Teaching kids to spell is actually really fun, when you’re not using rote memorization, tons of sight words, and other stuff that just doesn’t work. I used to hate teaching kids to spell; in fact, I’m not sure I ever DID teach kids to spell. I used to mutter all the time, “Oh you’ll just have to memorize that.” I’d also say, “Ugh! So sorry! The English language is just silly.”
Spelling routines that are systematic and fun make a huge difference in kids’ ability to write AND read! Remember that encoding and decoding are intertwined completely.
If you’re in your thirties or forties, you probably weren’t taught phonics in any sort of meaningful way, because teachers are only JUST NOW being taught the science of reading (SOR). If you’re the mama to a struggling reader, you may not know much more than to say, “Sound it out!” And surprise – it doesn’t work very well.
When I learned the SOR, my eyes were opened to a whole new way of teaching phonics, and it actually works for every kid. It’s not another program, and it will not simply run its course until the next “fad” in education comes along.
For this post, I won’t be doing a deep dive into the science of reading, but I WILL show you the basics of a spelling routine that will help you in your class.
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- A Pop-It for each child in your small group (in a large group, finger tapping can work)
- Word lists – which I prefer to laminate, hole punch and put on a binder ring
- Magnatiles or Picasso Tiles (although you can easily substitute whiteboards or any other Expo-friendly surface)
- Expo markers and an eraser, tissue, or sleeve
It’s worth mentioning that I repeatedly call these “Magnatiles” throughout my post because that’s the easily recognizable, name-brand toy that many families already have at home. However, my set are Picasso tiles – linked here to Amazon – and they work perfectly for teaching spelling. They are half the price. My kids love playing with them at home, too, and I can’t imagine that the name brand ones are justified in being double the price.
Free Positive Affirmations PDFs that you can use in your classroom 🙂
1. Introduce the Spelling Pattern
Begin by choosing a spelling pattern to teach in your small group or class. I use a set of free materials I got from Thrive Literacy Corner. I simply joined her email list to gain access to her library of freebies, and you can, too! Here is the link.
Once you learn this spelling routine, your entire lesson plan is basically the same thing every time – just with different spelling patterns or “phonemes.”
Each time I teach a lesson, I just choose a phoneme to introduce. For example:
- /ow/ (as in bow, flow, mow)
- vowel-consonant-silent e (Note: I typically choose just one vowel to pair with the silent e – like made, shade, fade)
- any of the bossy Rs (/or/ for example: fork, pork, ordinary)
- /ue/ (blue, clue, due)
The options are endless, but those are just some examples.
Thrive Literacy Corner has word lists and phoneme lists to get you started. I printed all the word lists, laminated them, hole punched one corner, and put a binder ring on it.
To get started, I just flip to the chosen word list, and begin my spelling routine.
I also regularly refer to a page that has all the different vowel sounds sorted into columns (shown in the video below). For example, it shows all 8 ways to produce the long E sound in the yellow column. So when we’re looking at one of those ways (e.g. EY), I also show them the entire column of long E sounds to put it in context. I only teach one spelling pattern at a time, though, so it’s just a quick glance.
2. Say the Word
Okay, so you’ll say the word you want to spell together. Remember that you’re choosing one of the words from your list that all share the same spelling pattern.
Take a moment to put the word in context by using it in a sentence. The word demonstrated in my videos was slay, which uses the spelling pattern AY. I said “Our word is slay, as in slaying a dragon.”
3. Count Syllables
We begin by counting the syllables. This dictates how many Magnatiles each student receives.
You can see it in my multisyllabic video down below, but if the word is pillow, you would write PIL on the first tile and LOW on the second tile next to it. If it’s a single syllable word like SLAY, they write the entire word on one tile.
If you’re using whiteboards instead of Magnatiles, you can have them draw the number of boxes on their board that corresponds to the number of syllables. I always demonstrate for the kids on my whiteboard, since I’m able to write bigger on a board.
