Spelling Strategies You Should Avoid

Most spelling activities work to some extent, but some work better than others.  Find out which strategies are probably not worth your time and effort.

If you are looking for effective ways to teach spelling, you should use the strategies outlined in our previous spelling articles.  

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Contents:

Summary

We think the following strategies are best avoided because there are more effective ways to teach your child how to spell:

  • Rote learning.
  • Spelling lists with mixtures of unfamiliar spelling patterns.
  • Teaching words with irregular spelling patterns early.
  • Using letter names with beginning readers.
  • Using confusing terminology like long and short vowels with beginning readers.
  • Copying out words lots of times in one session.
  • Drawing images to learn spellings.
  • Learning spellings by the shapes of words.
  • Clapping and counting syllables.
  • Arm tapping.
  • Cutting out letters from newspapers and magazines.

You also need to be careful about when you use ‘correcting deliberate mistake’ and ‘invented spelling’ activities.

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Rote Learning…

Memorising the letters in a word without thinking about the sounds or spelling patterns is a bit like trying to remember random strings of numbers.  This sort of rote learning, which is often required when children are taught so-called ‘sight-words’, is extremely inefficient. 

The spellings of most words can be figured out, either completely or in part, once a child has developed a good working knowledge of phonics and common spelling patterns.  We’ve outlined how you can teach your child this essential knowledge in a step-by-step way in the first two of our spelling articles.

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Spelling Lists With Mixtures of Unfamiliar Spelling Patterns…

When your child is first learning to read and spell, it’s important that you only ask them to practise spelling words they are capable of reading using the phonics skills they have learned up to that point in time.  

So, for example, it would be unhelpful to ask your child to learn the spellings for book, home and night if they were unfamiliar with the highlighted letter combinations. 

They should only be asked to spell these words after they have been introduced to groups of words with similar spelling patterns during their phonics instruction.  For example:

  • hood rook soot stood took woof wool.
  • froze hope joke note rope spoke stove.
  • light high fright sigh sight tight.

If you ask your child to learn the spellings for a jumbled mix of words, with letter combinations they haven’t encountered before, they are unlikely to recognise any meaningful patterns.  As a result, their only option would be to learn the words by rote.

See the first two of our spelling articles for more detailed guidance about how to introduce spellings in a systematic order.  This can help your child develop more meaningful and durable learning.

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Teaching Words With Irregular Spelling Patterns Early…

A number of words, such as ‘the’, ‘said’, ‘he’, ‘was’ and ‘you’ occur quite frequently in children’s books and some people argue that we should teach children to read and spell these high-frequency words first. 

There is some logic to this argument, but we feel that only the high-frequency words with straightforward spellings should be taught initially. 

Straightforward (regular) spelling patterns are the ones that are used most frequently in a large number of words.  The words mentioned in the paragraph above have more unusual (irregular) spelling patterns.  Some people call these tricky words or sight words.

Teaching irregular spelling patterns before they’ve mastered the more fundamental ones could confuse some children because the same letters can represent different sounds. 

So, in the early stages, the focus should be on learning the most frequent (regular) spelling patterns, not the most frequent words

Once children know the letter/sound relationships in the most frequent spelling patterns they can spell a much larger number of words than would be possible if time had been focussed on learning ‘sight words’.

What’s more, children can learn the trickier spelling patterns more easily after they’ve mastered the basics. 

With a good grasp of the fundamentals of phonics, irregular spellings can be learned in a fairly systematic way, as we discuss in the section Learning to spell tricky words’ in another of our spelling articles.

Incidentally, many high frequency words do have common spelling patterns; for example, ‘and’, ‘in’, ‘it’, ‘on’, ‘at’, ‘but’, ‘can’, ‘up’, ‘had’, ‘went’, ‘not’, ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’.  These words should be taught early alongside other regular words.

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Using Letter Names With Beginning Readers…

Children do need to learn how to spell words using letter names like adults do – eventually. 

However, beginning readers can learn to spell more easily when they focus on the sounds represented by letters, so avoid getting them to spell using letter names. 

See our article about letter names and this section of our article on the basic principles of spelling for a more detailed discussion of this point.

Using Confusing Terminology With Beginners…

Talking about ‘short’ and ‘long’ vowels and ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ consonants could actually confuse beginning readers because they find it hard to understand what the terms mean in the context of letters and sounds. 

They don’t need to know these terms when they are learning to read or spell in the early stages so it’s not worth spending time talking about them. 

In fact, beginning readers and spellers don’t even need to know the difference between a vowel and a consonant, although they will be expected to learn these terms at some stage when they are in school.

You don’t need to worry about introducing these ideas until your child is ready to spell more advanced words.  This should be after they can spell most of the words they encounter in young children’s literature.

