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What Doesn't Work in Teaching Spelling

What doesn't work in teaching spellingWhen evaluating methods of teaching spelling, we obviously look at what works—but it is just as important to take a look at what doesn’t work. Here is what you want to avoid in a spelling program.

The spelling program should not rely on visual memorization of whole words.

One spelling series suggests that the teacher have the students look at the whole word and try to spell it. There is no teaching of phonograms, rules, roots, suffixes, or other word knowledge. Just look at the word and spell it, letter by letter.

Another exercise has the students trace boxes around the spelling words to help them memorize the shape of the word. How many words do you think you could memorize in this way? How many of those words would you still remember in a month? This method is related to the look-say method of reading. One text reasoned that the Chinese use symbols to represent words, and so our students can learn words in much the same way as Chinese students learn word symbols. This reasoning completely ignores the fact that we have a reliable phonetic system for spelling, and we should not ignore it to our students’ detriment.

The spelling program should not contain rules that are not true.

How many of you have been taught the rule “When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking”? There are more words that don’t follow this “rule” than words that do—bread, feud, about, boil, eight, you, and hundreds more.

Another false rule is “When a word has only one vowel, the vowel sound is short.” Is that really so? What about the words we, he, she, I, go, no, so, hi, and a?

The correct rule should be:

     a) An open vowel is long. (Show that an open vowel has no consonant after it, as in we and apron.)
     b) A closed vowel is short. (Show that a closed vowel is followed by a consonant, as in bin and glad.)

If you teach the real rule, the student can apply it to thousands of words and use it for the rest of his life.

The spelling program should not teach words as a mere string of letters.

You will recognize this approach when the teacher leads the students in a chant through the week’s spelling list:  "double. . . . . d-o-u-b-l-e. . . . . . army. . . . . a-r-m-y. . . . . fruit. . . . . f-r-u-i-t."

The spelling program should not overemphasize word families.

You will recognize this method when you see exercises such as “Write the spelling words that end in –an.”

What doesn't work in teaching spellingWhy should we not emphasize word families? The student’s eye should start at the beginning of the word and move to the end of the word. Encouraging his eye to start at the end of the word and then jump back to the beginning of the word is reinforcing the wrong eye movement. We don’t want to reinforce dyslexic tendencies. 

That said, after the student has learned the word pan, it is a good thing if he realizes that he can also spell the words van and ran. But keep the emphasis moving from left to right.

The spelling program should not teach blends as separate units.

Some examples of consonant blends are str, pl, sm, thr, and br. Why should a student have to learn dozens of such blends? If he is taught the 72 basic phonograms, he can segment words and easily spell the blends by sounding them out. Valuable instruction time does not need to be spent on teaching blends, when all it will do is needlessly complicate the spelling process.

Avoid programs that teach all the spellings of a sound at one time.

For example, the sound of long a can be spelled a (as in apron), a-consonant-e (as in lake), ai (as in nail), ay (as in hay), ey (as in they), ei (as in their), eigh (as in eight), or ea (as in great). It is confusing to the student to learn all of the possible spellings at once. Instead, move from the simple to the complex:

  • In one lesson, teach that vowels say their name at the end of a syllable (as in a-pron).
  • In another lesson, teach that Silent E makes vowels say their name (as in lake).
  • Teach the vowel pairs ai and ay, and the rule that ai is used within a word and ay is generally used at the end of a word.
  • After these spelling patterns are firm in the student’s mind, move on to teach the other spellings for long a, one at a time.

Avoid programs that have no system for review.

If there is no consistent review, the student will forget a big part of what he is taught, and this is frustrating for both the teacher and the student.

The spelling program should not contain time wasters and page fillers.

Workbooks filled with activities like crossword puzzles, word searches, and writing the words X number of times do nothing but waste valuable teaching and learning time. If an equivalent amount of time is spent on explicit instruction, your student will learn much more. If your student enjoys these activities, by all means encourage him, as children can and do learn from them—but don’t let those activities take the place of direct teaching.


Take a close look at the spelling program you are considering. Don’t assume that if it is published by a big-name publisher that it is free of these problems. I have in front of me right now several widely-known programs used in public schools, private schools, and home schools, and each one of them has flaws large enough that they couldn’t be recommended.