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To Spell or Not to Spel? Creating a Just-Right Spelling Program

By Alycia Zimmerman on September 12, 2012
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

Spelling and I do not get along. If I didn’t keep a dictionary at my knee during class lessons, post words on the class word wall for my benefit, and worship at the shrine of the squiggly red line under my typos, I don’t know how I’d survive in this biz.

So it’ll come as little surprise that I deeply feel for the poor little spellers in my class. I really want to help them improve, and to do so with as little pain and suffering as possible. Humiliating class spelling bees? Been there, done that — no thanks!

While I’ll gladly admit that spelling doesn’t rank up there with the higher-order thinking skills that I most value, I’ve learned the hard way in my life that spelling does matter. Despite what they say, people do judge a book by its cover, and when it comes to writing, spelling makes an impression. And yes, dictionaries, spell-check, and Google searches are all an enormous help, but we still need to have a basic grasp of spelling so that we can best use these tools.


Spelling . . . The Great Debate!

Have I convinced you that spelling is worth some time in your class? Don’t be swayed too easily. It turns out that there is a lot of research out there against traditional spelling instruction. A lot of smart folks, backed by statistical analysis, will tell you that spelling lessons are a waste of time and that weekly word lists aren’t retained after the test on Friday. Spelling is a contentious topic, and it feels as though everyone has an opinion!

When I first started teaching, I used the antispelling studies to support my slovenly, nonexistent approach to spelling instruction. Over time, I came to realize that I was letting my students down. Our students deserve the chance to learn to spell properly (at the developmentally appropriate time) and to learn about spelling within the context of a complete literacy program. They need to learn the rules that support correct spelling, and it helps when this instruction is systematic and contextual.

With wide-ranging spelling needs in a single classroom, spelling instruction must be differentiated. Even our Word Wall demonstrates the range of spelling mastery among the students.


Spelling Instruction, My Way

I’d like to steer clear of the spelling wars and share my middle-of-the-road approach to spelling instruction. Let me preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert on this subject. There are many talented educators who have created research-backed word study programs. (See the brief suggested bibliography at the end of this post.) I am not one of those people. I am simply a teacher who has cobbled together a system that works for me and my students, within the time crunch of my daily schedule. Feel free to adopt it, adapt it, or toss it. I’m convinced that with spelling, there simply isn’t one right way!

(Like so many teachers, I owe a huge debt to Beth Newingham. A lot of my spelling program is an adaptation of her word study program. See her blog post "Word Study in Action" to read about the original.)


Two Spelling Lists in One

While my students do have weekly spelling words, the lists take a two-pronged approach. Half of the list has individualized sight words, frequently misspelled words, or content area words. The other half of the list contains individually selected “pattern words” that follow our word study pattern for the week. Let me describe how this works in action.


The ABCs of My Differentiated Approach to Spelling

 Beginning of the Year Preassessment for Frequently Used Words

To begin, I do an inventory of all of the high frequency and commonly misspelled words that my students don’t yet know. This means two solid weeks of testing thirty words each day. I know it’s a lot, but we grin and bear it. It’s also good listening practice.

Below are the Spelling Inventory forms that I use for assessing my students on those 300 words:

Download my Spelling Inventory forms.

Below are the lists of 300 frequently used words that I use for my initial spelling inventory. I culled these words from Dolch lists, sight word lists, and more. This is hardly definitive, but I felt these were a good start for my students. You can certainly make up your own lists.


Download my 300 Frequently Used Words lists.

After each day of preassessing thirty words, I highlight each of the words that the students spelled correctly on their personalized Frequently Used Word lists. Yes, this is a big job! I am grateful to my student teachers, my former students, and my husband, all of whom have helped me with this. While all of this assessment and paperwork is a pain in the neck (I but speak the truth!), it is really the only way to make sure that the words my students study each week are ones they do not yet know. And to me, this is worth the effort. A spelling program that has students “practicing” words they already know just seems pointless.

Michael's word list has the words he already knows highlighted. He'll study the other words.

 Frequently Used Words, Week by Week

Once all 300 words are preassessed, the students keep their personal word inventories in their reading binders. Each week, they choose four words to study that they have not yet mastered from the list (unhighlighted words). They record these four words on their weekly spelling list. (Download the Weekly Spelling List template.)  This means that each student will most likely have four different words from all of the other students. This isn’t a problem, since my students give their spelling partners their weekly spelling tests at the end of the week.

