Spelling SOS

Spellings.

Ugh.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this one for a long time. I’ve been the wretched woman who weekly sends home the list of doom and I’ve been the mother despairing over ‘autumn’ with a 5 year old. In a bid to make amends for the former, below are a few ideas I use to make the process less painful. I’m about to start a lunchtime spelling skills club – they’ll be queuing round the block to get in, I would imagine: these are the activities we’ll be doing.

Spelling is one of those infuriating things that some people can do with ease and some can take an enormous amount of effort and time to achieve the same, or sometimes, less pleasing results. It’s grossly unfair. A learning difference such as dyslexia can make it much harder to learn spellings, as can difficulties in short term working memory, or indeed long term memory. It’s so easy to become disheartened and remembering that loads of total brainboxes find spelling hard doesn’t really help, but it should.

I suggest to my class that they prioritise, say, five of the spellings if they’re finding them tricky – find the five that are most likely to come up in their writing and really focus on those. Have a look at them all but spend most time on those that will be of the most use – the average junior will get more mileage out of ‘subheading’ than ‘subdivide’. Better to have learned five properly than ten ‘almost’, I would say.

Putting the words into context won’t help with learning the spelling, but it will make it all a better use of your time. Knowing how to spell ‘hindrance’ without knowing the meaning is a bit like owning a fancy pair of shoes two sizes too small: great… but ultimately pointless. Unless your little badger is a real keen bean, I wouldn’t bother writing these down, but asking for a sentence with the word in when they spell it will definitely help.

As teachers we always try to think about how different pupils learn, and it’s believed they broadly fall into three overlapping camps: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. There’s a more comprehensive run down elsewhere, one would hope, but essentially visual learners will need to see spellings written down, auditory learners will need to hear a word spelled aloud and kinaesthetic learners will need to do some fiddling whilst practising to help it stick.

In my experience, auditory learners are the least common – thinking of the level of diligence my own badgers show in absorbing my loving instruction, this is hardly a surprise.

Almost all children will benefit from some kinaesthetic action (pardon the pun), so quite a lot of my suggestions below encourage this. Should you really find yourselves at a loose end, there is a quiz here that will help decide what learning style suits your little speller best, but you’ve probably got a fair idea anyway.

In a zoological conundrum, my littlest badger has been acting as guinea pig – with great enthusiasm at first, soon leading to great reluctance, of course. I gave her a word that was fiendishly tricky for a six year old – ‘physical’ – and had her work through lots of these techniques. She can now spell ‘physical’. It’s not something that’s going to be cropping up much in her writing I don’t think – we’re struggling to work it into conversation – but a week on and she can still spell it accurately first time, every time.


Matches: Spelling lists are usually themed, perhaps with the same prefix or suffix, so a good start might be highlighting the similarities in the list. If you know all words end in ‘-ation’ you’re halfway home.

Mnemonics: There are the classics of course: Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants has helped untold numbers of nippers with spelling ‘because’ correctly, but making up your own (ideally with a slightly risqué leaning – anything involving poo or bottoms seems especially memorable) is good for any words that are proving particularly troubling.

Transferring: Copying out the words using something with a novelty factor like stampers or stencils is a good trick. It takes quite a bit of concentration and repetition to find the right letter. Scrabble tiles or magnetic letters  are great too. Transferring the info from a page into a different medium is a good way of helping kinaesthetic learning. Novel stationery like invisible ink pens or just something a bit fancy that is only used for spelling will make the ordeal a little more appealing as well.

Staircases: There’s probably a proper name for this technique, but I’ve been using it for so long I’ve forgotten what it is. Essentially it is the copying out of a word starting with the first letter on the first line; the first and second letter directly beneath on the second line; the first, second and third below on the third line and so on. The repetition helps it stick.

Other ideas:

  • Anagrams – either giving a jumble of Scrabble tiles or similar, or writing them down
  • Errors: Write them incorrectly and ask your small person to correct them. Using the Tippex mouse rollers makes this an overwhelming opportunity for my class.
  • Wordsearches: – quite often these will get sent home from school with spellings but you (or, more likely, your tutee) can make your own here.
  • Online games: Obvs, all children embrace any opportunity to use an iPad legitimately and Look, cover, spell, check or Spooky spellings are both great games, suitable for all primary age children.
  • Post-its – having the trickiest words displayed around the house on door handles, bathroom mirrors, wardrobes – anywhere – will help. Familiarity may breed contempt, but in this case it may also breed familiarity.

I hope these are of use – I’d love to hear any other ideas.

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