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7 Secrets to Success in Spelling and Vocabulary - Gina Berrios

7 Secrets to Success in Spelling and Vocabulary


Gina Berrios offers seven kid-approved tips, tricks and shortcuts to make spelling and vocabulary lessons more fun and less of a chore in your school day.

Let’s talk Spelling and Vocabulary!

Here are some of my tips on how to mix things up with these two subjects, so they are not just another chore you have to check off in a planner and record in a grade book!

I am going to write specifically about Seton’s spelling and vocabulary curriculum, because that is what we use. These tricks can be incorporated into any curriculum.

1. Flash cards

My kids make flash cards for their vocabulary words. On the front, they put the lesson number, the vocabulary word and the part of speech. On the back, they list the definition(s) of the word. This is done every Monday with the start of a new list. Writing out the definitions onto an index card helps with retention.

Sometimes, things are more easily committed to memory if you write them, rather than just read them.

In Seton’s vocabulary books, lessons for days two and three involve filling in the blank with the correct word, finding synonyms and antonyms, or matching the correct definitions. My kids will set out their vocabulary cards on their desk. As they use a word, they set the card in a pile.

Since they have the cards lined out, there isn’t a need to ask me for help, because if they do not know what a word means, they can flip the card, read the definition, and find the answer.

Another nice thing about flash cards is it is an easy way to study independently. My kids can review their flash cards on their own, and since the cards are portable, they can take bring them on car journeys for extra study time.

After a weekly test, the cards are placed in a holder and stored for the quarter, making a review for quarter tests a breeze.

When it is time for a quarter test, the selected lessons are pulled out of the case, and the child sorts the cards on his own into three piles: know, kind of know and don’t know. The know cards are put away. The kind of knows and don’t knows are reviewed all week, by being sorted back into the three categories every day.

This focuses the child on what words to study, so hopefully, by Friday, he is ready for the quarter test!

2. Shortcut for defining words

In the early elementary grades, Seton provides the definition, a sentence using the word and a picture of the word. I tear this page out of the book, and it travels through the child’s weekly folder, day by day, to be a reference and study guide all week.

For the older grades, the words are presented in context in a paragraph, and a list is provided with definitions to be given by the student. When we started homeschooling, this was a cumbersome task! It took my kids forever to look up the words in a dictionary and find the correct definition.

Sometimes, we discovered they were studying the wrong definition all week. On some Mondays, vocabulary was taking up to two hours! Something had to give!

We found a shortcut to finding definitions: the crossword puzzle. When making their flash cards, the kids use the definitions given as the answers to the crossword puzzle in Seton’s vocabulary book. These are concise definitions, using the correct context for the words to study for the week. I make my kids fill in the crossword puzzle as they go to check for accuracy. If the word doesn’t fit in the puzzle, it obviously isn’t the right definition.

Before they can ask for my help, they must follow these three steps: attempt every word on your own, reread the word in the context paragraph to figure out its meaning, and look the word up in a dictionary. If still baffled, they can ask for my help. This cuts down on them asking, “Mom, what does ___ mean?” after every word!

However, what about dictionary skills? I was hesitant to follow this route at first because I believe in the importance of teaching dictionary skills. (My kids were baffled by this when they could just look up any word online and save a lot of time.) I still work dictionary skills into all subjects.

Sometimes, I require one vocabulary word to be still looked up in a paper dictionary. We will pull out a dictionary in history and science. The dictionary is always within arm’s reach. I have just decided we need not spend two hours every Monday looking up 15 vocabulary definitions.

3. Tackling the spelling list

At the start of every week, I have my kids read me their spelling words (vocabulary words, too, as a matter of fact). They should know how to say the word, not just spell it! We also talk about any patterns to the words on the list, any tricky words or any homonyms.

I look for ways the kids can be independent in studying their list for the week. I write the words in their lesson planner, so they can check off the words as they use them for each lesson.

I have also used a hand-held recorder so they can quiz themselves. At the start of the week, the child records himself saying the word and spelling it. He can play the list back all week, hitting pause on the recording and quizzing himself.

It is also fun to involve older siblings in quizzing the younger kids on their lists. It is a good review for the older kids, and it breaks up the routine for the younger ones. One time my kids switched it up, and the younger sibling read the words for the older child’s test. It was hilarious trying to decipher the spelling test. Some new words were created for that list. We didn’t do that again!

