Spelling Strategies for Kids

The simple but effective strategies outlined in this article can help your child remember spellings more efficiently – if you use them in the right way…

No spelling strategies can be really effective unless children first understand the basic principles of our alphabetic spelling system. 

We describe how you can teach your child these principles in our articles ‘How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles’ and ‘Teach Your Child to Spell More Complex Words’.

You might find it helpful to read these articles first if you haven’t already done so.

Click here for a summary of this article, or browse the contents of the main article below…

Contents:

Summary

  • Look, Say, Cover, Write and Check is a good way of learning to spell words accurately, but only if you encourage your child to break the words down into their constituent sounds and verbalise them.  Learning the correct order of the letters in a word without any auditory processing is very inefficient.
  • Copying or tracing the letters in words can be a useful variation of Look, Say, Cover, Write and Check; but again, it’s important to verbalise the individual sounds.  Copying out letters without thinking about the sounds is much less effective.
  • Test your child’s knowledge of spelling by saying words out loud and getting them to write the words down.  Recalling information from memory is very important for long-term learning.
  • Space out the practice.  Once your child can write out a word correctly from memory, it’s better to practise spelling this word again after an interval of a few days rather than writing it out 10 times in a row.  Spacing seems to work best when the intervals between revision sessions are gradually increased and it’s important to review words your child finds difficult more frequently than ones they get right.  You might find the Leitner system useful for scheduling revision sessions.
  • Mnemonics can be helpful but trying to learn different mnemonics for lots of different words could end up confusing your child.  Always get your child to focus on the sounds in the word first and encourage them to look for common spelling patterns.  The best strategy might be to look up (or make up) a mnemonic for particular words that your child persistently struggles with.
  • Teach Word Variations, Structures and Meanings. Teach your child words in their different forms (nouns as plurals, different tenses of verbs etc.) and the meanings of some common prefixes, suffixes and word roots.

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Look, Say, Cover, Write and Check

This method is the main strategy that children are encouraged to use in many primary schools.  However, it should only be used after children have developed good phonics skills for the reasons we outlined in a previous article.

The procedure seems fairly obvious from the name – look at a word, say it, write it down and check it.  But if a child just looks at a word superficially, they are unlikely to develop a long-term memory of it.

For the ‘say’ part, it’s important for your child to break the words down into their constituent sounds and to verbalise them.  For example:

  • Shampoo should be broken down into the sounds ‘sh’-‘a’- ‘m’- ‘p’-‘oo’,
  • mountain should be said as ‘m’-‘ou’-‘n’-‘t’-‘ai’-‘n’, and
  • hairbrush should be verbalised as ‘h’-‘air’-‘b’-‘r’-‘u’-‘sh’.

Segmenting words in this way makes children focus on and think carefully about the sequence of sounds and letters in a word.  The extra auditory processing this requires will help them to build a more lasting memory of the spellings.

As we mentioned in another article, it’s the sounds the letters represent that’s important, not the letter names. 

Eventually, children might need to spell words out loud using letter names like adults do.  However, insisting on letter names too soon will actually hold children back because they are a distraction from the auditory clues that tell us how the word is put together.

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Copying or Tracing Words Can Be Helpful, But…

There are a number of variations of look, say, cover, write and check.  For example, children might be asked to copy out or trace the words first before they write them from memory.  This can be helpful because when we write, the physical movement of our hands helps to reinforce our memory of the word. 

However, blindly copying a word dozens of times, without mentally processing the letters and sounds is not an efficient way of learning. 

It’s much better to encourage your child to verbalise the letter sounds out loud (as we described above) before they copy the words.

Testing Is Important Too!

After your child has copied out a word 2 or 3 times, it’s important to get him or her to write it out from memory.  To do this properly, you need to cover up the word so your child can’t peek at it. 

If they get the word wrong at this stage, they should go back and focus on the letters and sounds in the word again and then write it out once more from memory.  They need to keep repeating this until they get it right.

Recalling things from memory (which is sometimes called retrieval practice or self-testing) has been shown to be one of the most powerful ways to reinforce learning.1  

However, if we don’t have a reasonable understanding of the things we’re trying to learn, retrieval practice becomes much less efficient.  So make sure your child has a good grasp of phonics first as we discussed in our article about the basic principles of spelling.

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Space the Learning…

When we practise things lots of times in one session, it can feel like we’re making rapid progress.  But, unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that we can forget much of what we’ve learned even within a few days.

Research has demonstrated that we’re much more likely to remember things in the long-term if we spread our practice over a number of different sessions, rather than cramming loads into one slot.2  Cognitive psychologists call this spaced repetition or distributed practice.

So, once your child can write out a word correctly from memory, don’t ask them to write it out more than 2 or 3 extra times in one session.  It’s much better to practise spelling the same word again after an interval of a few days rather than writing it out 10 times in a row.

