When children learn to spell, there are at least two kinds of learning going on: discovery learning and memorization. 

But most children will not learn to spell correctly by discovery alone. Many children, first of all, need guidance to discover spelling patterns: they need words presented to them in groups, and they need to hear us comment upon the spelling patterns. Secondly, children need to be encouraged and taught to memorize the correct spellings of many words. Why?

Children need to have a store of correctly spelled words in mind from which they can infer spelling patterns, for one thing. For another, it is often unclear which pattern a word will follow: the word "read" could be spelled by many different patterns, including REED, REID, REDE, or REYED. Knowing these patterns helps, and the patterns can be learned by discovery; but knowing which pattern applies to a particular word requires some memorization. Also, memorizing is surely needed to learn irregularly spelled words such as "of," "was," "woman," and the like.

In the following sections we will suggest strategies for teaching spelling to children at each level of spelling development. We will concentrate on methods that nurture discovery learning and also offer explicit instruction where necessary.

For the Prephonemic Speller

Prephonemic spellers, you will remember, are children who string letters or letterlike marks together to look like writing, but whose letters bear no relation to sounds. Prephonemic spelling is common in kindergarten and early first grade. (Some children who have already discovered something of how letters represent sounds may revert to prephonemic spelling or scribbling when they are in a hurry to fill a page with print.3 We are assuming in this discussion that each kind of spelling described is the child's most advanced way of spelling at that time. If you are not sure, ask the child to spell some one and two syllable words as best she or he is able.)

Prephonemic spellers may not know:

  • that what we record when we write a message is a particular set of words.
  • that words can be broken down into units of phonemes, and that these (roughly) are what letters spell.
  • how to write many letters or know the letters' names.
  • a strategy for matching letters with sounds.

On the other hand, they do know that marks are made on paper with pencils, crayons, etc., and that some people use these marks to record and retrieve messages. So let's encourage them every way we can to use their own marks in those ways—involving them in writing workshops and in sharing time, even if they record and retrieve their messages with scribbles or prephonemic strings. But let's also help them learn how alphabetic writing works.

  1. Surround them with print. Label their desk, cubby, coathook, etc., with their names.
  2. Model the act of writing for them, talking to yourself as you write:

    "I'm going to write, 'Jon's desk.' What sound do I need first? 'Jon' begins with /juh/. I'll use the letter J for that sound. The next sound I hear is /ah/. I'll spell that with an O. Then I hear an /en/. I'll spell that with a letter N."

  3. Pair them up with children who are more advanced writers. Give both partners the task of writing a report or a story.
  4. Teach them letters. Show them letters on cards, preferably with each letter embedded in a picture of an object whose name begins with that letter (C as the handle of a CUP, or S as a SNAKE, for example). Use alphabet books. Teach them the alphabet song. With the whole class, feature a letter each week. Read poems that stress that letter sound. Ask children to bring in pictures of objects that begin with that sound, and give them lots of practice writing the letter and associating the letter with the sound.
  5. Read big books to them, and occasionally point to each word as you read. Point to beginning letters, from time to time, and comment on their sounds.
  6. Make little books for the children.4 Little books, with a picture on each page and a two- or three-word caption, are easy for children to learn to reread by themselves. Encourage the children to do so, pointing to the words as they do.

Prephonemic spellers can get support at home, too. Here are some suggestions we can make to parents for things to do at home:

  • Read aloud the road signs the family passes that have words on them: "stop," "yield," "speed limit 55," "school zone," and so on.
  • Read words that are flashed on the TV screen, such as show titles and cast of characters.
  • Read labels on items around the house such as toothpaste, cereal, spices (salt, pepper, mustard, catsup), and foodstuffs (flour, sugar, and so on).
  • Write letters and other messages to, for, and with your children. For instance, parents can encourage children to dictate a message, write it down, and read it back. Then the parent can go over the message with the child and see if he thinks it is right. The beginning writer will not know, of course, but by raising the question the parent suggests to the child that it is reasonable for him to concern himself with the print. Then the children can sign the dictations to make them theirs. Ask children to label their art work, and then explain why they used the letters they did. Label rooms or things around the house (or for teachers, around the classroom).

