Strategies for Home Spelling Study

Many schools are using “Word Sorts” these days for teaching spelling. If you are wondering how you can help your child study his or her school spelling list, whether it is Word Sorts or any other method–or if you are teaching spelling at home–here are some strategies to improve spelling understanding and memory:

  • If doing “Word Sorts”: cut out the words and set them on the table in their groups. Discuss the reason for the groupings, such as the “spelling rule” that applies to each group. Explain and write down the “rules” for each group (example: CVC: short o sound; CVCe: magic/silent e makes the vowel say its name; CVVC: when 2 vowels go walking the first one does the talking and says its name and the 2nd one stays silent. Note: C refers to consonants and V to vowels).
  • Once the words are in their spelling categories, further sort them by rhyming words and/or other similarities. Then glue them onto a new sheet of paper as you have sorted them out, being sure to label each group, and even write the rule with the group.
  • Copying and dictation: On a sheet of lined paper, write the group labels at the top, then write the words in their groups for practice. First, do this by having the child copy the words; then do it by dictating the words in their groups; then dictate the words “mixed up” and have the child figure out which group to put them in.
  • Sentences, quotations, and song lyrics: When dictating words, always make up a sentence that clearly uses each word. Say the word, then the sentence, and then the word again. If possible, make the sentence interesting and relevant to the child’s life. Humour is always good. You can even quote a line from a poem you both know, or sing a line from a song that contains the word.
  • Rhyming spelling patterns: Think of non-list words that rhyme with the words in the list and have the same spelling pattern. Practice these similar words in groups–it will make it easier to remember the list words and the child will be learning several other words at the same time. When similarily spelled words are grouped together, they are easier to remember (e.g. road, load, toad; boat, goat, coat, float).
  • Create sentences that use the words. If you can combine at least 2 of the words in one sentence, it is even more useful, but a sentence for each word is also fine. Write the sentence, and underline the spelling list word(s). Under the list word(s), draw a little sketch. Long-term memory works much better by making associations, so drawing a picture and creating a sentence are both ways to build memory associations. If the sentence is funny, or rhymes, all the better. If the child can create the sentences and/or come up with the sketches him- or herself, it’s even more effective.
  • Silent letter combinations: For example, “knock” starts with the silent letter “k” in the common consonant combination “kn”. There are quite a lot of “kn” words such as knight, know, knowledge, knee, knack, knave, knit and so on. A fun thing to do, which helps with memory, is to write the words lined up one below the other, with the common letters lined up clearly. Then write a sentence (ideally a funny one) that uses as many of those words as possible. If you have a lot of words, use them to write a funny story. By learning words in “groups” like these, more associations are made (and the student also learns other similar words besides the list word).
  • Word history: Oh! And tell the child that in the old days, the “kn” words actually had the “k” sound pronounced. It is fun to practice saying these words with the “k-n” sounds and will help with remembering how to spell them. Looking up the history of words is another great way to help children remember the spelling, as a good dictionary will explain the etymology and development of a word (and its spelling).
  • Listening: While on the topic of “knock”: If a word has a “sound” associated with it, that also helps. So, for example, spell “knock” aloud while knocking on the table or door while saying and/or writing each letter in the word.
  • Taste and Smell and Colour: You can also use other “senses” to help make associations that will help the child remember how to spell a word. For example, if learning to spell “orange,” you could have the child TASTE an orange; SMELL an orange, and COLOR a picture of an orange. The senses of taste and smell create very strong memory associations.
  • Words in context: For words which are frequently used in a certain context, such as STOP signs, point the word out when you see it in context. Later, tell your child to close his or her eyes while spelling the word aloud, and “visualize” the word in its context.
  • Consonant blends: For words that start with a consonant blend (two consonants that are blended together to make a new sound), you can make good use of groups of words that use that blend (eg. drop, drag, drain, dry, etc.)
  • Oddball words: If you are using “word sort” style spelling lessons, to help with the “oddball” words (words which don’t follow the usual spelling rules, such as “love”–which has “o” for the “u” sound–and “one” which sounds like “wun”!), discuss WHY they are “oddballs.” Try to think of various other words that follow this kind of oddball pattern (e.g. love –> dove, glove … you can also point out other words that have the same pattern but make a different sound such as “cove, rove, stove, wove”, and even “move”, if the child enjoys these kinds of “exceptions” and won’t be confused)  and try to remember them together by using them together in a sentence or story.
  • Homophones and homonyms like “rode” and “road” can be really confusing. It is good to write each one in a sentence in which the meaning is clear. For example: I rode my bike to the store. The road was bumpy. Then try and put them together in one sentence, for example: I rode my bike to the store on the bumpy road. While doing so, illustrate the sentence!
  • Texture: For a “texture” type word like “rough,” the student can feel a rough surface while spelling the word aloud.
  • Speech and Listening: It is important to say and spell words aloud, as well as writing them, as this way you are using the senses of speech and hearing. Also, listening to another person spell the word aloud, and then spelling it together can help.
  • “Muscle memory” works really well for some kids. I already mentioned associating “knock” with the action of knocking. A child can also do things like bounce a ball, jump on a trampoline, climb stairs, etc. while spelling words. In fact, they don’t even have to be words that are action words; just the fact of involving the body in the spelling process can be effective. But of course associating an action word like “jump” with actual jumping would work very well.
  • Singing or chanting spelling works really well for some students. They can use a simple tune like those of nursery rhymes, and repeat the spelling with the tune. Or they can instead use a rap beat to chant the spelling.
  • Using different writing tools can also help. Pencil and paper, markers on whiteboard or chalk on a blackboard, using ones arm and hand to spell the word in the air, paint and paintbrush, finger paint, tracing the word in sand or in whip cream, and so on are very helpful for some children.

I hope these spelling strategies will be a help for your child (and maybe to adults in the home who still struggle with spelling, too).

You can find links to lots of related information on phonics, spelling, reading and writing on this page:  under the topics of “Tips to help you tutor your child at home: Reading” and “Tips to help you tutor your child at home: Writing.”

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