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Effective Spelling Instruction

Teaching Children How to Spell

Helping Students Develop Spelling Skills

General Information for Parent and Teachers

This article addresses teaching a student how to spell (correct written representation of our language). Accurate spelling is not an isolated skill limited to a student’s weekly spelling test or spelling bee competition. Spelling is one of the fundamental subskills of effective written communication.  The vast majority of spelling occurs in real life applications to achieve communication objectives.  The goal of spelling instruction should not be temporary memorization of words but rather the development of skills to be able to correctly represent our written language.  While spelling of individual words in our English language can be tricky a times, it is not complete chaos that requires the memorization of 50,000+ individual words. Help the student learn how to accurately represent our written language.

First and foremost, beginning spelling instruction should always emphasize the phonetic nature of spelling. The fact is written English is based on a phonemic alphabet. Please see Background Facts on the English Language.  While the written English code is complex, it absolutely is a phonemic code. Therefore, effective spelling instruction should always emphasize the phonemic nature of spelling. If children learn to ‘spell’ words based on phonemic processing it greatly improves their spelling ability.  

This article is organized in the following sections:

Foundation for Spelling Success

To develop a foundation for spelling success and strengthen spelling skills the student needs to:

  1. Develop Phonemic Awareness:  Phonemic awareness (PA) is critical to spelling development.   The child needs to be able to recognize and distinguish the sounds within spoken words in order to then translate these sounds back to print. If the child has a phonemic weakness, you need to help that child strengthen their phonemic awareness with PA training. The great news is that research proves PA training has “strong and significant effects on reading and spelling development” (National Reading Panel) See Phonemic Awareness Explained.
  2. Understand phonemic nature of spelling: The student needs to understand written English is based on a phonemic code. In other words printed black squiggles represent sounds in the word.
  3. Learn the phonemic code:  The student needs to learn the complete phonemic code. The English phonemic code is complex and the student needs to learn the complete code in order to handle these complexities. The student needs to learn the code systematically beginning with the basic code and then adding the complexities with vowel combinations, r-controlled combinations and other intricacies. Although there is code overlap (more than one way to write a sound), irregular and unexpected spellings, English is based on this phonemic code.
  4. Approach the process of spelling phonemically: The student needs to base their spelling on converting the sounds in the spoken word into print. They need to write the phonemic code for the sounds in the word. Spelling needs to be approached as recoding sound to print. Once again phonemic awareness is a critical skill. The child must have the phonemic awareness to recognize and distinguish the sounds within words. If your child has a phonemic weakness, you need to help the child strengthen their phonemic awareness.
  5. Acquire knowledge of spelling patterns and learn helpful guidelines: The student needs to learn and practice the common spelling patterns that are used in English. There are also guidelines that can help us learn correct spelling.  While there are exceptions and irregularities most words follow common patterns. There are also a number of helpful guidelines to aid us in accurate spelling. Children are better able to achieve spelling success when they learn and practice these common patterns and helpful guidelines.  
  6. Learn/memorize specific and  ‘tricky’ spellings: For accurate spelling the student does need to learn the correct spelling for common words and begin memorizing the specific spelling pattern used for particular words. Accurate spelling can be tricky and does require remembering which spelling pattern is used within certain words.

Recommendations for Effective Spelling Instruction: Designing Spelling Instruction to Establish the Foundation of Phonologic Re-coding (Spelling) of words and Build Intermediate and Advanced Spelling Skills

The following recommendations for effective spelling instruction are designed to help the student learn accurately represent our written language (spell words) by establishing a strong foundation of phonologic processing and developing knowledge of common spelling patterns and guidelines.   Reading and spelling are strongly related processes. Reading is the process of changing printed words into language. Spelling is the converse process of changing spoken words back into print.  Not only is effective direct systematic phonics reading instruction proven to enhance children’s success in learning to read but direct systematic phonics improves children’s ability to spell.  Effective instruction closely coordinates and directly links reading and spelling instruction. Teaching the child the foundation of our written language by linking decoding/reading (converting print to words/language) with recoding/spelling (converting spoken words to print) helps children learn and understand exactly how our written language works and establishes the necessary foundation so they can achieve success in both reading and spelling.

