A More Effective Way to Teach Spelling

Most kids have had spelling instruction as part of their language arts curriculum. The most common strategy used by teachers is to provide the student with a list of 20 -25 words, usually each Monday and to ask the students to learn to spell those words for the test on Friday. You probably remember doing this as a student yourself. It’s a simple assignment in memory work, maybe including some written practice, sometimes using a class spelling bee, perhaps spelling them to an adult at home, but in any case, being ready to be tested on Friday. The test comes, you get a score, that list goes away and is replaced by a new list and the beat goes on.

Here is a sample list for a Grade 3 or Grade 4 class:

1. related 2. likable 3. useless 4. hotly 5. careless 6. finest
7. strangely 8. hopeful 9. watering 10. likeness 11. nameless 12. hottest
13. hoping 14.traveling 15. hopeless 16. promising 17. widely 18. likeness
19. hotter 20. notable 21. barely 22. refined 23. shameful 24. usable
25. mistaken

The Alternative – More appropriate instructional design

Here’s a different way to accomplish the same objective using the same list of words that will also allow the student to decide how to spell other words correctly that were not even included on this list.

Step #1 – Instruction: Break Things Down Into Rules

First we will teach the students that all words consist of one or more parts. For example, the word “useless” consists of two parts (use + less). Then we will teach them that you can build words by putting parts together (e.g. hope + less = hopeless). Last we will teach them that there are specific rules which determine how you are allowed to put parts together, such as the final “e” rule.

The final “e” rule says that if the word you are starting with ends with an “e” (e.g hope) and you want to add a word part that begins with a vowel letter (e.g. ing), you must drop the final “e” before you add the ending. (e.g. hope + ing = hoping).

Step #2: Let The Student Try A Worksheet

Now we provide the student with a worksheet that has examples of the final “e” rule (e.g. hoping) and also non-examples of the final “e” rule (e.g. hopeless) and we ask the students to use their rule to decide how to spell each word correctly. The list of the 25 words given in the traditional assignment is included in our 40 word sheet.

This worksheet is from our successful Teach Your Children to Spell Well curriculum:


Let’s Compare: What, if any advantages, exist for the second Direct Instruction strategy over the more common weekly spelling list method?

Advantage 1: Students Learn That Words Are Made Up Of Parts

The first advantage is that the rule-governed approach teaches students the concept that words are made up of parts. The teacher could give the students word lists and teach them to parse the words into their parts as the first task in learning the words. That would help students by providing them with smaller units to spell. Do it with the traditional list as an exercise.

The second strategy demonstrates to the students that word parts can be joined together, if you know what the rules are for doing so. The traditional list doesn’t teach that. More importantly, it does not explicitly teach the rules for linking words. You just have to memorize them.

Most people only know the final “e” rule intuitively. They drop the “e” because they already know how to spell the word, or they know that it looks funny if they do not drop the “e”. They could not necessarily enunciate the rule specifically as to why they did or did not drop the “e”. They just know when it is right, not why it is right.

Advantage 2: Students Can Check Their Own Work

The second major advantage of the second method is that students can use the rule to determine whether or not the word is spelled correctly. They have a way of checking their work. Yes, there are some few exceptions, but the rule covers almost all words. If you had to guess, go with the rule. You will be correct better than 90% of the time. Probably the most significant advantage to Engelmann’s Direct Instruction method is that by presenting examples of when the rule applies and non-examples of when the rule does not apply, the student can now generalize the use of the rule to examples and non-examples that are not part of this practice sheet to spell thousands of words.

Advantage 3: We Can Determine The Student’s Fluency

Finally we can determine when a student is truly fluent in the use of the rule. Humans write 20-30 words per minute using cursive writing. If the student can apply the rule and write words in the blanks at 20 – 30 words correctly in one minute with 2 or fewer errors, we know that s/he really has “got it”. If production is below 20 words per minute, either s/he cannot write fluently or s/he cannot apply the rule fluently. Check for errors or see if s/he can write a common seven-letter word 20 times in one minute. This is the use of Precision Teaching as a measurement system, a system we will explore more thoroughly in later blogs.

Print this practice sheet and try it with your children or grandchildren. Forward it to every teacher, classroom assistant, parent, homeschooler, tutor or autism therapist who you know. I can pretty much guarantee you that it will be new information for most of them. Here’s your last job. Review the practice sheet and ask yourself – why are there 2 “t”s in “hotter”, but only one in “hotly”? What’s the rule for that? More soon on teaching your children to spell well.



  1. Long live Phonics. When I taught many years ago, that was exactly the way I broke words out! After my primary grades, I continued teaching the same basics in Grade 7 class. Good for you to get phonics back into the learning space!

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