For the Early Phonemic Speller

Early phonemic spellers may be kindergarteners or even precocious preschoolers; normally they are children in the first half of first grade.

Early phonemic spellers have discovered that written messages consist of exact recorded words. The words are recorded by their sounds, by their phonemes. Children at this stage know several letters, and are beginning to realize that spelling can work by matching target sounds with letter-names that sound like them.

Early phonemic spellers are limited by an unstable concept of word—a limited ability to think of words as units of language, or to manipulate them in the ways necessary to spell them inventively. They also have difficulty with phonemic segmentation—the ability to break a word down into its constituent sounds so that the sounds can be spelled. Further, early phonemic spellers may not recognize or know how to make all of the letters.

Instructional goals for these children include the same general goals as for the prephonemic spellers. We should continue to surround them with print. We should read to them and encourage them to identify particular books that they enjoy, that they can learn by heart and recite while they turn the pages. Also, we should continue to have them experiment with writing by giving them plenty of opportunities to put down what they can by way of spelling out words.

We have some more specific goals for early phonemic spellers, too. One is to encourage them to develop a stable concept of what a word is. The way to do that is to call the children's attention to words in print as we—or they—are saying words out loud. James Moffett has a procedure for this, which he calls the Lap Method.5 You hold a child on your lap, read to her a book with which she is very familiar, and point to each word in the text as you read it aloud. Gradually, you can get the child to try to point to words as you read them, and read words as you point to them. But the goal is to direct the child's attention to a written word at exactly the instant that the word is being read aloud. With this kind of support, the information that links a printed word with a spoken word is brought into focus for the child. Aspects of this information are things like: a word in print is a configuration of letters bound by spaces on both ends; words are arranged from left to right; more than one syllable may be a single word; and individual letters may resemble individual sounds heard in words.

There are several successful variations of the Lap Method. One is done with a poem or a song that the child has memorized. The teacher and the child sit down with a written version of the poem or song, which is ideally four to six lines in length. They read each line chorally, as the teacher points to each word. Then the teacher points to a single word and asks the child what it is. The teacher points to the first word in the line, then the last, then one in the middle. It is not likely that the child will be able to recognize the words pointed to. Instead she will have to recite the line to herself and guess what each word must be by its order in the written line. This gets her thinking about words as units of writing and gives her practice matching a word in her head with one in print.6

Taking dictated experience stories, a part of the language-experience approach to reading and language arts instruction, also helps develop the concept of words in print. Dictated accounts are done either with individuals or in groups. After the children have undergone an interesting episode—perhaps an encounter with baby rabbits or a field trip to the post office—each, child is invited to dictate one sentence to the teacher as part of a group composition. A number of reading activities usually follow the dictation: The group reads all the sentences chorally several times; individuals volunteer to read words or sentences; the teacher points to a word in the line and asks a child to read it. In cases where the child knows by heart what the line says but cannot recognize the word, he is likely to work his way through the line, matching memorized words with units of print until he makes a match with the word in question.

The shared book method, as developed by Don Holdaway in New Zealand7 is nicely suited to helping young readers and writers learn about the relationships between print and speech. Holdaway's method uses big books, yard-high versions of children's books that are read in the children's presence by the teacher, who uses a pointer to touch each word as she reads. After several passes through the big book in the group setting, the children are handed standard-size versions of the book to read on their own. Holdaway and his colleagues began by creating their own big books out of whatever books were likely to be favorites with their particular children. Following their lead, commercial publishers now offer printed versions of big books for sale.

Many early phonemic spellers write their own names correctly, as well as the names of their friends, brothers, and sisters. Names can be used in learning activities to establish the concept of word. Write the child's name several times on a strip of paper without leaving any spaces between the words. Then ask the child to help you separate the names. The child spells her name first, pointing to each letter. When she comes to the end of one spelling, she cuts the name apart from the one that follows. When she has cut the names apart, she may paste them on another piece of paper, leaving spaces between them.

