Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review: All About Spelling, Levels One and Two

As part of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received Levels One and Two of All About Spelling, plus a starter kit.  I've been using All About Spelling since before they were All About Spelling (my Level One book has the title The Complete Guide to Teaching Spelling!) and I have blogged about it before, and I blogged about it in "The Perfect Program" too.  Nonetheless, I was thrilled to get these materials, especially as we've fallen away from using it.  It got to be a pretty big hassle with some other things we had going on in life, and somehow we just never picked it back up.

So, first... who we are.  My husband and I are both fairly mediocre spellers.  I'm probably better than he is, but I have certainly never won any spelling bees.  I was taught, like most people, with lists of unrelated words every week that I had to study just enough to be able to pass the test on Friday.  I was never given much for rules besides the "I before E" one, and some cute little tricks to help me with specific words -- "friends to the end" (though if you know I before E except after C, why do you need that?) and "the principal is your pal."

My kids, though, are abysmal spellers.  At least the three older guys.  The other two are still too young to tell.  A couple years ago, Connor was reading at a high school level, but his spelling ranked somewhere around a 2nd grade level.  That gigantic discrepancy drove me in search of something different, which is when I found All About Spelling.  William is severely dyslexic, and All About Spelling was a huge breakthrough for his reading ability.  That was even before I knew about Orton-Gillingham, or anything else along those lines.

I posted last February that I think most spelling programs out there are either meant for kids who can already spell, or they are designed for the convenience of classroom teachers.  I have found very few programs that are actually teaching spelling.  Most are practicing spelling.  Not at all the same thing.

All About Spelling teaches spelling.  I still believe that it is the best thing out there for teaching spelling.  Getting back to using it again in my household has reminded me of why I love it.  And I now have even more reasons.

The new book is so much better than what I started with!  And the starter pack?  Wow!  The magnets make a gigantically huge difference for using it with multiple kids.  The new phonogram CD is nicer than the old one.  And the student kits?  The cards are perforated now!  I spent significantly less time pulling the materials together this time around than when I first started.  The progress charts are 1000% better.  Wow, is all I can say...

Whoaaa... I'm getting ahead of myself.

So I received Levels 1, 2 and a starter pack.

Level 1, which I've used/am using with three kids so far (and I'll start Richard as soon as Thomas finishes it) starts off with learning the basic phonograms (like “a” says /a/, ay, ah).  You learn a whole bunch of phonemic awareness stuff (like breaking words up into the sounds...  cat is /k/ /a/ /t/).  And you start spelling words, beginning with basic short vowel words, one vowel at a time.  You learn about syllables.  Even though Connor could already spell every word in Level 1 before we started, he absolutely learned from his time doing it.  He learned *why* we write cat and not kat, or rock and not roc or rok.

Level 2, which I've used/am using with two kids so far (and Thomas will get there soon) starts off with a review, and then jumps into syllable work -- like division rules, and open and closed syllables.  The spelling rules deal with silent E, plurals, er, ar, or, and a bunch of other vowel sounds.

A typical lesson in my household would be something like this:
  1. Review concepts, using the various types of cards included in the student materials.  Review some specific concepts as per the script.
  2. New teaching, which is all scripted, where you spell with the tiles and you and the student do various things to illustrate the concept.  This could include introducing new cards, reading included charts, or other things.
  3. Go over new words, first using the tiles, then with the child writing them.
  4. Go over the "more words" section, which are usually more advanced words following the same rule.  I vary what I do with these words, depending on the kid and the day.  Sometimes I have them spell words orally, spelling bee style (including them asking me for a definition or origin).  Sometimes they read the words.  Sometimes we do more writing out of spelling words.
  5. Dictation -- there are phrases, and eventually both phrases and sentences.  I usually do dictation while I'm working on a meal.  The child sits on the floor in the kitchen and I take a look at each sentence in between chopping onions or whatever.  I go for about 5-10 minutes of dictation in total at one time.
  6. For Book 1, sometimes there is a story in the Beehive Reader (which is a separate purchase).
  7. If we introduced any homophones, I find the related pages in All About Homophones (another separate purchase -- I linked the e-book, which is what I prefer, as you can print out the individual pages as you need them, for everyone)

I also use this for reading practice, for everyone actually.  Connor doesn't need it, but it doesn't take him long either.  I'll back up a couple lessons and have the child read the phrases, or the sentences, or the 'more words' or the previous spelling words from the cards.

