How to Teach Spelling: 7 Strategies to Improve Your Lessons


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Remember the Friday spelling tests? Many students spent Thursday night memorizing words for the test, only to forget by Monday. There must be a better way to make the words ‘stick’, especially for our ESL learners. But is it even relevant today with all of our gadgets and auto-correct?

The Importance of Teaching Spelling: Common Core

The short answer is yes. We still need to teach spelling (for a variety of reasons) and it is especially important for students who are striving to learn a second language. One of the primary reasons spelling is important is that the ability to spell correctly is a focus of Common Core State Standards. Beyond the CCSS, teaching spelling is important because it focuses on word study and supports reading.

The Importance of Teaching Spelling: Reading

Spelling can obviously help writing, but it can also help students progress in reading. Understanding word parts, patterns, and sounds support more fluent and accurate reading. The experts at Reading Rockets explain that spelling instruction may support a closer focus on details. View their booklet on “Why Teach Spelling” here

Spelling is Developmental

Spelling is a developmental skill; therefore, strategies vary depending on the level of the student. For early readers, a good strategy is to help them understand letter sounds and to support learners in hearing sounds in words. At the early stages of reading, a ‘sound it out’ approach can help. Physically manipulating letters is a good strategy to use at this stage.

Effective Strategies for Teaching Spelling

While the list memorization approach has been around for decades, there are more effective strategies to use so that new words have longer staying power. Using a variety of learning modalities and engaging the senses can help students to remember new words. It is beneficial for ESL students to use a variety of modalities such as movement, manipulatives, or music. See how one teacher makes learning memorable for her ESL students in this video, “The Sound of P”.

Elkonin Boxes

Help a student learn a new word by using an activity called Elkonin Boxes. This activity involves pushing a small item, like a penny, as the child says one sound of the word. For example, for CAT, the child would push a penny and say the sound for ‘C’ and then repeat for the other sounds. For a more detailed explanation and to view a demonstration video, visit this page.


Gross motor and fine motor movement activities not only actively engage students in learning, they can help students to better remember words. Take a word and go from big movements, such as spelling the word in giant letters in the air, to small movements. The small movements involve finger writing the word on different textures such as carpet, a whiteboard, or a table. Then, have the student try to write the word on paper without looking at the model.

Use What You Know

Building on background knowledge and strengths-based instruction are recommended by the experts at a bilingual website for educators called Colorín Colorado( The ‘Use What You Know’ strategy uses the process of analogy to generalize a word part, or rime (not to be confused with rhyme). If a child can securely spell ‘tower’, then use manipulatives to change the onset and demonstrate they can also spell power, flower, etc.


Kids love to take things apart. Let the fun begin by deconstructing words down to the root. Teach the meaning and spelling of suffixes and affixes. Learning how to reconstruct words by adding the extra parts will exponentially increase the number of words a student can spell and read.

Word Sort

This activity is useful for a variety of ages and levels. Sorting activities force students to pay attention to the details of how a word is written. Students can sort words for suffixes, affixes, onset (fl, tr, sh, etc.) or rime (-at, -it, -ower, etc.). This hands-on method is a developmental approach to spelling and is explained in the Words Their Way series by the spelling gurus: Francine Johnston, Donald Bear, Shane Templeton, Lori Helman, and Marcia Invernizzi (

Write It, Hunt It, Teach It

When a student has had the opportunity to learn how to spell a new word using one of the strategies mentioned above, follow it up with a chance for the student to use the word in writing. Provide writing opportunities and encourage the student to use their new word as many times as they can over the next few days. Encourage the student to find the word in environmental print or books, and finally, let them teach the new word to a peer.

It’s All Greek To Me

Teaching Greek and Latin word parts is an excellent way to get more bang for your buck. For example, teaching the chunk “bio-” is applicable to many words. This strategy not only supports spelling accuracy, but it can also help students to decode words on the run while reading and increase their vocabulary.

Spelling continues to be an important skill to teach and Daily Writing Tips has some additional strategies in this post.  For the optimal chance at remembering new words, provide students with different ways to learn and practice. Include movement, touch, and texture in the learning experience.

Try these strategies and take advantage of the many quality online resources for ESL teachers. The WIDA consortium provides a selection of free teacher resources here. Colorín Colorado has a section devoted to “ELL Strategies and Best Practices” as well as a resource library.


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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for your post – some interesting ideas.
    Just wondering if you have an updated link for ‘the sound of p’ video?

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