A similar procedure, involving whole sentences, is suggested by Marie Clay.8 Have the child dictate a sentence to you, write it down, and read it back to him. Then read the sentence with him until he can read the sentence by himself. As you read the sentence each time, point to the words. When the child is able to read the sentence by himself (he is able to do this by memorizing, of course, not by actual reading), write the sentence a second time on a strip of paper. Now cut the words off the strip, one at a time, reading the sentence aloud minus the severed word each time. As a next step, the child can match the cut apart words with those in the sentence that was left intact. A fairly easy task is for the child to arrange the cut apart words on top of the words to which they are matched. A more difficult exercise is to arrange the words into a sentence several inches below the sentence left intact.

Emily devised a similar activity when she was not quite four. She put pieces of thin paper on the covers of her favorite books and traced the titles.

Another specific instructional goal we have for children who are early phonemic spellers is that they grow in their ability to segment spoken words into individual phonemes. The most natural practice is to continue to spell the parts of the words of which they are more certain. Thus, their spellings may look like this at first: I W _T D_N _E P __ ("l walked down the path"). But in time, there will be fewer blanks left and more letters filled in as children gain practice in segmenting phonemes.

The final instructional goal we have for early phonemic spellers is that they be more willing to take risks. We have seen abundant evidence that making errors is a necessary part of learning to spell. We want children to pay attention to the print around them and see how it is put together and. how it works. But we want just as much for them to produce their own writing, in which they try out spelling the way they think it is. We want them to formulate ideas about written language and act on them; then they will know what to do with the information they gain from examining other people's written language.

Unless children take risks and unless they are willing to make errors, their progress as spellers will be slow and inhibited, and their delight in making their own messages in print will be small. Children who are willing to invent spelling for words usually become correct spellers in a reasonably short time—and they also become fluent writers in the process.

Whether or not a child is a risk taker depends on a number of factors—his personality, the expectations of his parents, and the atmosphere of his classroom all contribute. There are several steps the teacher can take to help a child gain self-confidence and take risks.

Talk to the children and praise them for what they know about writing. If some children have discovered that writing goes left to right across a page, they may be congratulated for this discovery. If some have discovered that words have letters in them, and that the letters are mixed, this is something that the teacher can discuss with them. And if some have discovered that words are spelled by matching letters with individual sounds, this is a realization worthy of an adult's attention. Having an adult express interest in these issues as the children investigate them adds to the children's sense of accomplishment and reassures them that their efforts are worthwhile.

Parents and teachers should both understand the value of encouragement, practice, and freedom to make errors in learning to spell. If the teacher encourages invented spelling at school but does not share her position with the parents, confusion may result. Parents may be alarmed that children bring home papers with uncorrected spelling errors, or that children enthusiastically produce writing with spelling errors at home. Unless the teacher enlists the parents' understanding and support, they are likely to say discouraging things to their children, with the best of intentions. They may even question whether the teacher is doing her job, mistakenly equating the teacher's encouragement of early writing and invented spelling with a lax attitude that leaves errors uncorrected.

For the Letter-Name Speller

Children who produce letter-name spelling have developed a system of spelling that can be read by others who understand the system. Letter-name spelling represents the high-water mark of children's intuitive spelling development, and their spellings during this period are their most original. From this point on, children will become increasingly aware of the details of standard spelling, and their spelling will grow closer to that of adults.

Most children become letter-name spellers by Thanksgiving in first grade. Some begin sooner, and several may wait until late first grade to start using the letter-name strategy. Letter-name spellings will persist into second grade, though most second graders will use transitional strategies, especially in the second half of the year.

The insights letter-name spellers have about written language are the same ones needed to begin to read. And of course with more reading practice, these children will learn more and more features of standard spelling, until their spelling becomes transitional.

