liked it when teachers gave that response to my question, "How do you spell this word?"

Yes, I know they were trying to get me to use the dictionary and to become independent as a writer, yet still it frustrated me.

Couldn't I have a hint?

To me, the message was condescending, as in, "Go away, kid, you're bothering me."

I vowed a long time ago that I would never give that response to someone. If a spelling question is asked by a colleague and I know how to spell the word, I simply spell it. If I don't know the answer, I look up the word. It's probably something I should learn anyway.

If the spelling question is asked by a child, I ask a question back, "How do you think that word is spelled?"


Once a child answers, I tell him if he's close, make sure the first three letters are correct and then send him to a dictionary. If time permits, I like to open a dictionary with him and show him if he is correct or not. Seeing truly is believing.

Part of the problem is that we assume elementary-age children know how to use a dictionary, as if this skill comes along with the "I can read now, Mom!" rite of passage.

Knowing how to use a dictionary, like any other skill, has to be learned.

The first step is understanding that words in a dictionary are arranged in alphabetical order. A child might not know what "alphabetical" means, so it helps to initially use the phrase "A-B-C order." The words are listed in the order of the alphabet. A word that begins with "a" comes before a word that begins with "b," and so on.

If two words begin with the same letter, go to the second letter. Which of those two comes first in the alphabet? If they are the same, keep looking to find two letters in the word that are different. Those letters will be the key to finding the words in a dictionary.

There are several ways dictionaries help us understand words.

Spelling is perhaps the most commonly used feature. By looking up a word in a dictionary, we can learn how to spell it correctly. It can be tough knowing where to look first. Sometimes a child might have to look in several different places to find the right spelling. A word might sound like it begins with "f" when it really begins with "ph."

By comparing this word search to a treasure hunt, we can help a child think positively and not become discouraged.

Dictionaries also help us know how to say words. Symbols beside a word give clues on how it is pronounced. Most dictionaries have pronunciation keys for the symbols' sounds.

Many people use dictionaries to help them understand the meanings of words. If a child is reading a passage and doesn't know what a word means, he can learn the definition by looking in a dictionary. This will help him to understand what he is reading.

Children also need to learn how to use guide words. These words are listed at the top of each page in the dictionary. The first word on the page is listed at the top left. The last word on the page is listed at the top right. A child can use what he knows about alphabetical order to help him find a word. If the first guide word comes after the word he's looking up, he'll turn back a page or two to find his word. For example, if the first guide word on a page is "consumer," and the word the child is looking for is "constitute," he looks on the previous page. (This is a tough one because the first four letters, "cons," of both words are the same. A child has to look to the fifth letter to see where the words fall in alphabetical order. Because "t" comes before "u," constitute comes before consumer in the dictionary.)

Likewise, if the second guide word comes before the word, a child goes forward in the dictionary to find it. For example, if the second guide word is "wardrobe," and the word the child seeks is "warehouse," he'll look on the next page to find it.

Children need a lot of guided practice with this skill before they are ready to pick up a dictionary and find a word themselves. As an adult, it's fun to be that guide and help them unlock the hidden treasures they seek.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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