Spelling Memorization Tips

The other day I read an article in which the author said allowing children to just spell “the way it sounds” to them will work out just fine. The children’s spelling, she assured her readers, will gradually become more and more “correct,” until someday they’ll all be great spellers!

Well… that might work for some children, especially if they love to read and tend to “just pick up” the accepted spellings. But for other children, spelling needs to be taught very carefully through step-by-step phonics teaching and through learning spelling “rules.” And then, unfortunately, many words in English, including a large proportion of “sight words” (aka frequently used words), don’t even follow the rules, and this means memorization.

Again, some children can memorize spellings quickly and easily by repeating the word a few times (spoken and/or and written). But memorization is much more difficult for other children. This post will provide you with lots and lots of ways to help your child (and maybe you, too, mom or dad or other significant adults) memorize those difficult words. Every person learns a bit differently, so try out these different (and often entertaining) approaches. We’ll start with some traditional “writing” approaches–and then on to more adventuresome alternatives!

A Variety of Worksheet Type Approaches:

Use these suggestions to create worksheets and discussions that are made especially for your child’s personal spelling challenges:

  • Go over spelling “rules” and “sounds” together orally
  • Draw little sketches to go with spelling words. It can be especially helpful for children to make their own little sketches; the connection (association) is often very helpful, and the sketches don’t even have to be particularly accurate. Sometimes they can just be a funny shape or even a sketch of an “opposite.” Each sketch will give children a “hanger” for the word.
  • Practice handwriting. Trace the word; fill in letter shape boxes (even have the children make their own); copy the word; then write without looking.
  • Make a list of rhyming words that are in the same word family as the word being learned.
  • Create a story using spelling list words. The children use their list to fill in the blanks, either “in context” of the story, or you can create a little sketch under each blank as a hint. Then encourage the children to create their own stories with the list words (and their own little sketches for the words). Silly stories are good as they are fun and memorable
  • Create word pyramids. On the top row, write the first letter; on the second row write the first two letters; on the third row the first three letters, and so on.
  • Use the letter (or combination of letters/blends or spelling rule) being studied in words other than the list words. If the children can come up with some of those words (or find them in a dictionary–a rhyming dictionary can be helpful for this), all the better.
  • Write the list words in one list. In a list beside the first one, write (in mixed up order) a rhyming word for each list word. Have the child match them. In the beginning, use words that follow the same pattern (eg. pane/mane); then try using other patterns that make the same sound (eg. pane/gain); and finally, try homonyms (eg. pane/pain).
  • Create funny sentences that contain the list words (if the child can make the sentences up, all the better).
  • Use compound words with the desired sound/letter combination. For example, if the word is “rain,” use “rainfall.” This is a great way to introduce syllables.
  • Find and circle (or underline or highlight) list words and other similar words in a story, news article, etc.
  • Put the list words in alphabetical order.
  • Discuss different sounds for a letter or letter combination (for example, “long a” can be written with magic e (age), two vowels walking (pain, say), and “eigh” (eight, weigh).
  • If you’re doing multiple ways of spelling a certain sound, as in the “long a” example–or if you have a single spelling that has different sounds for the same letter combination (eg: oo –> book, zoo), first sort the list words, then think of and list more words for each sound category.
  • Create a word search or a crossword puzzle; if children create their own puzzle it can be even more effective, especially crossword puzzles.
  • Create a chart (for example, list words that start with a vowel in one column and with a consonant in another column; or divide the list words into columns by long and short vowels, or by different vowels).
  • Sort the words into sound categories by writing the words on small cards or slips of paper, then sort them. Encourage the children to make their own cards.
  • Write a series of list words run together and have the child separate them.
  • Scramble the letters in the list words and have the child write them in the correct order.

Lots of Different Kinds of Spelling Tips:

Put aside the paper and pencil and start a spelling adventure!