By now their concept of a word in print is beginning to stabilize, but exercises to develop this concept still further will continue to be helpful—both for their spelling and for their reading. Their ability to separate individual phonemes out of words has become highly productive. What they do not yet know is all the business on the other side of the letter-to-sound representation issue. They are just beginning to explore the rules by which letters represent phonemes.

They can find the phonemes, but so far their ideas of how these phonemes should be spelled stick closely to the names of the letters. They use letter-names as if they themselves were pieces of sound—building blocks out of which words can be constructed. They have not yet realized the complex rules for choosing letters to represent words.

If the disparity between their system and the complexity of standard spelling is pointed out to them too suddenly or too harshly, many children will lose confidence. If this happens, their progress into standard spelling will be delayed because they will not experiment with new forms enthusiastically. The greatest amount of progress may be gained if children at this stage are encouraged to continue writing—indeed, if they are given a steady agenda of interesting writing tasks. Their writing can be taken seriously for the sake of its message. The teacher or parents can talk about what the child wrote and not just her spelling—focusing on the message is likely to be more motivating than dwelling on the spelling.

If the letter-name speller is exposed to a good supply of interesting print, this should provide him with data from which he can, at his own pace, draw new conclusions about spelling. We should continue to read to him. We should continue to help him find favorite books, read them to him frequently, and encourage him to read them to himself. Read-along books can be highly beneficial at this stage, both for reading and for writing. Language-experience teaching—dictated stories that are reread together—bears even more fruit at this stage, both in the children's ease at finding words by the voice-to-print matching method and in the number of words the children can learn to recognize after a dictated story. They will now recognize words in the story days after they were dictated, a feat they could not do before.

Having children build a word bank—a collection of word cards for the words they recognized during the reading of a dictated story—is good practice. It's a good idea to check each child's word bank occasionally and see if she can still read all the words in her word bank. Any words that she cannot read should be taken out, placed in a separate envelope, and reviewed at a later time. The children can be encouraged to use their word bank cards when they are writing because they are always spelled correctly, and so constitute a source of correct spellings.

To help children sound out words and spell with more confidence, use a group brainstorming procedure. Choose an interesting word to spell and ask the students to help you spell it. Ask the students which sound they hear first. Then ask students to offer a letter to spell it. Discuss whether the letter makes sense or not. Then ask students to name the next sound they hear and suggest a letter to spell it.

Note that our goal is to have children hear sounds in words and match letters with them. We will accept reasonable guesses, even if they are not the correct spelling of the word, because we are trying to encourage the children to use invented (or temporary) spelling. Correctness will come later.

How do we describe this spelling to children? We like Elizabeth Sulzby's advice. If the children come up with ANEML, we say, "This is the way many children spell' animal''' (or whatever word they are spelling)'. We go on to make it clear that adults spell the word a little differently and they will learn that adult spelling later.
Should we teach correct spelling to children at this stage? These are several considerations here. If we do teach them correct spelling, we must be careful not to undermine their willingness to write words the way they sound. The spirit of discovery is valuable for their learning; and besides, the act of inventing spellings actually helps children learn features of the sounds and writing system of English that will help them both in their spelling and even in their reading for some time to come.

By the second half of first grade, it may be advisable to make a "door dictionary"; that is, write frequently used words on gummed note papers and post them on the back of the classroom door or filing cabinet. Children may peel a needed word off the door, take it back to the desk to copy, and return it to the door. Alternatively, you may encourage children to make a personal spelling dictionary: a notepad with frequently used words in it, spelled correctly.

In the second half of first grade, you may safely require children to memorize a short list of words per week: five or six words, we would say. We prefer to group these words by phonogram pattern, especially those patterns to which we are calling the children's attention in their reading. (A phonogram pattern is a vowel and consonant combination. It is usually what is left over when we remove the beginning element from a word: the phonogram at, for example, is found in "that," "cat," and "rat.") You or the children may wish to add other frequently asked for words: "of," "love," "have," and so on. In the next section we describe several recommended procedures for having children study words.