Effective spelling instruction is a process of developing and expanding skills. Effective instruction begins by building a strong foundation, systematically adds complexities and eventually advances to the higher level skills. Effective spelling instruction is linked to a strong direct systematic phonics program. It begins by teaching the child to ‘write the sounds’ of simple decodable words to establish the strong phonologic processing base for recoding or spelling words.  Effective programs systematically expand the child’s knowledge of the phonemic code, teach expected patterns and allow practice of these spelling patterns. The spelling instruction also explicitly teaches helpful spelling guidelines. In addition, the student continually practices correct spelling, acquires knowledge of expected patterns, and begins to memorize some of the ‘tricky’ and irregular words.  The recommendations listed below can help your child or student develop a strong foundation for spelling success.

Specific Recommendations for Effective Spelling Instruction:

# 1 - Develop spelling skills directly and systematically. First build a strong foundation and then advance to higher level skills. Keep spelling instruction focused on the objective of helping the child acquire the ability to accurately represent our written language.

# 2 - Design your spelling program to establish the foundation of phonologic spelling and strengthen phonologic processing reading. In other words, directly teach your child the process of ‘spelling’ is writing or printing the sounds of the word or converting sound to print.    Base spelling on ‘writing the sounds’ not on memorizing letter names. Teach spelling in a direct systematic, phonetic based manner. It is most effective to link spelling instruction directly to a strong direct, systematic phonics program. (See Direct Systematic Phonics Proven Effective).

# 3 - In the beginning, teach spelling as a part of the reading instruction. Coordinate the spelling instruction directly with the explicit instruction of the phonemic code conducted as part of the direct systematic phonics instruction.  Initial spelling instruction starts with spelling of simple phonetic spelling of short decodable words. Decodable words include only the sounds and phonetic code the student has already learned. See Decodable Text Explained. The student learns to spell by ‘writing’ these decodable words. By spelling decodable words not only does the student develop a foundation for spelling but also strengthens phonologic processing pathways for proficient reading.   For example, if the student has learned the sounds m, t, a, s, d, i, f, r, th; decodable words for spelling practice could include am, at, fat, did, mad, sat, dim, that, this, ram. Remember, decodable is based on the phonemic code the child has learned NOT the letters. With the example listed above the word ‘rain’ is NOT decodable and should not be included in the spelling instruction because the child has not learned that the vowel combination ‘ai’=/ay/sound.  The word ‘rain’ would not be included until after the vowel combination/phonemic code ‘ai’=/ay/ had been directly taught to the child. For additional explanation of decodable words and examples of decodable words see the section Decodable Word Lists from the article on activities to develop phonologic processing.

In summary: In the learning stages spelling instruction needs to be directly linked to the effective direct systematic phonics program. Start simple and then as the student masters the basic sounds and skills, add the complexities in a systematic manner.  Directly and systematically teach spelling with the basic code followed by vowel combinations, r-controlled vowel combinations and other complexities.  The child learns and practices spelling words by sound that contain only the phonemic code that has been explicitly taught in the direct systematic phonics instruction.


Examples of effective beginning spelling lists can be found at Effective Beginning Spelling Lessons under  Resources for Users of Right Track Reading Lessons.  These lists were created from the decodable word lists in the Right Track Reading Lessons program.  Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons program also has decodable word lists that can be used as a source for spelling practice.  

# 4 - Directly teach and practice common spelling patterns grouped together: Learning how and why certain patterns are used and then practicing these common patterns helps students develop their spelling. Although there is overlap with the code (more than one way a sound can be written) and irregular and unexpected spellings, spelling is not a matter of memorizing random letters in tens of thousands of individual words. Most spelling follows expected patterns. By teaching these patterns to students we can help them develop spelling skills. In the learning stages it is very important to teach spelling using decodable words grouped together by spelling pattern.  

Structure instruction so spelling makes as much sense as possible. Give word lists by groups of common spelling patterns.  Teaching spelling of specific patterns and groups is much more effective than ‘testing’ lists of mixed spelling patterns for a single sound or phonetically unrelated words.  Grouping common spelling patterns together instead of mixing them up helps students learn these patterns and when they are used. It also allows specific instruction on spelling patterns.