Spacing seems to work best when the intervals between revision sessions are gradually increased.3  So, after your child has learned a new spelling you might get them to recall it again within a few days, then again after another week or so has passed. 

As we mentioned earlier, when you get your child to recall a word, it’s important that they do this from memory, so just say the word out loud and see if they can spell it.  If they get it wrong, let them look at the word again and encourage them to verbalise the spelling before they try it again from memory.  They need to keep repeating this until they get it right.

You will find that your child can learn to spell some words more easily than others, so it makes sense to spend more time practising words they find difficult than the ones they’ve already mastered. 

Keeping track of what your child does and doesn’t know well can become quite tricky, but there is a simple method you can use to space their revision sessions more effectively: the Leitner System.

This uses flash cards in boxes, and the 3-box system is probably the easiest to start with.  The idea is to keep the words your child gets wrong in the first box and they practise these most frequently.  Things they get correct are moved into the other boxes, and these are studied at progressively longer intervals.

So, for example, your child could study words in box one daily, box 2 every 3 days and box 3 weekly.  You could add an extra box for monthly study intervals for those things your child has been getting right every week.

It’s probably unrealistic to use the Leitner system for every word your child needs to learn, but it would definitely be useful for words they find difficult to spell at first.

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Mnemonics…

A mnemonic is just a memory aid.  Virtually any technique that makes it easier to recall something could be described as a mnemonic.

Mnemonics can certainly be useful, but trying to learn different mnemonics for lots of different words could end up confusing your child.  Always get your child to focus on the sounds in the word first and encourage them to look for common spelling patterns. 

Only use mnemonics for words where the correct choice of letters isn’t obvious.  This might be where it’s unclear whether or not to use a single or double letters (as in accommodation and desert/dessert below) or where a sound could have more than one spelling. 

Also, our pronunciations of some words can differ and it might not be obvious to a child whether the word doctor, for example, should be spelled in its correct form or as docter, doctur, doctuh or some other variation.  Getting your child to exaggerate the ‘or’ sound when they verbalise a word like this might allow them to learn it without using a mnemonic.  This could also apply to the separate/seperate example below.

The best strategy might be to look up (or make up) a mnemonic for particular words that your child persistently struggles with.  A quick search online can reveal numerous examples, but try to find ones that will be meaningful to your child and don’t be frightened of adapting them.

Here are a few examples:

  • The word ‘separate’ is often incorrectly spelled as ‘seperate’. If you tell your child there is ‘a rat’ in separate, they are more likely to remember the correct spelling.
  • In accommodation, you need two cots and two mattresses.
  • It’s necessary to have one collar and two sleeves in a shirt.
  • If your child confuses the spelling of desert and dessert, tell them that desserts are sweet so there are two s’s for two sugars.
  • Rhythm helps your two hips move.
  • Big elephants can always understand small elephants (because).
  • You hear with your ear can help to avoid the confusion between ‘here’ and ‘hear’.
  • If your child confuses ‘their’ and ‘there’ you could tell them that we use there when we are talking about a place.  For example, “the dog is over there”.  Tell them that this is similar to the way we use here to describe where something is: “the cat is here”.  Then point out that the two words have very similar spellings as well as meanings: ‘there‘ is like ‘here‘ with a ‘t’ in front of it. 

    You could also mention that ‘where’ is used in a similar way to here and there because we use it when we want to know the place something might be: “where is my phone?”  And it turns out that the spelling of where is very similar to here and there.  Being aware of these connections could help your child avoid using wear or ware when the meaning of a sentence is about the location of something. 

    Point out that ‘their’ is related to ‘they’ and ‘them’: all 3 words are used when we are talking about people.  If you also mention that all of these words start with the same 3 letters your child will be less likely to misspell their as thier.

  • Your child is more likely to remember the correct spelling for the number two if they are shown the words ‘twin’, ‘twice’ and ‘twenty’ because these have similar meanings and spelling patterns.

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Teach Word Variations, Structures and Meanings…

Making children aware that words can have different forms, and being aware of the meanings of some prefixes, suffixes and roots can be helpful for spelling and comprehension.4 

The examples we provide below aren’t comprehensive, but hopefully, they illustrate the idea that understanding how words are constructed can help with spelling. 

We’ve provided some useful links at the end of this section if you want to explore some of these points further.

Teach your child to spell words in their different forms… 

For example:

  • big, bigger, biggest;
  • quick, quicker, quickest, quickly;
  • build, building, builder, rebuild;
  • friend, friendly, unfriendly, friendship.