Care must be taken, however, not to limit the children's writing to the words on the spelling lists or in the spelling dictionaries. It would be sad, indeed, if a preoccupation with these correctly spelled words undermined their confidence in their ability to think out spellings for themselves. Their willingness to try spelling on their own is necessary for them to move beyond memorization and learn the system of English spelling.

For the Transitional Speller

Children who are transitional spellers are adept at breaking out phonemes for words and finding letters to spell them. They are moving beyond the intuitive one-sound, one-letter spelling of the previous stage. They have begun to take note of the way standard spelling works and are trying to gain control over the patterns they perceive in standard spelling.

Transitional spelling emerges gradually from letter-name spelling; it is certainly not a gear-shift change. Letter-name spellers are learning to read, and as they read, standard spelling patterns make their way into the children's spelling. When we see many of these standard spellings—ch, sh, and th digraphs; vowels with their correct short sound; silent letters; and the like—we say that these children have become transitional spellers.

As we observed in Chapter 5, the patterns of standard spelling are many and complex. It takes time, curiosity, and much exploration for a child to master these patterns. Children need to be led gradually to learn the patterns at work in standard spelling, and it is best if they learn these in the context of meaningful writing, though isolated activities are sometimes helpful.

Inductive approaches often work well for helping children learn spelling patterns. In these, children compare the spellings of several words in light of their pronunciation, meaning, part of speech, and origin. Then they are led to formulate their own generalities about the patterns that appear to be at work.

Word sorts are teacher-made or homemade activities that help children notice and form concepts about spelling patterns. Word sorts are a categorizing exercise in which children are led to group words together that share a common feature. This exercise gets them thinking about spelling features of words, and it works with words the children already know.

The procedure works as follows. The teacher or the children write down a collection of words on small pieces of tagboard. If the teacher is using the language-experience approach, the words used are those in the children's word banks. If he is not using the approach, then he or the children can jot down fifty words or so from the children's sight words on word cards. It's important for all of the participants in an activity to know the pronunciation and meaning of every word used.

With an individual or small group of children, the teacher starts off the activity by dividing the cards among the participants. Then he puts a card in the center of the table. He asks the children to read it and to put any words they have in hand that begin with the same sound on the table below the guide word. (Sometimes the teacher uses a picture of an object for a guide word, so the children cannot depend on a visual match between the first letters of the guide word and the words in their hands.) The teacher makes sure that the participating children have several cards in hand that match the guide word, as well as some that do not.

Besides working with beginning sounds, the activity can be centered on long and short vowel sounds; other vowel sounds, such as diphthongs and R-controlled vowels; grammatical endings, such as -ed or -s; words that end in a v sound; words that undergo phonological changes; words with similar prefixes and suffixes; compound words; and many other features. The activity can be directed toward any word feature—including similarities of meaning and nuance—that the teacher intends. In fact, word sort activities often bring to light interesting word features of which the students and the teacher may have been unaware.

Word sorts have the potential for helping children to construct concepts about spelling patterns and enabling them to display the concepts they already hold.9 Children at this stage of spelling profit from games and exercises that play on the spelling patterns of words. There are many games that play on children's recognition of allowable sequences of letters—letter sequences that typically spell words. Boggle, Perquackey, and Spill 'n Spell are games of this type. In all three, the players roll out letter cubes and try to identify English words within a specified time limit out of the letters that surface. Word hunts, Hangman, and Password are more games that encourage children's efforts to think of spelling patterns in English. All are worthwhile, both in the classroom and at home.

Beyond exploring spelling patterns, should transitional spellers be taught to spell? The answer is certainly Yes. As Ruell Allread remarked,10 children can learn a great deal about numbers and quantities from playing with different sized cans and sorting buttons—but the day will surely come when they must memorize the multiplication tables. There are correct spellings that must be learned. This fact does not take away from invented spelling. On the contrary, when children have been encouraged to use invented spellings, have written prolifically, have developed a curiosity about words, and have discovered many of the spelling patterns of English, they will surely learn correct spellings more easily than children whose learning has been controlled by teacher or textbook. But if these children are to spell correctly, they must still be challenged to learn correct spelling.