I think there are two good ways to count syllables:
- Finger tapping or clapping – this method works well and is commonly taught in the classroom. However, kids do tend to get clapping and tapping confused with segmenting sounds, which comes next in the routine. You’ll see them clapping syllables and clap way too many times because they are segmenting the word as they say it aloud. For this reason, I’m transitioning away from this method.
- Humming – I started using humming to count syllables because it’s less likely for them to confuse syllable counting with segmenting sounds this way. If you try to hum a word (keep your lips closed), you’ll naturally hum the number of syllables. Try saying your own name by humming, and you’ll see how it works!
Here are some more fun ways to count syllables. When students begin to get confused about counting syllables, we practice their own names, or just whatever funny words they come up with to try.
If you want to see how to do this with multi-syllable words, scroll down to section 6. I have a video for that.
How to Understand iStation Reports
4. Segment Sounds / Count Phonemes
Phonemes are just sounds in the English language.
Sometimes, one phoneme has two or more letters. Here are some examples:
- Eight – The word eight only has two phonemes: /eigh/ and /t/
- Cat – Cat has three phonemes, and it’s very straightforward: the /c/ sound, the short /a/ sound, and the /t/
- Book – Book has three phonemes: the /b/ sound, the /oo/ sound, and the /k/
- Slay – There are three sounds: /s/ and /l/ and also /ay/
So, the number of letters doesn’t correspond to the number of sounds.
Students get the hang of popping out sounds really quickly. They understand that really complicated vowel teams just represent one sound.
The hardest ones for them to segment are consonant blends. Words like SPLIT, which require them to separate three consonants in the beginning of the word seem to cause the most trouble. However, these words often need the most practice, anyway, so it’s great! We blend them so nicely when we speak, so it’s harder for them to break them back apart.
After they pop out the phonemes, I ask them to recall how many phonemes they counted. Some kids have to use their fingers to count afterwards if their math skills or short term memory is very weak. They write that many blanks on their Magnatile or whiteboard.
We often say the word as many as 5-10 words throughout the spelling routine because repetition helps them listen for sounds and letter patterns.
5. Identify Sounds / Write Phonemes
After they’ve written the correct number of blanks on their whiteboard or Magnatile, they begin to fill each blank with the correct letters. Sometimes it’s easy, and other times, we talk about how there are so many different ways to make a sound. We focus on mastery of the day’s skill, not perfect spelling – see bonus tips at the bottom of the post.
I often remind them of our spelling pattern as they are writing the word. We can put two letters on one space, because the spaces they have drawn on their tiles represent sounds, not letters. You will see that demonstrated in the video below.
Another challenge is when introducing the Bossy R (also known as r-controlled vowel). Kids will often leave off the vowel because when they say the word, they hear the sound /r/ and just record the letter. For example, they may write ELMR instead of ELMER because they hear the R sound.
Bossy R is hard to teach to spell, because /ir/ and /er/ and /ur/ all sound the same. It’s just memory, but that’s why we only practice ONE phoneme each day. The goal isn’t perfect spelling, but more fluent reading and confidence with writing.
This is a good time to remind them that every syllable must have a vowel. If they look at their Magnatile and don’t see a vowel, something is wrong.
Sick of a messy classroom!? Might be time to try something different and put those kids to work in a way that’s easier for YOU.
6. Repeat the Process with New Words
Now, you are going to go through the entire spelling routine again with additional words that all have the same spelling pattern. So if your pattern is /ay/, which says the long A sound, here are some other words that might be on your list.
- crayon (you’ll need two tiles) – see sample video below
- display (again, they’ll need two tiles) – see sample video below
Please do not teach /ai/ on the same day that you teach /ay/. Remember, the goal is to expose them to lots of words that share the same spelling pattern so they become more fluent readers and better spellers. Showing them a different pattern with the same sound will only confuse them.
If you’ve got only 8-10 minutes, you may only do 3-4 words. Your kids will get faster each time they practice the spelling routine.
If you’ve got more like 20 minutes, you’ll be able to do 7 or 8 words.