4. Teach process of elimination and other skills

I think is important to teach test taking and critical thinking skills whenever we can. Spelling and vocabulary lessons are a great time to do so. We have a rule that the kids cannot ask for help on these lessons until they have attempted every word on their own. I teach them to use the process of elimination.

Usually, they can go back and review the questions they skipped, compare it to the words left on their list, and figure out the answer for themselves.

Using words in context is another important strategy and helps build reading skills. I try to be familiar with the words on the vocabulary lists each week, and we try to incorporate them into our daily conversations.

When you encounter a vocabulary word in an everyday setting, point it out to your child. One of my kids is very visual, and it helps to take an abstract word and put it in a real word context for her. This creates associations that help her with learning definitions. For example, when the word hedge was on her list, I pointed out every yard with a hedge that we drove past that week.

Pick words apart. Look for root words. Have the kids point out prefixes and suffixes. Discuss rules like silent e and adding plural endings. All of these tips help with spelling and they also help decode the meaning of vocabulary words. I appreciate the paragraphs in the workbooks that offer the words in context. I will discuss those with the kids to help them figure out how to infer meaning or to see how a word can have more than one meaning.

5. Time savers

When you have a packed week and busy days, use shortcuts! We do spelling every week because getting behind means doubling up later and that can be tough! I would rather use doubling up to our advantage.

If a list is easy and my child asks to take the test early, I say yes, but anything less than an A means they must finish all the lessons and take the test at the end of the week. If they do get an A, we start the next list! Finishing spelling a few weeks early is such a treat at the end of the school year!

One of the spelling lessons in the weekly Seton spelling book gives the definition of the spelling word, and the child writes the correct word. Sometimes, these definitions are tough and can cause frustration for my kids. This is where the process of elimination is effective.

However, if we are pressed for time one day, I will skip this lesson and tell the child to write each word three times, and we will review the definitions later. It is a great way to expand a child’s vocabulary, but some days, spelling just needs to be spelling.

The fourth weekly lesson in the Seton spelling book is a short reading that uses all the spelling words. This can be swapped out for any other day’s lesson when one day is already full and busy. You do not have to follow the lessons in order. Swap them out to complement your schedule!

Vocabulary is planned for seven weeks every quarter, with time for review and a quarter test. We do not take those two weeks off for vocabulary each quarter. We review for a week then test, and continue with the next list. This means vocabulary ends about four weeks early.

The kids like having that break from vocabulary at the end of a school year. This additional time also gives us a cushion to skip a week of vocabulary during the school year, if needed.

6. Test taking and grading

I let the kids grade their own spelling tests. Playing the teacher is something fun for them to do!

We do a practice spelling test every Thursday. If the child attains 100%, I count it for their test, and they get a break on Friday.

Vocabulary tests can be tough at times! Study, study, study! One of my kids needs her vocabulary tests to be given orally. Taking a written test is too difficult, and it is a skill we are working on. Adapt for your kids and teach to their strengths. This is part of why we homeschool, right?

Let spelling tests be spelling tests, and vocabulary tests be vocabulary tests. I do not take off for misspelled vocabulary words on a test. I will correct the spelling, but if the definition is correct, full credit is still given.

7. What about the tears?

These subjects have occasionally gotten tearful responses from my kids. It’s tough to tackle new words, recall their meaning and then spell them correctly. Just when you get it down, you have a new week and new words. Some of my kids breeze through spelling and vocabulary without an issue. However, others have found these subjects a challenge.

Stick with it; be patient and creative. I had to make color coded spelling flash cards for one of my kids. Vowels were in red, consonants in blue. Sometimes, I would draw a picture to go with the word to help him remember.

Almost every week, he would cry over his spelling test (sometimes, I wanted to cry with him). It was just so hard, and there didn’t seem to be a remedy to make it easier for him. Sure, when he gets older, he will have spell check on a computer to make his life easier, but that isn’t a fix for elementary grades.

We both resolved to tackle his spelling difficulties together. He must study more than his siblings. His English papers are still full of misspelled words requiring extra proof reading on his part. However, he is sticking it out and is determined to overcome his spelling weakness. He is in middle school now, and the hard work is paying off (finally!).

In fact, he is the one who asked me to write this article. He said, “Mom, you should write an article about all of the tricks we use for spelling and vocabulary that have made those subjects easier for me.” I’ll take that as a win!

So, these are some of our tricks. Please share yours!

About Gina Berrios

Gina Berrios
I am a homeschooling mom to six fantastic kids. We live on the beautiful Gulf Coast and enjoy road tripping whenever possible!

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