Thursday, 24 February 2011

Charlotte Mason and Spell to Write and Read

Wanda Sanseri (author of Spell to Write and Read) & Charlotte Mason have several elements in common in their theories: 

They both believe(d) reading & spelling should be taught at the same time. 
They both believe(d) children should draw the words out of their mind and write them down, in the process of learning how to read & spell. 
They both believe(d) quality literature should be used hand-in-hand with reading work. 

Where they differ is in *how* the children get those words out of their minds.  Charlotte Mason believed that the child should "see the word in his mind's eye" and then write it from what they have "visualized".  Sanseri believes that children should be able to sound out the word by the phonetic sounds, one sound at a time, and write it from what they have sounded out - more of an "auditory" method. 

An additional researcher, Nanci Bell, has put another piece in place - that children who successfully learn to read can actually visualize the phonetic sounds as they sound out words, and then the children write the word.  This, to me, ties together Charlotte Mason & Sanseri, visual & auditory components. 

So, I personally don't find Spell to Write and Read as out of line with Charlotte Mason's recommendations as some might at first glance.  In fact, in light of all the additional research which has been done since Charlotte Mason's time, and the findings that phonetic-based reading lessons are highly effective (more so than whole-word, in most studies), I personally think that Spell to Write and Read is a helpful supplement to a Charlotte Mason education. 

I asked Wanda about these differences on the Spell to Write and Read Yahoo group, and here are her answers, which I found very helpful:

Dear Jen,

Q. Your program (which, by the way, I'm using with very good success with my first child who is 6 - so thank you!) assumes that when we spell words, we hear them or sound them out to spell them. However, what about children who are not strong auditory learners? Is it possible that there are some children who would do
best to close their eyes, visualize the letters in their brain, and draw those down to the paper (rather than the sounds)?

A. This is a great question. I can personally speak for the visual learners. I was a strong visual learner with very weak auditory skills. I had no phonics instruction growing up. I learned English, French, and German by letter names and visual appearance. Without my visual memory, I would have been lost. However, total reliance on visual cues handicapped me and kept me from my full potential in high school and college. I was ahead of most of my peers with the same limitations but amazed by the seeming genius of people that I met in college who were trained with a phonics foundation.

Sadly most educators today teach spelling by sight alone. I compare that to that transportation by unicycle. Balancing on one wheel takes more energy, training, and intense concentration. Selecting that mode of travel unnecessarily restricts those who can ride. A four wheel vehicle can reach the needs of a wider audience. The less agile, even the lame, can come on board.

We teach spelling using all four "wheels" (hearing, saying, writing, and reading) plus logical analysis. In so doing, we can open language skills to all learning styles and IQ levels.

Q. Charlotte Mason believed in visualization of the words "in your mind's eye" before spelling them out (so, compared with your first statement, she would say "When we spell words, we see them in our mind's eye
first"). She, also, believed in background phonogram work. But when it came to the actual reading lessons, she used a whole-word approach.

Is there any research which shows the answer to this question?

A. Whole-word instruction consistently delivers a weaker outcome, even for the visual learners. The National Advisory Council on Adult Education reports, "Since 1911, a total of 124 studies have compared look-say approaches with phonics-first programs. Not one found look-say superior. The research director of the Reading Reform Foundation reviewed 36 studies and her team concluded that rigorous controlled research clearly favors teaching all the main sound-sumbol relationships from the start of formal reading instruction. Such teaching benefits comprehension as well as vocabulary and spelling. Phonetic groups are usually superior in grades 3 and above." Some strong visual learners appear to excel with beginning level words but visual alone does not support the added needs of a growing vocabulary. These findings totally match my experience in my own learning as well as with the students that I have had to joy of teaching and the students of teachers that I have taught.

Q. Is it an auditory, or visual process?

The ideal language approach is to strengthen all the senses in concert. Language is a skill that needs to progress to the most automatic subconscious level. When we teach with all four areas at the same time, we help each learner draw from his greatest strength while building up his weaker areas. I am no longer just a visual learner. I am playing catch up for all that I missed years ago. My visual ability is stronger than ever but it enjoys the support of the other senses. Aren't you glad?


Wanda Sanseri
Author of Spell to Write and Read


  1. This is very interesting, and I too have given the whole area a lot of thought since becoming more "into" CM. I love SWR! I think it is by far the best language arts program out there for K-12!! I don't really feel that SWR and CM principles are contradictory; like you, I think they can be made to be very complementary. SWR has been thoroughly researched, and very well planned over many years according to Wanda's extensive work. It is no doubt a great curriculum without changes (I worked with my older two boys for 5 years following as closely as possible to her recommendations). It is not contra-CM even then, however, there are elements of SWR that can be adapted to be more conducive.

    For example, learning the phonograms and all their sounds from the start, instead of only 'letters' as CM suggested. In the same way, as soon as the 'letters' are learned, you could begin 'word-building' using the first lists in the Wise Guide. Finally, when your child is ready to begin, dictate the words incorporating the visual element (an IMPORTANT element for my boys), etc. For 'extra practice' find poetry, Bible and literature selections that incorporate the list words for copywork.

    I have a post in drafts on this very subject ;)
    oh and thanks for inviting me to share ;)

    amy in peru

  2. Thanks, Amy, for posting the first comments on my blog! Quick question - how do you personally go about finding those "poetry, Bible and literature selections that incorporate the list words for copywork"?

    Wouldn't it be fabulous if some made a list that matched each of the SWR lists with appropriate Charlotte Mason-friendly books etc.?

  3. Sometimes you can use the sentence examples in the Wise Guide, as Wanda has some quotes from EXCELLENT sources in there. I've also used Spelling Wisdom by SCM and actually do have a list of selections for quite a number of the Wise Guide lists :) I think I linked to Spelling Wisdom in the post you commented on... I haven't yet polished nor made my research available however. :)

    amy in peru

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I love SWR and I also love CM and I've instinctively felt that the two are compatible, but it's nice to see some details as to why.