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The Right Time to Start Spelling Instruction

by Marie Rippel



Children have such a variety of needs—especially when it comes to spelling. You want to get it right, so naturally you have questions about the right time to start spelling instruction.

When is the right time to start spelling? 
My 12-year-old is struggling … where do I start? 
My child is five, but he’s reading … is it too soon to start?

Since everyone’s situation is unique, you may have guessed that there are no “one size fits all” answers.

But these are all great questions that deserve a response. I’ll do my best to answer them here, but if you ever have questions about timing and placement, please pick up the phone and call us, or shoot us an email.

What’s the Right Time to Start Spelling Instruction?

My general recommendation is to begin spelling instruction after your child has a strong start in reading.

Here are recommendations concerning some more specific situations:

  • Generally speaking, I recommend that a child complete All About Reading Level 1 (or the equivalent), and then start All About Spelling Level 1 along with All About Reading Level 2. For most children, this means starting spelling around the end of first grade.

  • For a child who is reading above AAR Level 1, start with AAS Level 1 and the appropriate level of AAR. See our reading placement guides here.

  • Older children who are reading above AAR Level 1—and have previous experience with a phonogram-based spelling program—may be able to jump directly into AAS Level 2.

  • Struggling spellers of any age should begin in AAS Level 1. This ensures that there will be no gaps in your child’s learning.


Why Wait to Start Spelling?

There are three main reasons to delay spelling instruction until after the child has begun reading. Here’s the rationale:

  1. While learning to read, students pick up basic skills that will enable them to spell more easily.

    For example, in All About Reading Level 1 a number of important reading skills are thoroughly and systematically taught. Students review the first sound for each phonogram and learn how to blend these sounds into words. They hone their reading ability with phonemic awareness skills like rhyming and alliteration. And they gradually add additional phonogram sounds.

    When students are ready for spelling instruction, the first steps in All About Spelling Level 1 quickly review these crucial reading skills, and then build on these concepts. A strong foundation in reading paves the way for an incremental introduction of spelling skills and strategies that help students become successful spellers.

  2. It’s easier to decode words than it is to encode words.

    Reading requires decoding. Once a child learns that the phonogram ay always says /ā/, reading words like stay, display, and mayhem is easy. But spelling requires encoding. Consider the sound of /ā/. It can be written as a, ai, ea, a-consonant-e, eigh, ei, ey, or ay. Can you see why it may be easier for a child to read the word neighbor than it is for him to spell the word neighbor? Acquiring the skills required to decode words provides the foundation students need to learn to encode words.

  3. Learning to read first provides a “scaffolding” approach to learning spelling.

    Reading helps a child establish a visual memory of many words, which acts as one of the first “rungs” in the scaffolding process. But spelling isn’t just visual, and relying on visual strategies alone is overwhelming for most kids. Successful spelling requires a combination of four main spelling strategies—visual, phonetic, rules-based, and morphemic. Building a strong reading foundation strengthens this core strategy and better prepares your child for spelling success.


Why You Don’t Want to Wait Too Long . . .

This is an important point. Some programs recommend that you don’t start spelling instruction until the child is in third grade. 
That is too long to wait. Here’s why:

  • You don’t want your child to start guessing at how to spell words. Bad habits are hard to correct. It is easier to learn something correctly the first time.

  • You want to teach spelling before your child needs it for other subjects in school.

  • You don’t want your child to internalize the idea that “I’m just a bad speller.” You want to give him skills and confidence as early in his school career as possible.

Ideally, you want to start teaching spelling by the end of first grade. But if your child is older than that, don’t despair! All About Spellingis perfect for older kids as well.

An Added Benefit

Some kids are actually able to wrap their minds around spelling more easily than reading. I’ve noticed that these kids are usually very analytical, and some of them have tried to learn to read so many times that they are just frustrated with the whole process. Most often, their previous reading programs have let them down and they feel like they’ve hit a wall. But when they start fresh with All About Spelling, it’s like a light bulb goes on.

Instead of trying yet another reading program—and fearing that they’ll never be able to read—they have a fresh start with spelling, and everything begins to make sense. It’s not normally the way it works, but for some kids, learning to spell actually makes reading easier! We’ve heard from many delighted parents and tutors who report that their students’ reading level increased a couple of grade levels as they worked through All About Spelling. That’s what I like to hear!

We just considered a variety of scenarios, but for the vast majority of students, the answer to “When do I start?” is very simple.

If your child can read, it’s the perfect time to begin spelling instruction—just don’t wait too long!