Spellings are also altered when the tenses of verbs are changed and there can be different forms of the same verb (the ‘infinitive’ and ‘present participle’).  For example, “I am going to look for the ball.”  “I am looking for the ball.”  “I looked for the ball.” 

In some cases, the spellings of verbs are changed simply by adding ‘ing’ or ‘ed’.  For example:

walk                walking          walked

laugh              laughing        laughed

jump               jumping          jumped

For verbs that end in ‘e’, this letter is normally dropped before adding ‘ing’ or ‘ed’:

bake               baking            baked

smile               smiling           smiled

hope               hoping           hoped

Sometimes, the final consonant is doubled when making different forms of the verb:

hop                 hopping         hopped

stop                stopping         stopped 

rub                  rubbing          rubbed

Some verbs don’t follow a predictable pattern and these are known as irregular verbs:

freeze             freezing         froze               frozen

break              breaking        broke             broken

eat                  eating            ate                 eaten

hide                hiding            hid                  hidden

throw              throwing        threw              thrown

sing                singing           sang              sung              

Show your child one or two examples of the above variations and then put together a list of verbs and ask them to spell the different forms of each one.  Identify which ones they struggle with and revisit them periodically as we described in the section on spacing the learning.

Try to familiarise your child with other common variations of words.  For example, when the suffix ‘ly’ is added to a word, the spelling of the root word sometimes stays the same and sometimes the root word gets altered by losing an ‘e’:

For example:

  • definite, definitely, brave, bravely, separate, separately.
  • gentle, gently, terrible, terribly, simple, simply, wrinkle, wrinkly, possible, possibly.

It can be helpful to make up simple sentences with these words so your child can get an idea of how they are used.  This will help them to understand that all the variations have slightly different meanings.

Once you’ve given them some examples, make up sentences with missing words and ask your child to choose and spell the correct form of the missing words.

Teach your child to recognise and understand some common ‘root words’ and when to use some of the common prefixes and suffixes… 

Make them aware that the same prefix can sometimes have different meanings and also look out for patterns where prefixes with the same meaning are used in different words.

For example, the prefixes ‘im’ and ‘in’ can both mean in or not and ‘il’, ‘ir’, ‘dis’ and ‘un’ can also mean not…

  • ‘im’ is normally used in words beginning with ‘m’ or ‘p’: 
    • import, immigrant, implode, imprison, implant;
    • impossible, improbable, immature, impolite, impatient.
  • ‘il’ is normally used in words beginning with ‘l’:
    • illegal, illegible, illogical, illiterate.
  • ‘ir’ is normally used in words beginning with ‘r’:
    • irresponsible, irrational, irregular, irresistible, irreplaceable.
  • For ‘in’, ‘un’ and ‘dis’ the patterns are less obvious.  Knowing the correct one to use comes from familiarity gained by listening and reading:
     
    • into, input, intake, inward, infield, inflow, influx, invade;
    • incomplete, indefinite, inactive, incorrect, invisible;
    • unkind, unwell, unhappy, unpack;
    • dislike, disagree, disobey, dishonest, disbelief, disabled.

The animated BBC video below illustrates how prefixes are used in words and it also explains how to remember the correct spellings in a child-friendly way…

Your child will learn to spell these words more accurately in the long-term if you mix up some of the basic words and get them to choose the correct prefix for a particular meaning.

We’ve included a few more common prefixes/roots below.  Discuss what each one might mean with your child:

  • refuel, reapply, reappear, refill, replay;
  • biology, biography, antibiotic, biofuel, biohazard;
  • minute, minimal, miniature, minority, minuscule;
  • telephone, television, teleport, telescope.

Recognising, for example, that ‘tele’ is a (Greek) root word meaning ‘far off’ will help your child to understand unfamiliar words they might encounter with the same root.  And being familiar with the spelling of ‘tele’ means they will be less likely to make common spelling errors like ‘teliscope’.

Common suffixes include ‘s’ and ‘es’ for making plurals of nouns.  You might notice that ‘es’ is often used for words ending in s, x, z, ch, or sh.

  • frogs, dogs, beans, sweets, socks, flowers, trains, toys.
  • kisses, dresses, boxes, foxes, fizzes, quizzes, benches, churches, wishes, brushes.

It’s also helpful for your child to learn that with some words, the spellings of the root words are altered when they are made into plurals:

  • cherry, cherries,
  • daisy, daisies,
  • baby, babies;
  • leaf, leaves,
  • loaf, loaves,
  • half, halves,
  • scarf, scarves,
  • elf, elves.

The animated BBC videos below explain some of the spelling rules for suffixes in a way that should be accessible for children aged 7 or above..

Here are a few more examples of common suffixes; discuss what each one might mean, or how you would use them in a sentence with your child:

  • biology, geology, ecology, zoology, mythology;
  • musician, dietician, mathematician, beautician, physician, politician;
  • assist, assistance, appear, appearance, perform, performance;
  • absent, absence, innocent, innocence, silent, silence, confident, confidence.

