Spelling: Impact of Memory, Language and Attention

Spelling words correctly on spelling tests, final drafts of stories, reports, and essays is fundamental to being a successful student. One of the foundations of spelling, which also helps students master the challenges of reading, is the development of phonemic awareness, the awareness of the sounds that make up words. This is because many words are spelled the way they sound.

Students may learn to spell some words by learning and then applying simple rules, such as "i before e except after c." Another way to manage spelling demands is by asking students to determine if the word looks correct or is a good visual approximation. For example, the word "fight" should have three letters taller than the rest. Often students do not have the luxury of a computer spell-check and need to be able to remember the right spelling quickly and efficiently. Even using a spell-check program or dictionary can be difficult if students are not able to produce a close approximation to the real spelling.

There are many strategies for becoming a better speller, with direct instruction in spelling being most important for students who continue to have spelling difficulties.

Here are some strategies to develop and strengthen students' spelling skills.

Helpful Hints

  • Do not have students learn too many new words at one time. This can be overwhelming for students, especially if multiple rules are taught at the same time. For example, the word endings for action, suspicion, and suspension all sound the same, but are spelled differently. For some students, it is easier if they practice these rules one at a time.  
  • Teach students how to use a computer spell-check program. Use other computer software such as Co:Writer and Write:OutLoud, which allow a student to attempt the first letters of words when writing and the program will predict what the student is trying to say and give a short list of possible words. This can encourage students to use larger, more sophisticated vocabulary that they would likely have trouble spelling. It also will read the list of words and the complete sentence when finished so that the writer can auditorily proof his writing.  
  • It can be helpful for some students to make up songs for spelling rules.  
  • Using sensory approaches to practicing spelling words can help some students. For example, tracing spelling words in sand or salt. Some students may enjoy using magnetic or felt letters to spell words. This can help students practice spelling words without having the added demand of writing them on paper.  
  • Students should be encouraged to write their ideas down first and not worry about spelling. By staging the writing task, students can focus more on generating and organizing their ideas, and less on if every word is spelled correctly. When students are done revising their story, essay, or report for content, then they can go back and check their spelling.  
  • Teach spelling as part of a larger lesson/activities/methods  
  • Practice letter sounds  
  • Have students make their own dictionary of most commonly misspelled words. They can keep this at their desk to refer to while they are editing their writing.  
  • Students should be shown strategies for looking up words in a dictionary when they are not sure how to spell them. This can be difficult for students to do if they have trouble sounding out the different sounds of a word.