10 Steps to Build a Better Speller

We all know the drill: Memorize your weekly spelling word list, ace the test, promptly delete that information — sometimes permanently! If you were one of those students who could get A’s in spelling — without ever becoming a competent speller — this one is for you (and your students!). The key to becoming a better speller is simple attention to spelling. That’s it. It is when we actually need and use the information that it sticks. So here are 10 steps to building a better speller:

1. Choose the Words

To make spelling stick it needs to be relevant. Pull words from your student’s current work: writing, dictation, or copywork assignments.

Rather than using words from an arbitrary list, choosing spelling words from your child’s own work allows him to focus on words important to his own spelling needs, while fostering attention on good spelling habits.

2. Keep a Short List

Remember those long, long lists of words each week? It seemed like each year those lists grew in length until spelling could easily be perceived as an exercise in futility!

What is the objective? Memorizing a large list of spelling words? Or learning how to spell? Keep the objective in hand. Focus like a laser on those words that your child needs now — typically no more than five words at a time, depending on your student’s age.

If spelling becomes a chore, we have lost the battle. The idea is to develop a habit of focusing on how words are spelled — not punishing the speller.

3. Practice Spelling the Words Correctly

You have a simple, trimmed list of relevant words. Now all that is necessary is practice. Focused practice.

To begin, dictate the misspelled word to your child. As you dictate the word letter by letter, he can copy the word on a page in his spelling notebook. He does have one of those, right?

Before your student writes the word, ask him to repeat the word to you to make sure he is pronouncing it correctly. Many times our spelling mistakes are born out of an incorrect audible interpretation of the word.

Once he is pronouncing the word correctly, dictate the word very slowly. It is very important that he writes the word correctly the first time.

After he has written the word in his notebook, have him repeat back to you what he wrote down.

4. Identify the Original Mistake

Now that he is familiar with the correct spelling of the word, go back to the original spelling error in his work. Can he identify his mistake on his own? If not, help him see where he made that mistake. Have him circle the mistake on the corrected word.

Is the mistake one that he makes frequently? If possible, identify a spelling rule that will help him spell other words of the same type.

Are the letters out of order? See if spelling the word mnemonically helps: b-e-a-utiful.

5. Visualize the Correctly Spelled Word

Have your student close his eyes and see the word in his head. Can he write the word correctly?

Have him check the visualized version of the word with the correctly spelled word. Was he correct? If not, have him try again.

6. Write the Word Correctly

Now he is ready to practice writing the word correctly spelled without looking at the original. Up to this point, we have made a concerted effort to visually focus on how the word looks when spelled correctly. You don’t want to try this step until that groundwork has been laid.

Have your student write the word without looking at the original. Then he can check his work against the original.

Was it correct? If not, have him try again.

7. Use the Word in a Sentence

It is time to practice using the word as we normally do — in our writing.

He can copy the sentence that contained the misspelled word. An abbreviated version of the original sentence may be best, depending on the length of the sentence.

8. Spelling Check

The next day, have your student turn to a fresh page in his spelling notebook. Dictate the words from yesterday’s list one at a time, spelling each correctly after he has written each individual word. He should immediately check each word.

If a word is incorrect, have him cross out the word and spell the word correctly for him to write on his page. If he has fewer than five words to work on, add words he missed in his writing work (again, working on no more than five total words at a time on any given day).

This new list will be the one you use tomorrow.

9. Review

Spend one day a week reviewing previous words. We typically did this on Fridays.

Spend one day a month reviewing all of the words he has missed (again — no more than five at a time).

10. Incorporate Commonly Misspelled Words

As your student grows in his language skills and has become reasonably proficient in his daily spelling activities, you will want to begin incorporating a few commonly misspelled words into his spelling list. (Please do not overwhelm your student by tackling this too soon.)

A complete list broken down by age group can be found in You Can Teach Your Child Successfully by Ruth Beechick (see additional resources below). You will likely find a similar list in your favorite grammar reference.

Or you can use this list for older students.

Additional Resources

You Can Teach Your Child Successfully
by Ruth Beechick
A favorite! And includes a complete list by age group of troublesome words.

Spelling Notebook
Free 8-page sample of Character Quality Language Arts (CQLA) that includes spelling pages arranged by rule. This may be useful with step 4 above, determining the correct spelling rule, and copying the misspelled word on the correct line.

Commonly Misspelled English Words
Interactive that includes quiz. When you start typing the word the word disappears and you have to type it from memory. This is very similar to step 5 above.

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