Deciding whether to use ‘ance’ or ‘ence’ can be particularly tricky.  Understanding the rules for this requires good grammatical knowledge, but your child can still learn some of the common examples using “look, cover, write and check” and “interleaving” even if they’re too young to fully understand the grammar.

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Useful Links:

Oxford Dictionaries Online Spelling has several useful sections on adding various endings to words.  Other useful sections on this site include verbs and tenses, common misspellings and British and American spelling.

This article from the excellent Reading Rockets website has useful lists of common Latin and Greek word roots and common prefixes and suffixes.

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 course from the site.  The course is suitable for anyone wanting to learn British or American Spelling

Alison Clarke has compiled some very helpful spelling lists (grouped into different categories) on her excellent Spelfabet website.  She also provides some very useful guidance on improving spelling skills on her site.

The UK site Howtospell also has some excellent free tips and resources.

U.S. Spelling Word Lists...

The lists from the link below are from the Reading Rockets website.  They were created to help teachers know which spelling words should be taught to kids in grades 1–5.  The list contains 850 words that account for 80 percent of the words children use in their writing: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/basic-spelling-vocabulary-list

English National Curriculum Spelling Word Lists…

These word lists from the UK indicate the standard of spelling children are expected to meet in different year groups. 

If you are from the US, be careful to look out for British English/American English discrepancies.

For example, centre/center, favourite/favorite in the years 3 and 4 list and criticise/criticize, marvellous/ marvelous, neighbour/neighbor, programme/program, recognise/recognize in the years 4 and 5 list.

We’ve made a US version of each list which you can download.  See the links below.

Years 3 and 4
(Children Aged 7-9 Years Old)…

accident(ally) actual(ly) address answer appear arrive believe bicycle breath breathe build busy/business calendar caught centre century certain circle complete consider continue decide describe different difficult disappear early earth eight/eighth enough exercise experience experiment extreme famous favourite February forward(s) fruit grammar group guard guide heard heart height history imagine increase important interest island knowledge learn length library material medicine mention minute natural naughty notice occasion(ally) often opposite ordinary particular peculiar perhaps popular position possess(ion) possible potatoes pressure probably promise purpose quarter question recent regular reign remember sentence separate special straight strange strength suppose surprise therefore though/although thought through various weight woman/women.  (100 words)

Click on the links below to download a pdf of this list.  The formatting is slightly different in each one to give you a choice and there is a version with US Spellings:

Years 5 and 6
(Children Aged 9-11 Years Old)…

accommodate accompany according achieve aggressive amateur ancient apparent appreciate attached available average awkward bargain bruise category cemetery committee communicate community competition conscience* conscious* controversy convenience correspond criticise (critic + ise) curiosity definite desperate determined develop dictionary disastrous embarrass environment equip (–ped, –ment) especially exaggerate excellent existence explanation familiar foreign forty frequently government guarantee harass hindrance identity immediate(ly) individual interfere interrupt language leisure lightning marvellous mischievous muscle necessary neighbour nuisance occupy occur opportunity parliament persuade physical prejudice privilege profession programme pronunciation queue recognise recommend relevant restaurant rhyme rhythm sacrifice secretary shoulder signature sincere(ly) soldier stomach sufficient suggest symbol system temperature thorough twelfth variety vegetable vehicle yacht.  (106 words)

Click on the links below to download a pdf of this list.  The formatting is slightly different in each one to give you a choice and there is a version with US Spellings:

Finally…

Achieving complete mastery of the English spelling system requires a good working knowledge of the Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Greek and French influences on our spellings and a good grasp of the rules of grammar.  It’s a process that takes years rather than months and relatively few people ever become true spelling experts. 

Nevertheless, it is possible for most people to become quite proficient at spelling if they are prepared to put in a bit of effort and adopt a systematic approach to learning as we’ve outlined in these articles.

See below for more useful links…

Further Information…

See the next article in this series if you want to be aware of some spelling strategies that are best avoided.

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, click on this link.

If you would like to learn more about the English spelling system you should find this free booklet interesting: Sounds~Write’s ‘Spelling theory and a lexicon of English spellings’.

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References:

  1. Dunlosky, et al, Improving Students Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf+html?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi
  2. Allocating Student Study Time: “Massed” versus “Distributed” Practice: http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2002/ask-cognitive-scientist#sthash.7wFLX4aT.dpuf
  3. Mnemosyne Project: http://mnemosyne-proj.org/help/getting-started.php
  4. American Educator, Winter 2008-2009, How Words Cast Their Spell
  5. Source: Department for Education, English programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2, National curriculum in England September 2013

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