Simple Spelling Lessons that Work

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Before we can teach spelling in ways that work, we have to figure out what ways don’t work. Statistics tell us that traditional ways of teaching spelling are effective for about 25% of students – the same percentage of kids who ‘get’ spelling no matter how you teach it. But there are ways we can teach spelling in ways that can work for them and almost everyone else. As usual, the formula is this: narrow the focus and simplify.

Simple Spelling Lessons

Here’s a recap of the methods that don’t work for teaching spelling:

  • Teaching spelling words aren’t relevant to the students.
  • Teaching words independent of their spelling rules.

  • Teaching too many words at one time.

  • Introducing new words before kids have mastered the ones they’ve already studied.

  • Teaching words with dissimilar spelling rules.

  • Teaching words out of their natural “environments,” that is, without a context of writing.

Fixing the problem then, is simple. We just reverse the methods that aren’t working:

  • Teach words that are relevant to the students.
  • Start a list of troublesome words from their own writing.
  • Teach words along with their spelling rules.

  • Teach one or two words, and their corresponding rule, at a time.

  • Stay with a rule and its example words until kids master them. Take a week – or a month if you have to – but don’t move on until they get the reasoning behind the word. Have them stick with one rule at a time until they independently stop making that error. (This might seem like it takes forever, but it’s worth it to take the time.)

  • Teach words with natural cohesion so they “stick” in the mind. Consistency between meanings and spellings makes retention easier. Example: pronoun, proceed, product, prologue, etc.

  • Have students use new words in their writing assignments. When a student naturally mixes new with her usual words, kids gain a sense of ownership of the new words. If the new words are too “out of the box” for a student to use, have her invent two or three sentences in which she mixes the new words with her usual words. The point is to let her see the new with the old, the way she’d put together a new shirt with an old pair of jeans. (And tell her that the a new word just might become a new favorite!)

  • Teach to mastery. Have students master one set of focus words before moving onto new words. When a student can consistently spell a new word correctly – without prompts from you – she’s ready to move on to a new group of words.

By studying what doesn’t work when we teach spelling it’s easy to discover what does. That always moves us to a way of teaching that always works: teaching less, better, with simplicity.

We’re stronger together,


For a free handout of the basic spelling rules, drop me an email and I’ll send you one.

20 Best Tips

Written by Cathy Canen

Cathy Canen

Cathy was a home school curriculum consultant for 30 years. She’s listened to thousands of parents and kids talk about the issues most important to them, so now she writes to address the topics they discussed the most often. She has taught in their home school (K-12), in a traditional classroom, and currently tutors kids in first grade through college. She is a certified Sign Language Interpreter and has taught kids with various developmental challenges including Aspergers, autism, deaf students, and blind students. She also developed a language program for deafblind students at Georgia School for the Blind. She leads a community Bible study, works with hospice patients, and blogs at the, where she writes about health and nutrition. You can contact her at her main site,, where she coordinates her writing and tutoring services.

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