Posts Tagged ‘how to teach spelling’

Visual Spelling Strategies

Spelling is primarily an auditory, not a visual skill. Visual cues should never be applied to phonetically regular words. Spelling strategies such as tracing letter shapes in sand or outlining the letters in a spelling word have long been discredited. Although visualization strategies such as picturing the spelling word and spelling it backwards may have some short term benefit, there is no transfer to other spellings. Indeed, relying on visual memorization of each individual spelling word is highly inefficient.

For example, written languages such as those used in Asia take much longer to learn. Elementary age students spend enormous amounts of time memorizing and practicing the logographic symbols/pictographs that will enable them to write their own language. In contrast, using the English sound-spelling system (the alphabetic code) which relies upon only 45 speech sounds is highly efficient. About half of English spellings exactly match their sounds.

At this point, many will be thinking “Yes, but half of English spellings do not match their sounds. True enough, but abandoning the half that works is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead of bemoaning the English sound-spelling irregularities and jumping ship to ill-advised spelling strategies which rely upon purely visual strategies, we need to build upon the solid foundation of the English sound-spelling system. To mix metaphors, I like to think of spelling in terms of how a batter should face his or her opponent—the pitcher. Good batters train themselves to look for the fast ball, then adjust for the curve. Good English spellers do likewise; they look to use the sound-spelling system and syllabication skills to problem-solve spellings and then adjust, as needed, to other strategies.

About 30 % of the phonetically irregular words can be taught by combining and applying the eight conventional spelling rules with the ten syllable rules. The conventional spelling rules, such as the i before e rule cover a huge amount of ground. Syllabication skills that apply the  common English, Greek, and Latin morphemes (meaning-based syllables) with grammatical inflections, such _ing cover still more ground.

The remaining 20% require rote memorization. Unfortunately for beginning spellers, many of the most common words in the top 100 most frequently used words are derived from Old and Middle-English spellings. These spellings do not match their sounds and are often referred to as Outlaw Words. Although the term conjures up images of bad guys in black hats, the term is quite accurate. These irregular spellings live outside the law of the sound-spelling system. Some of these words are pure Outlaw Words, such as once, which derives from Old and Middle-English. Other words incorporate foreign word parts that may be phonetically regular in another language, but not in English.

Common single-syllable Outlaw Words, such as once, should generally be memorized by repetitive practice. Old school game cards do the trick as do drill and kill software programs. Careful diagnosis makes sense. A good Outlaw Words Spelling Assessment is just as important to use as is an Outlaw Words Reading Assessment. After all, students should be learning what they do not know, not rehearsing what they do know.

When Visual Spelling Strategies Do Make Sense

However, troublesome multi-syllabic words that are used less frequently, such as colonel, need special treatment. Of course, many of these words are essential components to an academic vocabulary. With these words, visual spelling strategies do make sense. After all, Confucius did say a picture is worth a 1000 words.

When using a visual strategy with an unknown multi-syllabic word, the speller needs to focus on the troublesome part of the spelling. For example, with the French word colonel, the letter “c” and the ending “nel” are not the spelling difficulties. The “c” is phonetically regular, i.e., the spelling exactly matches the sound and it follows the conventional spelling rule that the initial /k/ sound followed by an “o” is spelled with a “c.” The “nel” is a common suffix covered by the syllabication rules and is also phonetically regular. Thus, the speller should build upon the known and adjust to the unknown “olo.” It is important to boost the confidence of  struggling spellers y reminding them that they know most of the word and that there is just a small bit that needs to be memorized.

Applying a colorful picture to the unknown portion of a multi-syllabic word can aid the long-term spelling memory. When associated with the vocabulary (meaning of the word), a picture can be especially memorable. For example, to memorize the “olo” in colonel, the speller could draw a head on top of the “l” with a plumed helmet and a uniform onto the “o’s,” which serve as epaulets (the colorful shoulder decorations designating military rank). Introduce this “picture spelling” with simple multi-syllabic words such as principal, in which the “pal” is incorporated into a friendly principal’s face or dessert, in which the “ss” is incorporated into a lighted birthday cake with the “s’s” serving as candles.

