Spelling is essential for student success in writing and reading, yet traditional methods can be both boring and ineffective. Strategies that work for struggling students are fun, adaptable and personal.

Look and Listen

Beginning spellers make more progress from developing phonemic awareness -- understanding how alphabet letters represent sounds. Through whole-class activities, guided reading and one-on-one reading sessions, students should identify words that contain a particular sound and locate the letter(s) responsible for that sound. For example, students could discover that "s" and "c" make the same sound in words like "face" and "fast." This type of deliberate phonics instruction has been found to be more effective in promoting future reading success than the whole-language model of learning spelling through natural exposure.

Find Patterns

When students engage in word-sorting activities, they find patterns that will help them begin to develop their own spelling strategies. Although popular word-sort programs such as Words Their Way and Making Words are widely available for purchase, teachers need only choose a spelling pattern and print a list of 10 to 20 related words. For example, students can explore the difference between "long a" and "short a" by sorting a list of words like "hat" and "hate." Noticing how the final "e" changes the sound of the "a" will help students read and spell similar words that aren't on their list. These types of word-sort activities are easily adaptable for differentiated learning.

Word Hunt

Students should have opportunities to explore the classroom, the hallways and their own books for new words and sounds. Taking 15 minutes to conduct a "long a/short a" scavenger hunt will engage your reluctant spellers and interest your competitive students, while building physical activity into their day.

Personal Dictionaries

Many students enjoy keeping a personal dictionary in their desks. They can personalize the cover and divide the interior into sections such as "spelling tricks and patterns," "new words," "word families" or "common mistakes." Personal dictionaries can be an excellent tool to help teachers monitor how each individual child is progressing as a speller, since each student will need different words to support his writing and reading interests. A simpler method is to tape a list of spelling words on each student's desk until they are mastered.


Students learn spelling patterns from games such as Scrabble and Bananagrams. They can also play simple spelling games on the board. "Add, Drop, Trade, Change" requires no extra materials and can be played with any word -- the challenge is to change the word by adding, dropping or replacing any single letter, or to switch the position of any two letters within the word. The game is finished when no more changes can be made. Spelling games can be part of your regular schedule or a special activity for students who finish other tasks early.

Alternative Assessment

If formal spelling tests are expected, consider using an alternate scoring method. Traditionally, spelling is marked either correct or incorrect, and students receive a score for the entire quiz. Giving students a score for each word can help them see what patterns they understand and what still needs work. For example, if "school" is a spelling word and a student writes "sckool," a score of 5/6 for that word more accurately represents his progress than an "x."

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