When poor spellers begin with the written word, they often try to memorize a spelling as if it were an arbitrary letter string. Arbitrary strings are terribly hard to remember; think how long it takes to learn a phone number, and then imagine trying to learn 88,500 phone numbers–the estimated number of words in printed school English. The wordmapping strategy helps students focus on the pronunciation of a word before seeing its spelling. This helps them understand that a spelling is a meaningful map of the pronunciation. When spellings are understood as pronunciation maps, they are much easier to remember.
The wordmapping procedure has nine steps. For five steps, the student examines the phonological structure of the word by attending to phonemes (mouth movements), all without seeing the word. For the remaining four steps, the student constructs and studies the spelling as a word map.
First, examine the mouth moves of the spoken word. Example
1. Say the word. night
Say the syllables if there are more than one.
2. Stretch the word. /nnnIIIt/
Work syllable by syllable with multisyllabic words.
If a phoneme can’t be stretched, exaggerate it.
3. Segment (split up) the phonemes.
Work by syllables if necessary.
First phoneme? /n/
Next phoneme? etc. /I/
Last phoneme? /t/
Skillful spellers may simply report the segments.
4. Count the phonemes. 3
5. Draw blanks. ___ ___ ___
The blanks stand for the phonemes.
Put slashes between syllables.
Next, construct a word map to learn the spelling.
6. Record the spelling phoneme by phoneme.
On the first blank, write [letters] n ___ ___
On next blank, write [letters] n igh ___
On last blank, write [letters] n igh t
If there are silent letters, caret them in.
7. Write the word in your best handwriting. night
8. Study the spelling.
Ask what a pattern says OR What does igh say?
Ask about how a phoneme is spelled OR How do we spell /I/ in night?
Ask what we need to remember about the word. What’s tricky about night?
Only ask about tricky parts.
9. Ask about the meaning.
What does ___ mean? When it’s dark out.
|Teacher||Student, with teacher guidance|
|Mean it.1||Stretch it, count it, dash and slash it.|
|Spell it.2||Write it, study it, mean it.|
Some students are too advanced for the letterbox lesson because they have mastered most regular vowel correspondences in one-syllable words. The words these students are having trouble reading are irregular, polysyllabic, or both. When students have moved beyond the letterbox lesson, we can work on more subtle spelling patterns with wordmapping lessons.
The first step in constructing a wordmapping lesson is to examine reading miscues; these involve spelling weaknesses serious enough to impede reading. Consider misspelled words in written messages, but give priority to misread irregular or polysyllabic words. Identify one missing pattern to address in a spelling lesson, e.g., c (e, i, or y) = /s/, or the common syllable tion.
Make a list of 3-12 example words and nonexample words, including irregular and polysyllabic words and review words from previous lessons. Put the words in syllable order, e.g., once, crumb, trunk, balance, circus, and ambulance. Provide the dictionary syllabication and phoneme counts, e.g., bal-ance, 3-3; cir-cus, 2-3; am-bu-lance, 2-2-4.
Explain and model how to spell an example word, using the nine steps. With polysyllabic words, use the dictionary syllables, e.g. for diligence, dil-i-gence.
If the student is catching on, look for shortcuts in the nine-step procedure. After the student orally syllabicates a word and counts the syllables, work by syllable. Have the student stretch each syllable, count its phonemes, draw blanks, and make a slash to prepare the way for the next syllable. After the blanks are drawn, provide the standard spelling for the student to record blank by blank. Do not expect the student to invent the standard spelling, which often involves irregularities and ambiguities. Next, have the student recopy the word “in your best cursive handwriting,” and then study the tricky parts. Make sure the student understands what the word means.
After all the words are processed, give a written spelling test. Include examples of the spelling pattern not covered in the lesson. For example, students who have studied yield should be able to spell yield or shield. Students who have studied fiction should be able to spell faction or fraction. Conclude the lesson by having the student read the list of spelling words. Words represented with good spellings in memory can be read fluently.
Footnotes on counting phonemes in irregular and multisyllable words
With r-controlled vowels, only count the vowel-r chunk as a single phoneme if r alters the vowel sound (er, ir, ur, ar). When r does not change the vowel, e.g., their, separate the vowel from r (th–ei–r).
With final –le syllables, treat the semivowel /l/ as a single phoneme, e.g., for turtle, t ur / t le. If possible, put a caret under the silent e.
Murray, B.A., & Steinen, N. (2011). W or d / m a p / p i ng: How understanding spellings improves spelling power. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46(5), 299-304.
In a quasi-experimental study, ninth graders in a remedial English class were assigned to an experimental wordmapping group or to a vocabulary group studying the same words. Students in the wordmapping group not only learned to spell lesson words better, but also significantly outscored the control group on a standardized test of spelling.
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Last modified: February 19, 2021