The following example demonstrates how to make spelling lists that teach specific spelling patterns: If you are teaching the student to spell various words containing the /ay/ sound, group by spelling pattern.  

List 1 would have the ‘ai’ words (rain, bait, brain, wait,  grain, aim, aid…).

List 2 would give the ‘ay’ words (play, away, stay, pay, pray…).

List 3 would give the a-consonant-e spelling pattern (gate, trade, game,  make, grade…).

List 4 would contain the single vowel ‘a’ spellings (rang, bank, thank, sang…).

List 5 would contain the ‘unexpected’ spellings of /ay/ (eight, weigh, great, …).

By using this method of grouping common spelling patterns together, you can also teach and practice the expected patterns. For example in the word lists given above where you are teaching the ‘ai’ and ‘ay’ spellings, you can directly point out that the ‘ai’ is typically found at the middle of a syllable (rain, wait, brain) or occasionally beginning a syllable (aim, aid) and how the ‘ai’ spelling is never used at the end of a word since no English words end in the letter ‘i’. You can show how the pattern ‘ay’ is found at the end of the words or sometimes the end of syllables and remind the student how words ending in the /ay/ sound would never be spelled with ‘ai’  and would need to be spelled with ‘ay’ or another spelling pattern. By grouping sounds you can directly teach these expected patterns.  This can be contrasted with a much less effective approach of mixing many different spelling patterns within a single list. For example a mixed “long-a” list such as (wait, space, great, game, bang, play, they, eight) makes it difficult for the student to recognize and learn the individual ways we spell /ay/ or determine important patterns such as the ‘ai’ spelling is never used at the end of a word.

When practicing, specifically point out the spelling pattern to the student.  Grouping common spelling together allows us to directly teach patterns include when the specific pattern is used and also which spellings are most frequent. It is preferable group common spelling patterns together when teaching spelling because this systematic grouping helps the student learn how to spell.  After the student has mastered and learned the common patterns you can then test for ‘spelling’ knowledge. But for the learning stages the objective is to develop foundational spelling skills.

# 5 - Directly teach and practice the common spelling guidelines. By learning common spelling patterns and general guidelines the student is better able to understand the structure of our spelling. Although there are exceptions, knowing the patterns, guidelines and expected frequency of occurrence helps children (and adults) improve spelling accuracy. This is not a list of rules to be memorized but rather a tool to learn common spelling guidelines and patterns. Direct instruction and practice in applying these guidelines is what builds spelling skills. For example the guideline “no English words end with the letter ‘i’” helps children spell ‘oi’ and ‘oy’ words (if the word end in the /oy/ sound you know you have to spell it ‘oy’ not ‘oi’ such as with ‘boy’ or ‘destroy’); it helps with the ‘ai’ and ‘ay’ spellings and with the ‘ie’ spelling ending  words such as ‘brownie’, ‘collie’ and ‘rookie’.  You directly teach the guideline to the student and then have them practice applying it.

A sample of helpful guidelines are listed in the article Teaching Helpful Spelling Guidelines and Patterns.  The Right Track Reading Lessons and  Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons program includes a section of spelling lessons that teach these and many other helpful spelling guidelines.

# 6 - Have the student practice spelling words:  The student needs to practice spelling words. They need to learn what spelling pattern is used for a specific word. The most effective and efficient way to have the student learn specific spelling words is to have the student write the word 5 to 10 times while saying the sounds.  The student needs to say the sounds, NOT the letter names. It is simple; all you need is paper and pencil. It’s efficient because it directly teaches the necessary print to sound and you are not wasting time on processes that have nothing to do with spelling. It is highly effective because it directly builds knowledge in the correct printed representation of the word using multisensory processes (kinetic-forming the letters), visual (seeing the correct print), oral/auditory (saying and hearing the word). Writing the word 5-10 times provides the repetition that enhances learning. Simple, effective and efficient.  For details see the section below on Spelling Tips for Students.  Repeatedly writing a spelling word while paying attention to the phonemic code and saying the sounds is a effective, efficient way for the student to learn spelling words and develop spelling skills.  

