Spelling list, spelling words five times each, sentences with spelling words, spelling packet, spelling test – sound familiar? These are all activities related to old-school traditional spelling instruction. We’ve all most likely been the student that had to complete these tasks. And many of us, including myself, have been the teacher assigning these tasks. In the past, when I have used these traditional methods, one thing was clear to me after just a couple of years of teaching – students do not learn to spell this way!

The Trouble with Traditional Spelling Instruction

Here’s what happens: the student receives their spelling list on Monday (maybe Friday). The parents latch onto that list with a death-grip, determined to drill those words into their child’s brain. You see, parents, as a general rule, feel very comfortable with traditional spelling instruction and activities because they most likely had similar activities when they were in school. Many parents tend to hyper-focus on spelling lists, giving that memorization more time at home than reading or math skills with a singular focus on getting that 100 in the folder on Friday.

The students memorize the words using their short-term memory. They churn out lots of busy work through the week, perhaps at school and at home, but ask those same students to spell the previous week’s words the following week on the test or in a writing assignment. I’m afraid you will be disappointed. It just doesn’t carry over into long-term memory and application.

There is an abundance of research out there that shows that this method of teaching spelling does not work. Of course there will be some words that students will have to memorize to know how to spell, but there are many spelling rules and patterns that students can learn to apply. Here are some activities you can implement to make spelling instruction effective.

Effective Spelling Instruction Activities

Phonemic Awareness

This is the first step to any reading program. Phonemic awareness is not to be confused with phonics. Phonemic awareness is strictly about recognizing sounds independent of print. To truly practice students’ phonemic skills, there should be no print involved. For example, say the words goat, go, gate, and grape. Ask students to identify which sound was the same in the words – beginning, middle, or end. Then, ask them to name the sound, not the letter.

Recognizing rhyming words is another important skill to practice for phonemic awareness. There are so many great books to read that will reinforce rhyming including anything by Dr. Seuss, Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw, Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney, or There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly by Pam Adams, just to name a few.

As students advance, phonemic awareness practice can be more challenging. I like to use Elkonin boxes (like the one below) to help students transition from phonemic awareness to phonics. Students simply tap out the sounds in the blank boxes to help them visualize the beginning, middle, and ending sounds in a CVC pattern word. You can add more boxes as needed for other spelling patterns. When students transition into phonics, you can then have them tap out the sounds, then write the word.

Remember, just because students can do the phonics component does not mean you stop practicing phonemic awareness. It is still an essential skill that must be reinforced. One great thing about teaching and practicing phonemic awareness is that it translates really well to virtual learning. Because it only involves listening and speaking, students at home can participate without anything to impede their learning.

Here’s an example: sheep – /sh/ /ee/ /p/

Spelling Patterns

The next step in developing spelling skills is to have students begin to recognize and work with different spelling patterns. The first pattern that students will begin working with will be CVC pattern words, learning that the vowel in these words is making a short vowel sound. From there, students need to start working with word families.

Word sorts are a great way to develop these skills. Show students word cards like: hat, map, sat, man, pan, rat, flat, tap, sap, snap, etc. Have them decide how to sort those words, then discuss the spelling patterns. You can continue be introducing other short-vowel CVC words. Then, mix up several short vowels and let them sort.

As students progress, you will introduce more advanced spelling patterns. Eventually, students will be sorting words with short a, ar, ay, a-consonant-e, patterns. The key is to make sure you do not teach the long-vowel spelling patterns in isolation. Incorporate the previously taught short-vowel patterns as well so students are able to distinguish between them. This is another activity that translates well to online learning, as you can display the word cards and have students verbally sort the words or you can give them word cards in an interactive Google Slides deck to sort.

This is a great activity to reinforce spelling patterns:

_a_ ar ay _a_e


Call out words like: cat, farm, play, rate, card, date, say, star, may, map, cab.

Then, students decide which spelling pattern it is and spell it in the correct column.

Differentiated Spelling

One of the big problems with traditional spelling instruction is that the whole class receives the same list of words. We know how important differentiation is, and yet with traditional spelling instruction, there is no differentiation. I do a lot of my spelling/phonics activities in my small groups, which allows me to differentiate according to the needs of my students. Different groups of students have different words lists according to their progress with spelling patterns.

Spelling in Context

It is so important that students learn to spell in context. Words only learned in isolation do not tend to stay with students, especially when it comes to writing. As part of your spelling practice, incorporate some writing so you can guide students through applying their spelling patterns as they work. Also, include context on spelling tests by having sentences in which they have to choose the word with correct spelling for the blank.

 It is important to note that I do not send a list of “spelling words” home at any point in the week. I do, however, send home the spelling patterns that we will be working on, and I encourage parents to practice those patterns with their child. We also spend a lot of time practicing these spelling patterns at school. That way, rather than simply putting 10-20 words in their short-term memory, they are learning to apply the rules and gaining a more in-depth knowledge that allows them to retain spelling skills for the years ahead.

*Updated March 2021