  • Make associations between the spelling of the word and a picture or object. I’ve already suggested drawing little sketches. But you can use other sensory associations. For example, if learning to spell the name of a food, tasting it, smelling it and feeling it while practising the spelling can be very effective. Likewise, if learning a “sound” word (like “whistle”) listen to the sound and/or make the sound while learning the spelling.-
  • Practice in a variety of ways: flash cards, books that contain the word in context, writing the word in the context of a practical kind of writing rather than a regular spelling assignment (eg an email or letter to a friend or grandparent), etc.
  • Play games that strengthen vocabulary and word retrieval: Scrabble, Spill and Spell, Boggle, hangman, crosswords and word searches.
  • Play dice games like Snakes and Ladders–but before taking a turn you have to spell a word. Start with the easiest ones and work toward harder ones. If you spell it incorrectly, you can only move 1 place or half the places indicated on the dice. (Avoid having to miss a turn or other similar “punishment”).
  • Visualize: create a mind’s eye picture. Imagine some particularly memorable aspect of the word. Concentrate on getting a “flash” of that element. For example, if learning to spell “shoelace,” have the child close her eyes and picture a particularly bright, colourful, shiny shoelace on a favourite pair of shoes or boots. Then have her close her eyes and visualize the spelling of the word. Then even try to visualize them together.
  • Association is very helpful in memorizing any sequence of data (including spelling). For example, you are memorizing a list of spelling words: “banana, gloves, guitar, flashlight, midnight” (they don’t even need to have much in common). As you practice each word, visualize it or draw a sketch. Then link those pictures (and spelling) together. Imagine putting the gloves on your banana-sticky hands before you play your new guitar by flashlight at midnight. Use any kind of pictures and any linking story that pops into your mind. Crazy and fun is memorable!
  • Use a variety of writing tools when drawing or writing. Try pencil crayons, markers, sidewalk chalk, paints, black/white boards, or “write” with fingertips on textured surfaces (fabric, sand, finger paints, shaving cream, sandpaper, etc.).
  • Study the word for 15 to 20 seconds. Don’t just read the letters themselves, but look at the shape of the word, the shapes of the letters. Discuss them–think of it as an adventure with the word. Close eyes and recall as much as possible. Then open eyes and take in more detail. Close eyes and add new observations to the original mental picture. Repeat until you can’t come up with any more details. Then write the word with eyes closed (on a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard, etc.), drawing the “word picture” from your mind.
  • Write the word with different kinds of letters–eg. manuscript, cursive, different fonts (you can also do this typing on a word processor like Word), different sizes of letters, uppercase, lowercase, different colours, highlighted with different colours.
  • You can even “decorate” difficult-to-remember letters and letter combinations. For example, for the word “between,” in order to remember the “ee” long vowel combination, the child could sketch little eyes in the circles of the “e” letters, and emphasize the “smiley” bottom part of the letters in order to make an emogi funny face to put the “ee” into his memory.
  • Say or sing the word; set up a beat (tap, bounce a ball); say a syllable (or letter) for each beat.
  • Set up a pattern for the word: listen to a helper spell it aloud, spell it aloud yourself, write it in the air with giant imaginary letters, close eyes and visualize it, write it on paper, type it on the computer, write it in a sentence…. Figure out a pattern that works well for you.
  • Make up catchy rhymes or songs of the material to be memorized (or search a poetry or songbook for poetry/lyrics that repeat that word’s spelling sound or pattern–children’s poetry and songs like Mother Goose are especially good).
  • Have a family discussion related to the word. Talk about what it means, how it is spelled, any spelling rules, similar words–and how the word is used in practical ways.  Then find it used on cereal boxes, how-to instructions, recipes, newspaper articles, etc.
  • Have a helper spell a list word (start with the simplest one). The child repeats it. Then the helper spells that word and the next easiest one, and the child repeats both. See how far you can go with this. If a word is very difficult, start with one letter, then add a second, then a third, and so on. Or do it by syllables and/or by vowel combinations, consonant blends, etc.
  • Use repetitive, rhythmic physical actions/activities while doing spelling practice. For example: spell the word while playing hopscotch, climbing stairs, jumping on a trampoline, bouncing a ball, skipping with a jump rope, playing catch with a friend.
  • When using the word in writing assignments or practical writing, don’t be afraid to whisper or speak the spelling aloud; use the sketch you developed; close your eyes and visualize, etc. These associations and actions will bring the word back to your memory.
  • Make up funny acronyms of words you need to remember. For example, for “because”: Bunnies Eat Carrots And Usually See Everything.
  • Use a puppet. Have the puppet repeat or act out the spelling of the word, use it in a sentence, etc.
  • Teach someone else how to spell the word in as many ways as possible. Teaching a newly learned fact or concept is one of the best ways to retain it.
  • On small cards or slips of paper, make a collection of individual letters, vowel combinations, consonant blends, etc. (Make at least 2 or 3 each of the frequently used ones). Spread them out on the table or floor. Instead of writing the words, find the correct letters/combinations and put them together side by side. Then have a helper remove one or two important letters (without the child looking) and say what letters were removed.
  • Create a “bingo” game, but use spelling words instead of numbers or letters.
  • Act out the word with gestures or role-playing.
  • Play charades and similar traditional parlour games (use your spelling list words) with family and friends. Personal interaction can add greatly to memorization.
  • Spell the word(s) with another person. Take turns adding letters until the word is complete.

Long-term memory strategies:

  •  “Store” new words in memory categories with words you already know how to spell, that have similar attributes.
  • Use rote drill. But do short daily practice sessions (10 minutes or so) for 6 days in a row, then take a day off. Then practice the same word list again a week later, then a month later, then 6 months later. This is much more effective than long sessions a couple times a week.
  • For rule-based learning (as in spelling), combine practice and discussion. Give examples of words which follow the rules, and similar words which break that same rule. The learner identifies which is the “broken rule word” and which is the “rule word” and then explains the rule.
  • Have the helper spell the word to the child (either written or spoken). The child decides whether the helper spelled the word correctly or incorrectly (the helper decides which way to go before spelling it, but doesn’t tell the child). If the helper spelled it incorrectly, the child tells what the helper did wrong (for example, what rule was broken, or what letter is missing or should have been used instead), and asks the helper to try again. Is the helper correct now?
  • Knowledge is often best consolidated right before sleep. Read, practice or review material for 5 to 10 minutes before dozing off–then immediately go to sleep. The brain will continue to “practice.” Do a little “test” the next morning.

More Memorization Tips–for Math Facts, Tests, and More:

For lots more great memorization ideas–for spelling and all kinds of other memorization needs–I have developed 3 booklets with “Memory and Learning Strategies.” One is a general overview, the second is specific tips and tricks (from which the above ideas are drawn) and the third is for use with classrooms or groups of learners. You can get them here for just $2 each!

There are also lots of other great spelling tips in this blog (for FREE, of course). You can find links to a list of them in the “Tips to Tutor Your Child at Home–Reading” section of the Home Education Tips page.

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