# 7 - Directly teach the ‘irregular’ words and ‘unexpected’ patterns. English can be tricky. Not only do students need to learn what spelling pattern is used for a specific word but some words absolutely are ‘irregular’ and contain unexpected and unusual spelling. Commonly encountered irregular words need to be introduced and learned early. Explicitly point out the irregular/unexpected or ‘tricky’ part of the word. Directly teach  these irregular words in a systematic manner, including them where appropriate. For example, if you are teaching the word ‘great’, specifically point out the unexpected ‘ea’ spelling for /ay/ sound.  

# 8 - Directly teach the student how to spell mutisyllable words: For multisyllable words, teach the student to sound out and spell by syllable. Writing the word by syllable helps prevent the common problem of leaving out parts of the word.  The student also needs to be aware on ‘lazy’ pronunciation of unstressed syllables and should practice common affixes. Spelling of multisyllable words should be coordinated with instruction on reading multisyllable words. See Handling Multisyllable Words.

# 9 - Spelling instruction techniques to avoid in the learning stages:  

Spelling Tips for Students: How to Study and Practice Spelling Words

The following section shares a few spelling tips for students. Spelling can be tricky. These tips can help students become better spellers.

#1 Spell by sound! Spell phonetically. Listen to the word. Say the word and write it/spell it by sound. Pay attention to how the sounds are spelled. Base spelling on ‘writing’ the sounds not on memorizing letter names.

#2 Learn expected spelling patterns and helpful guidelines. Practice spelling by common patterns. See the article Helpful Spelling Guidelines and Expected Patterns.

#3  When practicing specific words:

1. First look at the written word and say the word, looking at how the sounds are written. This should be done phonetically NOT by letter name (for example: bird is /b//ir//d/ not the letter names  B..I...R..D which is said /bee/ /ie/ /ar/ /dee/). Read the word twice paying careful attention to the sounds and how they are written.  

2. Next write the word at least 5 times (10 times is better), taking care to write the letters as you say the sound that they make. Look at which letters are making what sounds. Pay close attention to the ‘partner’ letter combinations. For example when writing the word “bird” you write ‘b’ as you say /b/ and write ‘ir’ as you say the /er/ sound and write ‘d’ as you say the /d/ sound. Notice specifically which letters are representing the sound. This is especially critical for sounds that have multiple spellings (specifically note that in bird, the /er/ sound is made by the ‘ir’).

3. For any multisyllable word, say and write the word by syllables. Example for the word ‘consistent’ you would write ‘con’ as you said /kun/, write ‘sis’ as you say /sis/, and write ‘tent’ as you say /tent/.

4. A helpful hint for learning how to spell a word is to pronounce all the sounds in the word, even if that is not how you actually say the word. We often speak ‘lazy’ English. This is fine in speaking and reading but it creates problems with accurate spelling. When you practice spelling completely pronounce all the sounds in the word. This often gives you a silly sounding ‘proper’ version of the word. Although we don’t really say the word that way, it helps greatly when practicing spelling to say all the sounds. This is especially important with the ‘schwa’ pronunciation of many unstressed short vowels in multisyllable words where a ‘proper’ complete pronunciation of the short vowel sound greatly aids spelling.  For example:

· for ‘clothes’ say /clothz/ not the usual /cloze/

· for ‘family’ say /fam- i -lee/ not the usual /fam-lee/

· for ‘listen’ say /lis-ten/ emphasizing the /t/ that is normally silent

· for ‘aunt’ say /awnt/ even if you usually pronounce it  /ant/

· for ‘manual’ say /man-yoo-al/ emphasizing the /a/ of the -al ending

· for ‘environment’ say /en-vi-ron-ment/ instead of the usual /en-vi-ru-ment/

In summary, the most effective and efficient way to learn spelling words is write each word 5 to 10 times (or more!) while saying the sounds and focusing on the specific spelling pattern used.  It is simple, efficient and effective. Repeatedly writing the word while paying attention to and saying the sounds will help you learn spelling words.  

To learn more about Right Track Reading Lessons & Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons and how you can use these effective reading programs to help your child or student build proficient phonologic processing  and achieve reading and spelling success see Preview Right Track Reading Programs.

Additional free information on teaching students to read using effective direct systematic phonics instruction is located at Reading Information and Information & Resources for Teaching Reading pages of the Right Track Reading website.

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This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at ~ Copyright 2010-2013 Miscese R. Gagen

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