English Language Arts

11 Ways to Boost Elementary Students’ Spelling Skills

Elementary teachers can use a variety of strategies and exercises to help students build up their spelling skills.

February 22, 2023
Fecundap stock / Shutterstock

When I was in primary school, I dreaded Fridays because we were usually given a spelling test based on the stories we read during the week or a list of words assigned for memorization. I struggled to remember the words, and invariably my performance was dismal!

While my teachers were well-intentioned, having us study a list of orthographically unrelated words without careful attention to meaning was (and still is) counter to best practices. I quickly forgot most of the words I studied, and as a result, I learned nothing about the English spelling system.

During my first year of teaching, I repeated the same exercises: I gave my students word lists ahead of scheduled spelling tests. After each test, they used a dictionary to self-correct. This was all drill, practice, and repetition, but I thought I was doing the right thing. My former teachers and I didn’t realize that spelling shouldn’t be practiced and tested only. 

In fact, Dr. Richard Gentry—a champion of explicit spelling instruction—stated, “Teachers who simply give students a word list and test on Friday aren’t teaching; they are assigning” spelling. Therefore, he, along with other like-minded practitioners, has called for direct, systematic, and connected spelling lessons. Their recommendations have informed my proposals below.

Avoid giving students discrete word lists to study by rote. It’s more effective if the target words in any one lesson are related; that is, they reflect the same spelling pattern or principle. For example, you could teach your elementary readers the silent “e” or long “o” spelling pattern and provide multiple opportunities to analyze, discuss, and study related words. 

In separate lessons, you may also explore diphthongs and digraphs. With this strong sound-symbol knowledge base, students would be better positioned to autonomously (and even automatically) encode words they’ve never seen, heard, or memorized. 

2. Differentiate Your Instruction

Be sure to administer a low-stakes, informal pretest before targeting different spelling patterns. Include words that students need for their writing. It’s important to know where students are individually so that you can decide on whole class or small group instruction for certain spelling concepts.

You can also study students’ writing to identify spelling challenges, address them in focused mini-lessons, and provide corrective feedback. Follow up with interleaving and distributed practice. 

3. Accommodate Student Choice

You don’t always have to use a predetermined word list. Occasionally, invite students to share words that they wish they knew how to spell. You may also focus on words that align with their personal and social interests, so they are motivated to learn their correct representation.

Michael James’s research, from as far back as 1986, provides support for this self-selection method. He practiced this with some of his students, and over time he found that even struggling readers were able to spell longer and more complex words. Just be sure to balance what students want to know and need to know.

4. Contextualize Word-Study Activities

Ensure that words with the spelling pattern under study are meaningfully used in connected sentences, poems, or stories. Texts with catchy rhyming patterns are especially useful for young learners. Prompt students to examine the words in context, and stimulate discussions about the words’ parts and the texts’ overall meaning.

Your instruction will be less mechanical and more memorable and motivating. Additionally, students will develop a habit of paying close attention to the spelling of words they read in continuous passages.

5. Capitalize on the Language Experience Approach

The language experience approach (LEA) can be strategically used to drive students’ orthographic competence. For example, you can encourage students to dictate their story while you write or type on their behalf. After this, you could read the story to the class and pause at intervals to highlight and discuss new or previously taught spelling patterns.

Students can better connect with the words, since they are part of their oral language and convey their lived, vicarious, or imagined experiences.

6. Use Real-World Materials

Consider making your lessons more authentic by using real-world examples of misspellings in community signage. Discuss the potential implications of said errors so that students can recognize and appreciate the value of correct spelling.

You could ask questions such as: Which word is incorrectly spelled here? What might the misspelling make people think? What is the importance of correct spelling?

7. Assign Proofreading Exercises

Instead of only using test-based assessments, you could have students act as editors and proofread short “articles.” These may be teacher-created to ensure that students are focused on words with a single spelling pattern or multiple patterns taught in previous lessons. 

When writing the misspellings, you can use inventive spellings or phonetic approximations, as students normally do when they don’t know how to spell a word: howse [house], fownd [found], grownd [ground], etc. Contrast what students think with how the word is actually spelled. 

8. Offer Creative Writing Opportunities

Give students opportunities to write rhyming poems, songs, and other short creative pieces featuring specific spelling patterns. They can be centered around holidays and shared with loved ones. This type of activity is more meaningful and engaging than sentence-formation exercises and isolated rewrites of misspelled words.

9. Assign Word-Search Puzzles

Throughout my years of teaching, I’ve found that students enjoy doing puzzles. These can be used as follow-up practice activities and work best when they comprise spelling patterns that have been explored in previous sessions.

I used the website TheWordSearch.com to create a puzzle with “ou” words. For increased engagement, you may make the activity competitive by having students work in groups. The group that is first to find all the words wins. 

10. Incorporate Movement

Movement-based activities can increase engagement, concentration, and retention. In light of this, get your students up and moving during your spelling lessons. Hopscotch is a popular favorite. Students can take turns tossing a small object into the first square and then hopping through the remaining squares in the designated pattern. If they step on the lines or lose their balance, ask them to spell a word containing the focused spelling pattern. They could also jump rope or twirl a hula hoop to represent the number of sounds perceived in a word, right before spelling it. 

11. Adapt Popular Game Shows

You can adapt Wheel of Fortune for engaging spelling practice. You may use a virtual spinning wheel or a teacher-made one. Allow students to work in teams as they spin, and supply letters to complete the spelling of a set of related words.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is another option. Give students relevant clues, and ask them to provide the words and the correct spelling (orally and on a portable dry-erase board). For example:

  • We stand on it. We walk on it. Ground
  • By its color we can tell the weather. Cloud
  • I am no longer lost. I have been ________. Found

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Filed Under

  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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