How should spelling words be taught?

From second grade on, select twelve to fifteen words each week for the children to learn. Which words? Many teachers prefer to choose words from the children's reading, writing, or science activities. The advantage to this approach is that children certainly benefit from studying the correct spellings of words they will read and write anyway. But there are disadvantages, too. Topically chosen words may be of only momentary usefulness—children may read and write them only while the unit is being studied. Surely children should study those words they will use the most in the long run. Another drawback is that fifteen topically chosen words may show fifteen different spelling patterns, which won't call attention to spelling patterns at all and will put a heavy burden on memory.

Some sort of compromise seems best. Choose three or four words from children's reading and writing, words they will use a lot and that build on spelling patterns that seem useful to learn. For each of these words, think of two or three other words that share the same spelling pattern. These, too, should be words that children use frequently. This method should give you nine or ten spelling words. If this seems like too much work, use a basal speller; most spellers choose their words by the criteria we have just set out.

You can round the list out to fifteen by asking the children to nominate words that they want to learn that week or adding words that you've seen children misspelling. You can personalize the list by having each child choose five words each week to learn. (Just make sure these words are spelled correctly before the students set about learning them!)

Use the test/study/retest method. On the first day of the week, call out the words on the list and have each student attempt to write the correct spelling. Then call out the correct spelling of each word, and have the students strike through any incorrect spelling and write the correct spelling beside it. Or, have the students pair up and call out the words to each other.

Advise the students to study the words they misspelled for a retest at the end of the week. If some students spell most of the words on the list correctly the first time, or if they get them all wrong, you should substitute harder or easier words as appropriate. If you're using a basal spelling series or borrowing words from one, choose lists from a different grade.

Have students study their misspelled words using the multisensory study technique. This method was modified from Grace Fernald by Bradley and Bryant.11 Advise the students to study the words using these eight steps:

  1. Look at the word and say it aloud.
  2. Read each letter in the word.
  3. Close your eyes, try to picture the word, and spell it to yourself.
  4. Look at the word. Did you spell it correctly?
  5. Say each letter of the word as you copy it.
  6. Cover the word and write it again.
  7. Look at the word. Did you write it correctly?
  8. If you made any mistakes, repeat the steps.

Use all of the interesting techniques you can to have children practice writing these words correctly. Computer software companies have programs that motivate children to practice spelling words, and some can be programmed to use your word lists. Software that can generate crossword puzzles using your spelling words is also available. Check with your librarian or media center director.


3.  Elizabeth Sulzby, "Writing Development in Early Childhood, Educational Horizons 64 (Fall 1985): 1,8-12.

4.  For more information on little books, see C. McCormick and J. Mason, "Intervention Procedures for Increasing Preschool Children's Interest in Knowledge about Reading," in W. Teale and E. Sulzby, eds., Emergent Literacy (New York: Ablex, 1986).

5.  James Moffett and Betty Wagner, Student-Centered Language Arts and Reading (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978).

6.  Darrell Morris, "Beginning Readers' Concept of Word," in Henderson and Beers.

7.  Don Holdaway, Foundations of Literacy (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1978).

8.  Marie Clay, The Early Detection of Reading Difficulties, 2d ed. (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1979).

9.  See Charles Temple and Jean Wallace Gillet, "Developing Work Knowledge: A Cognitive View, Reading World (December 1978); Jean Wallace Gillet and M. Jane Kita, "Words, Kids, and Categories," in Henderson and Beers; and Elizabeth Sulzby, "Word Concept Development Activities," in Henderson and Beers.

10.  Allread made this remark to Charles Temple in August 1991.

11.  Peter Bryant and Lynette Bradley, Children's Reading Problems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).