Example of a Multisyllabic Word – Entire Spelling Routine
7. Assess Mastery of the Spelling Pattern
It’s so important to assess at the end. Many students will follow along just great and develop some automaticity with writing on the tiles and going through the process as a group with the guidance of their teacher.
When you give your spelling test at the end, take away all supports and give them different words that share the same spelling pattern.
When you take away the Pop-Its and stop helping them segment the word, sometimes you realize they didn’t master the spelling pattern at all.
For example, the other day I introduced the pattern consonant LE that shows up at the end of multi-syllable words. For example, we practiced words like pickle, able, popsicle, angle, and puzzle.
At the end of the spelling routine, I took away the Pop-Its and Magnatiles, and gave them a spelling test on whiteboard using all different words of the same pattern. One of my students who did fine during the guided part of the spelling routine couldn’t apply the rule without my help at all. It’s a re-teach for that friend!
Here’s an example of how my spelling test looks at the end of our spelling routine. None of these words were taught, but the spelling pattern was practiced repeatedly. I also ask them to underline the spelling pattern of the day, which sometimes helps kids transfer their new knowledge to a different format.
Here is the super simple tracker that I use to document mastery of different sounds.
Here are 40 meaningful classroom jobs for kids.
Bonus Tips for Success
Here’s why this system works so well for me.
Lay the Ground Rules Before You Begin Your Spelling Routine
Before I ever start teaching, I give the kids a pep talk about the Pop-Its and Magnatiles being tools rather than toys. At home, we use these as toys, but when they’re learning to spell with them, they’re tools for success.
I keep things moving fast so there’s not much time for fidgeting.
We don’t skip steps, and we stick together. No working ahead just because they already know how to spell the word.
Choose Your Group Size Thoughtfully
This is a wonderful activity for small groups, and I prefer to stick with about 4 kids. However, I’ve used this spelling routine with an entire class. We used a class set of those plastic sleeves instead of Magnatiles, because that’s all I had in a large enough quantity. Instead of using Pop-Its, which would be expensive for a whole class, we simply tapped fingers to thumb to segment.
It worked great, but I had to be super strict about my expectations. We sat together on the carpet. Kids generally got one warning, but the moment they didn’t meet expectations the second time, they had to sit out for a bit. They love this activity so much that it usually only happened a couple of times before the whole class was doing great with the spelling routine.
Commit to the Assessment, Even When Pressed for Time
Whether your time available is 8 minutes or 20, you’ve got time for this spelling routine! You’ll just change up how many words you practice.
Shorten the lesson by practicing fewer words, not by dropping the assessment at the end. The assessment is a clear indicator of whether or not kids can actually apply and transfer what they’ve learned in guided practice.
Check out these tips for discovering any child’s strengths.
Focus on spelling improvements and pattern recognition, not perfection.
If your spelling pattern is correct, but the student missed other letters in the word, celebrate the improvement and mastery of today’s skill. The goal is not perfect spelling, the goal is pattern recognition and reading fluency.
There are times when you won’t be ready to teach a certain rule, but it comes up in the word you’re practicing that day. Focus on the spelling pattern of the day, but feel free to quickly introduce or remind kids of rules you know.
For example, with my second graders, a common mistake is substituting Cs and Ks. I will often have a moment to remind them, “Cs are more often at the beginning of a word and K is more often at the end.” It’s not a perfect rule, but it does help if they’re feeling unsure.
When something must be memorized by heart, I have them draw a heart over the letter.
Let’s imagine you’re practicing the long /o/ in your lesson. One of your words is photograph. As the child goes to split the word into three parts, they may write fo-to-graf on their three tiles.
Begin by celebrating the long O being correct, as that’s your sound of the day. Then, cheerfully remind the kids that sometimes a /f/ sound is made with a ph. Have them erase, re-write correctly, and draw hearts over the ph.
I hope that helps you establish a new spelling routine in your classroom and with your intervention groups. It has made a huge difference in my confidence with teaching reading and writing, and it makes me happy to see their eyes light up.