When used as an appropriate instructional component of a comprehensive spelling program, visual spelling strategies, such as these “picture spellings” do make sense. For example, a weekly Personal Spelling List of unknown words, derived from an effective spelling pre-test, could have a Memory Key column that requires the speller to make note of the spelling rule, syllabication rule, or “picture spelling” that will help best in word study.

Students enjoy creating these memorable Memory Keys, including the “picture spellings.” Of course, students will find the troublesome “pp” spelling in disappointment and go wild with the picture, but what is memorable for a student is not always memorable for a teacher :).

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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English Sound-Spellings

The English sound-spelling system is a reliable system for writing the sounds of the English language. True, there are plenty of exceptions, but applying the rules and adjusting for exceptions is certainly better than memorizing every word as a unique entity. Imagine having to memorize each of the Chinese characters to be able to write simple communications and most will agree that the alphabetic system serves us well.


The English sound-spelling system works in about 50% of spellings. You can be a pessimist and see the glass as being half-empty or an optimist and see the glass as being half-full. I prefer the latter. The basic problem-solving strategy in spelling should not be memorizing the spellings of all words. Instead, the speller should first attempt the spellings that match the sounds of the word. After all, spelling is an auditory, not a visual process. If there is not a sound-spelling match, knowledge of spelling rules and mastery of sight-spellings should be secondary strategies.

Spelling Resources

The common sound-spellings are listed on colorful animal cards and may be downloaded free at Animal Sound-Spelling Cards.  Have your students memorize and practice the spellings on those animal cards that the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment indicates as diagnostic deficits. Check out Spelling Games for some terrific activities to practice these spellings.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

Don't Teach Visual Spelling

Spelling Is Not a Visual Skill

As an MA Reading Specialist and educational author of seven spelling books, I thought I’d pitch in to help teachers do a little  reflection on their spelling programs. Despite what many teachers have been taught, spelling is not a visual skill. Poor spellers do not necessarily have visual processing problems. If you have taught spelling through the shapes of letters, know that no orthographic spelling research supports this practice. Additionally, if you have taught spelling as individually-memorized sight words, best practices would certainly not suggest this practice. PluFinally, if you “teach” spelling by requiring students to spelling weekly vocabulary words correctly, please don’t.

Instead, teach the spelling system. It’s not perfect, but it does apply the alphabetic code. Learning the sound-spelling patterns will help your beginning and remedial spellers immensely, because spelling is primarily an auditory skill, mapping the sounds to letters.

Effective spelling programs match the nature of the English spelling system. There is a “rhyme and reason” to our spelling system; however, because our spellings have derived from a wide variety of languages and historical influences, several instructional approaches are needed to learn to spell well. Your students may have mastered some approaches, but be deficient in others. Therefore, a cookie-cutter curriculum may wind up re-teaching much of what your students already know, instead of focusing on what they do not yet know.

Good Spellers Aren't Good Always Good Readers

Good Readers Aren’t Always Good Spellers

Plus, despite what you may have heard, older students certainly can learn to spell. No orthographic research suggests that only primary age students learn to spell as developmental readers. Administer the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and use corresponding resources to teach to the assessment deficits. Your students can catch up while they keep up with grade-level spelling instruction.

Poor Spellers Are Not Born That Way

Spelling is Not Genetic

Last, but not least, let’s get rid of the fallacy that good spelling or bad spelling are genetic predispositions. People were not born to be good or bad spellers. No brain research exists to suggest this conclusion. Even the worst spellers can learn with the proper resources. Spelling need not be a lifelong impediment for your students.

So, how should we teach spelling? A comprehensive diagnostic spelling assessment will help you choose the appropriate instructional approaches. If your students know it, they will show it; if they don’t, they won’t.