This sounds complicated when I write it all up.  But it isn't.  The greatest things about All About Spelling is that it requires very little prep time.  When you first get it, plan to spend an hour or so getting the tiles and cards set up (it was longer before the cards were perforated).  Spend 15 minutes reading the introductory materials.  And then you just start.

I spend ZERO time on teacher prep on a day to day basis.  The only thing I have to do to get ready for a lesson is to grab a dry erase marker out of the drawer, and figure out which card filebox  has the level I need.  (That would be an additional purchase -- you really do need one of those little 3x5 card boxes.  And some type of magnetic board, they recommend one that is 2’x3’.  Mine is 16”x22” and it really is too small, but it works.  Another 3-4” would make a world of difference.  2'x3' would be heavenly.)

The other teacher prep is that when a child finishes a level, I need to spend about 30 minutes getting the cards put back in order for the next child.

A huge plus for me has been how incredibly easy it is to adjust to the child.  Connor has been known to complete multiple “steps” (each book is divided into a couple dozen steps, or lessons) in a single day (particularly in Level 1).  Or we have spent a week or more on a single step.  It’s mastery-based.  Work on it until they know it, then move to the next step.

And it sticks.  After taking about a 5 month break, I insisted on backing up and going over steps we had already completed.  While there were a few phonograms that they had forgotten (does ‘ch’ say /ch/ /sh/ /k/, or /ch/ /k/ /sh/?), they really did not need the review of the spelling part of the lesson.  We covered multiple steps per day until we got back to where we left off in March.

The negatives?  

Cost.  At least compared to all the regular spelling programs out there, this is expensive.  Moreso if you start with an older child so that you will go through multiple levels in a schoolyear.  $30-$40 per level, times six levels, plus the starter kit at $27.  More if you purchase a student kit ($15-$20 per level) for each student.  (I don’t.  We don’t use the one or two consumable parts as consumables, and I make the next child in line wait for the kid ahead of him to finish a level before starting, so I never have more than one child in a level.  Very, very soon here, I will have kids in Levels 1, 2, 3 and 5.)  And if you get the reader and homophone books, that adds on to it as well.

A word on cost though -- in my household, we are using All About Spelling instead of another Orton-Gillingham program.  A program that runs more like $300 per level with 10 levels.  I can purchase everything currently available from All About Spelling for $264.60... that’s Levels 1-5, the starter kit, the reader, and the homophones e-book.  Level 6 will probably add another $40... so for about the same cost as ONE level of the other program, I can get everything from All About Spelling.  And I didn’t have to purchase it all at once either (well, I couldn’t... I’ve had to add the levels one at a time, as they came out).

Another word on cost -- I think many non-dyslexic kids could completely learn to read with this program also, so you don’t need to be purchasing a separate phonics program.  Richard has been informally using All About Spelling (playing with the CD that is in the starter kit, and working on the first couple lessons of Level 1 where they learn the phonograms of the 26 individual letters, and do phonemic awareness activities) and he reads at least a year ahead of grade level.  I have spent maybe 20 minutes “teaching” him to read outside of All About Spelling.  He may have done this without All About Spelling, I don’t know, but I am convinced that All About Spelling has made the difference.  Dyslexic kiddos, well, maybe this could be all the reading instruction they need.  It makes a fantastic base anyway.  I need to add on for William though.

Time.  This is not something you can just hand your child and have them do independently.  All of it involves one-on-one time with your child.  I spend 15 or so minutes per child per day.  That’s 45 minutes of my time right now, and it will be an hour shortly.  I will have Connor through the program before I start Trina, as I really don’t want that to turn into over an hour.  Now, some of that time is spent with me doing something else too, since phrase and sentence dictation happens while I cook or clean the kitchen.  

