Spelling Instruction Procedures

What is Spelling Instruction?

Spelling instruction teaches students how to approximate and eventually use conventional spellings for known vocabulary, generate plausible spellings for unknown vocabulary, and to recognize and correct misspellings. Students must be taught to access and use different types of linguistic knowledge to develop good spelling skills, including phonological, graphological, orthographic, morphemic, syntactic, and semantic information. Linguistic knowledge develops gradually throughout the preschool and school-age years and at different rates for different children, which means that spelling instruction must be sensitive to the developmental patterns exhibited by each student. For instance, a student who is completely unaware of roots and affixes probably will not benefit greatly from instruction in applying morphological structures to derive spelling patterns.

How Can My Students Benefit From Spelling Instruction?

Just as accurate and fluent word recognition frees up cognitive resources for the more important task of comprehending text, so does accurate and fluent spelling permit a student to allocate more attention and effort to the composition of a text. If students see the relevance of learning how to spell to their written communication and are engaged in authentic, purposeful, connected, and motivating spelling activities that extend beyond the weekly spelling list and test, they are more likely to become comfortable with spelling old and new words and proofreading papers in varied contexts.

How Do I Teach Spelling?

The spelling curriculum requires careful consideration if students are to fully benefit from instruction. Teachers should ensure the following curriculum elements are in place:

  • spelling vocabulary includes words drawn from children’s reading materials, their writing, self-selected words, high-frequency word lists (e.g., Graham, Harris, & Loynachan, 1993, 1994) and pattern words
  • students are taught phonemic awareness and phoneme-grapheme associations (reserving the least consistent mappings, such as consonants /k/ and /z/ and long vowels, for last) in kindergarten and first grade; common spelling patterns (e.g., phonograms or rime families) in first and second grades; and morphological structures (i.e., roots and affixes) and helpful spelling rules (e.g., add es to make words ending in s, z, x, ch, or sh plural) in second grade and beyond (e.g., Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2000; Cunningham, 2000)
  • students are taught systematic and effective strategies for studying new spelling words (e.g., mnemonic spelling links, multi-sensory strategies)
  • previously taught spelling words are periodically reviewed to promote retention
  • correct use of spelling vocabulary in students’ written work is monitored and reinforced
  • students are taught and encouraged to use dictionaries, spell checkers, and other resources to determine the spelling of unknown words
  • spelling “demons” and other difficult words are posted on wall charts

Weekly routines for spelling instruction should be established; once in place, instruction typically requires no more than 15 minutes per day. Generally speaking, the teacher should introduce the target words at the beginning of the week, model how to spell the words correctly, highlight patterns and point out distinctive attributes (or have students “discover” these), and give students ample opportunity to practice with immediate corrective feedback. The next few days, students spend time practicing and self-evaluating their spelling performance, and the teacher frequently checks their work (error correction is critical) and may teach additional lessons. Students might also work with each other to study/practice and evaluate each others’ work. At the end of the week, the teacher should assess how well the students have learned the spelling words (see Bourassa & Treiman, 2001; Graham, 1999, 2000; Templeton & Morris, 1999; Troia & Graham, 2003). Some additional recommendations include:

  • students take a Monday pretest to determine which words they need to study during subsequent activities and to set spelling performance goals
  • after studying new spelling words, students take a Friday posttest to determine which words were mastered
  • immediately after taking a spelling test, students correct their misspellings
  • the teacher conducts word sorts and guided spelling activities to explicitly teach spelling patterns and rules at the beginning of the week
  • daily opportunities for cumulative study and testing of new spelling words are provided (e.g., through computer-assisted instruction)
  • while studying, students monitor their on-task behavior or the number of times they correctly spell a target word to promote active learning

How Can I Help My Students Learn, Remember, and Correctly Use Spelling Words?

Word sorts and guided spelling activities are basic tools for teaching spelling to students of all ages. Basic lesson formats are provided; the content for an actual lesson is derived from the spelling patterns (either orthographic or morphemic) targeted for instruction. These Teacher-Directed Spelling Activities are used to provide more explicit spelling instruction, as student self-study or partner activities are insufficient for many students, especially those who struggle with spelling, to learn spelling patterns and rules.

Nevertheless, it is important to help students develop strategic competence and independence. One way to do this is to have students complete a Spelling Study Plan to summarize how well they performed on their pretest and how they plan to study their missed words, and, at the end of the week, to identify how effective their study plan was and what tactics might be employed to do better next time. When students study their spelling words during the remainder of the week, they can use a Spelling Study Strategies handout to remind them of (a) the steps for multi-sensory rehearsal and (b) mnemonics for remembering how to spell long words. Of course, all of these materials will require an introduction and initial guidance from the teacher.

Teacher-Directed Spelling Activities

Word Sorts

  1. Students sort words, printed on index cards, containing a novel orthographic (e.g., plight, frightening, mightily) or graphomorphemic (e.g., assignment, designate, signify, resignation) pattern in order to discover the pattern
  2. The novel pattern is discussed and the representative words are added to a word wall, grouped together under an easily recognized anchor word for the pattern (e.g., light, sign)
  3. Students search reading materials and their own writing samples for other examples of the new pattern and add these to the word wall

Guided Spelling (Making Words)

  1. Students are given single-letter or multi-letter tiles to combine into as many different real words as possible; these tiles represent the orthographic or graphomorphemic units in a “mystery” word that can be derived when all of the tiles are combined
  2. The words are recorded and verified with a dictionary or other spelling guide
  3. If a word is acceptable, it is written in a sentence to demonstrate understanding of its meaning
  4. Students are encouraged to spell other “transfer” words that contain some of the targeted letters or units
  5. Students read texts that contain the relevant spelling patterns and monitor their ability to recognize and define the words


Spelling Study Plan

Name: _______________________________________ Date: ___________________________ 

1. I missed _____ words on my Monday test. 

2. My goal is to learn to correctly spell _____ words.

3. I will use the following to help me study my spelling words:

_____ 3-step rehearsal
_____ word sort
_____ making words
_____ partner study
_____ memory links
_____ finger spelling
_____ computer games

4. I correctly spelled _____ words on my Friday test. 

5. I _____ did _____ did not meet my goal. 

6. I _____ did _____ did not use my study plan. 

7. To improve my spelling, next time I will...


Spelling Study Strategies

3-Step Rehearsal

Step 1: Look & Say
Look at the word you want to learn
Say the word out loud
Spell the word out loud
Step 2: Cover & See
Cover the word
See the word in your mind
Trace the letters in the air
Spell the word out loud and trace again
Step 3: Write & Check
Cover the word
Write the word
Check the spelling
Write the word 2 more times if correct; if not, go back to step 1

Memory Links for Spelling Long Words

Built in Word Link
Example: business is a sin
Example: clothes are made from cloth
Story Sentence Link
Example: When I go past a cemetery, I go e-e-e!
Example: My principal is my pal, but he has lots of rules or principles for us to follow
Pronunciation Link
Example: Wed-nes-day
Example: tom-or-row