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Copying Out Words Lots of Times in One Session

Asking your child to write out a word 10 or 20 times in one sitting is not an efficient way for them to learn the spelling in the long-term, especially if they are just copying the letters without thinking about them. 

Writing out words does help with spelling, but it’s much better to write out a word from memory 2 or 3 times in one session and then practise spelling the same word again 2 or 3 times a few days later.  The word should then be reviewed again after about a week and then after about a month. 

For a more detailed discussion of this point, see the section titled ‘Space the Learning’ in one of our other spelling articles.

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Drawing Images to Help With Spelling

This strategy is recommended by a commercial spelling programme that’s marketed to schools in the UK; however, we aren’t convinced it’s helpful.

Drawing pictures around words might help children to understand their meaning, as illustrated in the example below.  But pictures won’t help with spelling words if they have no meaningful relationship to the letters or the sounds they represent.

spelling wild animals
Illustrations around words don't help with spelling if they have no relationship to the letters in the words.

Learning the Shapes of Words

Another popular idea is that children should draw boxes around the letters in words to identify where there are ascending and descending letters (see the examples below). 

spelling, boxes round letters

They might also be asked to match which words would fit into empty boxes.  The thinking behind this strategy is that if children can remember the shape they are more likely to remember the spelling. 

Unfortunately, this is a step back in time to ideas that have been thoroughly debunked by research.  Studies have shown that the ability to spell depends much more on having good linguistic/phonics skills than it does on visual memory.1 

Learning the shapes of words is a very inefficient method for learning spellings because it distracts a child’s attention away from the most important thing – the relationships between the letters and the sounds they represent.

Learning shapes is also unreliable because many words have similar shapes.  Drawing boxes around them would provide no information that would enable a child to identify the differences in their spellings. 

The following groups of words have similar shapes and illustrate this point:

  • hay, hog, bog, bug, dug, dig and big
  • house, horse and brown.

Arm Tapping

This technique involves first saying a word out loud while you slap your shoulder.  Then, as you say each letter name in the word, you use two fingers to tap your arm, gradually moving down the arm from shoulder to wrist. 

It’s claimed this helps because it involves the auditory (hearing) and kinaesthetic (touch and bodily movements) senses.  We aren’t convinced for two reasons:

  • Focussing on the letter names rather than letter sounds makes it purely a rote learning exercise because the letter names don’t usually correspond to the sounds in words.
  • The tapping movements aren’t related to the letter shapes or sounds in any way, so although the technique does involve some bodily movements, they aren’t relevant movements.

In contrast, writing out words does involve kinaesthetic motor learning because our hand movements correspond exactly with the shapes of the letters.  And saying the letter sounds as we write allows for more useful auditory processing.

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Newspaper and Magazine Letters

This technique involves cutting out letters from newspapers and magazines to use for spelling words.  The idea is that searching for each letter one-at-a-time will make your child focus more on the letters.

We think this technique is a relatively harmless activity but it could also be quite time-consuming. 

Getting your child to say each of the sounds in a word while using magnetic letters or alphabet cards to spell the word would be a more productive use of time. 

We describe how to do this in the first of our articles in this series about spelling.  You can learn how to use alphabet cards to teach more complex words in this article.

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Be Wary of “Correct the Deliberate Mistake” Activities…

Children do need to learn how to proofread their own writing and correct their own spellings.  However, it’s not a good idea to expose beginning readers/spellers to writing with excessive amounts of deliberate mistakes. 

When we see the same incorrect spelling too often it starts to make a permanent imprint in our memory and this makes it more likely that we will repeat the mistake when we write ourselves.  This is especially true for beginners because they don’t have strong mental representations of the correct spellings of words.

So, it’s best to leave these types of activities until your child is quite a competent speller, and even then use them sparingly. 

Speech pathologist and teacher/tutor, Alison Clarke has written a very good article about incorrect spelling activities on her excellent Spelfabet website.

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Be Wary of “Invented Spelling”…

The idea behind invented spelling is that children are encouraged to make up their own spellings for words, rather than asking an adult or using a dictionary. 

We think there are some circumstances where this can be useful, but it shouldn’t be used as a substitute for systematic spelling instruction. 

The value of invented spelling is disputed amongst different groups of academics and teachers, so we’ve provided a thorough analysis of the arguments for and against its use in another of our articles.

See below for other useful links.

Further Information…

See our previous article in this section if you would like to learn about some strategies that can help with spelling.

The Spellzone website is a fantastic online resource suitable for 7-year-olds to adults.  It has some great word lists, activities and spelling games and you can also access a spelling ability test and a complete spelling coursefrom the site.  The course is suitable for anyone wanting to learn British or American Spelling.

If you would like more information about teaching your child to read then click on this link.

If you would like more information about teaching your child to write, see our article “How to Teach Handwriting”.

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References:

  1. American Educator, Winter 2008-2009, How Words Cast Their Spell