My recommendations?  If your child is a natural speller and is doing fine with what you have already, well, you probably didn’t read this far anyway.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  However, if your child struggles at all with spelling, I really do believe that All About Spelling could be the answer.  I know my spelling has improved dramatically, and I’m nowhere near working through the whole program.  My kids are doing so much better as well, and I now have the language to help them figure out many of their spelling errors.  Plus they have a great guarantee.  If you don’t love it, return it in the first year for your money back, no questions asked.  (To see the guarantee, put something in your shopping cart.)

And you can check out what my fellow crewmates have to say about All About Spelling at:

Any questions? I'd love to know what you would want to know in deciding whether or not this is something you want to purchase.
Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive this product for free from the vendor in question.  The fact that I received a complimentary product does not guarantee a favorable review.  It does guarantee a review. A fair review. But I am not going to praise something unless I think it deserves the praise.  If I don't like it, you'll hear that.  And hopefully with enough detail as to why so you can decide for yourself if what I hate about it makes it perfect for your family.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.


Cristi said...

I'm a big AAS fan, too. I only use it for my school-age child that's not a natural speller. For the magnet board, we use two cookie sheets. One holds the alphabet letters and the other (smaller) one holds the blends, syllable markings, etc. The two cookie sheets nest in each other with a small dry erase board and the AAS book nestled in the top for easy storage.

Deb said...

So at what age should I start spelling? My son is 5 and we are just starting the Explode the Code Book 1 after finishing A, B, and C. In January we will begin what I am calling Kindergarten (although we probably have done kindergarten work in this year in what I have been calling pre-k).

Some programs don't start formal spelling until 2nd grade, but the idea of learning to spell as we learn to read is appealing. When do you think Level 1 is designed to start?

Unknown said...

This is really interesting - especially the differentiation you make between teaching spelling and just practising it. I'm using a reading programme at the moment called Easyread, which does exactly the opposite: it relies almost entirely on guided practice and exposure to text. It will be interesting to see if it improves my daughter's spelling. She's only been doing it for about 3 months and her reading has certainly improved, so hopefully it'll rub off on her spelling too.

Heidi said...

Nice review! We've had very similar experiences. I used to use that very expensive program, but have switched to just AAS. It helps that my son was already a reader - just couldn't spell worth beans. We are very, very happy with the results of AAS.

Debra said...


Your magnet system sounds good. I might need to try that. What we have now works, but I'm about to need to add too much to it.

And I'm thrilled to know that AAS is working for you so well. :)

Heidi said...

Oh! I was able to post! I've tried several times to comment on your blog and haven't been able. I'm sitting in the library with my little Linux-based netbook and had no trouble. Strange!

Debra said...


You succeeded in posting! I wish I had a clue why you haven't been able to :)

And yeah, AAS is really pretty fantastic for the money, especially compared to some of those other options. Btw, your description of 'stealth dyslexia' really got me thinking. Like I need a label for Connor, but wow, even still... he reads at a post high school level, but spells at probably about a 4th grade level... what, a 10 grade discrepancy? I need to do some reading about this stealth dyslexia label. I've already noticed that my switching to dyslexia-friendly methods with William has been good for everyone.

So thanks... :)

Debra said...

Deb --

Well, I'm starting my 5 year old as soon as his big brother gets through Level 1. In general, for "normal" spelling programs, I think 2nd or 3rd grade is plenty early. For AAS, however, I think you can start Level 1 with a 1st grader, or even a kindergartner.

The thing to be careful about, though, is that you go into it with appropriate expectations. I'm actually using the first couple of steps with my 5 year old now, very informally. If you are able to work on a step until it is mastered (or mostly mastered, in the case of the very first one... the sounds of the phonograms, you can certainly move on while they keep reviewing things like the vowel sounds), and not stress that he isn't moving faster, AAS is a great way to go and can work great for a 5 year old.