Spelling Download

The Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

This comprehensive sound-spelling diagnostic test has 102 spellings, unlike random sample spelling inventories. Along with a sight-syllable spelling assessment and a non-phonetic high utility words assessment, this Diagnostic Spelling Assessment will give teachers the data they need to plan effective spelling instruction. Plus the download includes an audio file of the assessment. Simply tell students to take out a piece of paper and get their pencils ready to spell.

The Diagnostic Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrix

Record the results of the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment on the The Diagnostic Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrix and analyze your students’ strengths and weaknesses. Match instructional resources to address the diagnosed deficits. Set specific learning goals and monitor progress as your students work toward mastery.


Mark Pennington, MA reading specialist, is the author of the spelling assessment and accompanying grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 spelling programs.

Differentiated Spelling Instruction is a complete grade-level spelling program (4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) built upon conventional spelling rules and developmental spelling patterns. Plus, the program includes all resources teachers need to individualize instruction. Developing a weekly spelling plan that differentiates instruction for all of your students is a challenging task for even the best veteran teacher, but help has arrived! There is no better spelling program for your grade level students, GATE students, special ed, ESL/ELD, and below grade level students. Perfect for RtI. Here’s what teachers are saying about our program:

I work with a large ELL population at my school and was not happy with the weekly spelling tests, etc. Through my research in best practices, I know that spelling patterns and word study are so important at this age group. However, I just couldn’t find anything out there that combines the two. We have just adopted RtI at my school and your spelling matrix is a great tool for documentation. The grade level spelling program and remediation are perfect for my students. 


Program Overview

FOR GRADE LEVEL INSTRUCTION: Here’s how this program works: Students take a spelling pattern pretest, then self-correct and personalize their weekly spelling list, using the resources in this book. The teacher explains the spelling pattern. Students complete the spelling pattern word sort for homework and self-correct in class. Students study their spelling lists and take the post-test (once a week or biweekly). After seven weeks of instruction, students take a summative assessment.

FOR DIFFERENTIATED (INDIVIDUALIZED) INSTRUCTION: Students take the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment (a comprehensive spelling patterns assessment… not a random sample qualitative spelling inventory), using the audio file included in the program. The teacher corrects the test and records spelling pattern deficits on the progress monitoring matrix.

Students complete targeted worksheets corresponding to the spelling patterns they missed on the diagnostic assessment. Each worksheet explains the spelling pattern, provides examples, includes a spelling sort, has a word jumble, rhyme, and/or book search, and includes a short formative assessment to determine whether or not the student has mastered the spelling pattern. Students self-correct the worksheet to learn from their mistakes, complete the formative assessment, and mini-conference with the teacher, who corrects the formative assessment to determine mastery. If mastered, the teacher marks as such on the progress monitoring matrix.

Now that’s effective differentiated instruction! Your students can catch up, while they keep up with grade level spelling instruction.

The program is easy to teach. We even provide a YouTube training video to ensure your success!

Plus, get these valuable resources to help your students develop their Personal Spelling Lists:

Spelling Teaching Resources

  • How to Study Spelling Words
  • Spelling Proofreading Strategies for Stories and Essays
  • Syllable Rules
  • Accent Rules
  • Outlaw Words
  • The 450 Most Frequently Used Words
  • The 100 Most Often Misspelled Words
  • The 70 Most Commonly Confused Words
  • Eight Great Spelling Rules, Memory Songs, and Raps (with Mp3 links)
  • Spelling Review Games
  • Formative and Summative Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrices

Administer my FREE comprehensive Diagnostic Spelling Assessment with audio file and recording matrix. It has 102 words (I did say comprehensive) and covers all common spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules. It only takes 22 minutes and includes an audio file with test administration instructions. Once you see the gaps in your middle school students spelling patterns, you’re going to want to fill those gaps.

Get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment FREE Resource:

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