Students pick four new "Frequently Used Words" to add to their spelling list each week.

Once our writer’s workshop is well under way, students also record words that they misspell during their writing on this “Words to Learn” form. They may also choose from these words, in addition to the words on their Frequently Used Words list, for their four weekly spelling words.

Later on during the year, some of my students entirely complete the first two Frequently Used Words lists. I then offer this advanced word list; however, I also encourage these students to use more words from their reading and writing to supplement the lists. (For additional advanced word lists, see Systematic Word Study for Grades 46 by Cheryl M. Sigmon.)


 Choosing Weekly Pattern Words

In addition to learning four high frequency words each week, my students also learn six words that fit the pattern or spelling rule for the week. This ties into the word study part of my spelling program.

Each week I choose a pattern for my class to study based on my observations of their reading and writing and by using the pattern lists in Words Their Way and Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades by Wiley Blevins.

I prepare a pretest with six relatively simple words that fit the spelling pattern, as well as a “shopping list” of more advanced words that fit the pattern. I write the correct spelling of the six simple words on the right side of the pretest page and leave the left side of the page blank. (Download a blank spelling pretest template.)

The spelling pretest page has all of the pattern words on the right-hand side.

 The Weekly Pattern Word Pretest

On Monday, my students take a pretest for the spelling pattern of the week. I place the pretest page inside a “pretester.” To create a pretester, I simply cut half of a manila folder apart, staple one edge, and voilà: a low-budget pretest device! 



The Spelling Pretester in action. It covers the words while the students take the pretest.

I dictate the six simple pattern words for the week. After the dictation, the students pull the pretest page out of the pretester folder and check their own work. They circle the words they misspelled and carefully transfer those words to their spelling list for the week.

If they spelled one or more words correctly, they choose alternate pattern words from the “shopping list” of challenging words. My students love having a role in choosing their words, and I feel better knowing that their words for the week are fairly differentiated.

Students make sure that they have a total of six pattern words to study during the week.

 A Week of Practice

With their list of ten individualized words in hand, my students choose from a menu of activities to do in studying their words during the week. Here is a list of some possible activities. We also do pattern hunts and word sorts, and practice the spelling pattern in class throughout the week.

Students need in-class practice with the word study patterns, in addition to the work they do at home.

 The Post-Test

At the end of the week, students take a post-test on their ten words for the week. I dictate all of the pattern spelling words from both the simple list and the advanced shopping list. Students listen for their own words and write these words on their test paper.

Then students pass their spelling list from the week to their partner, and the partner dictates the four individual high frequency words. We practice this testing routine, and I closely monitor the students while they test each other. However, I think that having the students test each other also sends an important message about trust and the purpose of these tests. It isn’t to try to “catch” the students. By working with a classmate partner, hopefully students realize that these tests are entirely for their own benefit!

After I check the tests and return them to the students, they highlight any Frequently Used Words that they spelled correctly on their master inventory. This indicates that they have “passed out” of this word. If the student misspelled a word on the test, it will be added to their Words to Learn inventory for the following week.


Resources to Support or Develop a “Just Right” Spelling Program

It took me years to develop a spelling routine that I was comfortable with, and honestly, this is still very much a work in progress. I have read extensively about different approaches to word study, and I’ve blended a lot of the ideas in these books to develop a program that works for my class. As I read more and new research comes out, I’ll continue to revise and refine how I teach word study and spelling in my class. Here are just a few of the books that I’ve used to learn about word study programs.


Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades: A Complete Sourcebook by Wiley Blevins — This weighty tome spells out a lot of theory, in addition to providing exhaustive word lists of all sorts.






Systematic Word Study for Grades 4–6: An Easy Weekly Routine for Teaching Hundreds of New Words to Develop Strong Readers, Writers, and Spellers by Cheryl Sigmon — There are versions of this book for each grade band. This provides 35 weeks of daily word study instruction organized by themes.





The Spelling List and Word Study Resource Book: Organized Spelling Lists, Greek and Latin Roots, Word Histories and Other Resources for Dynamic Spelling and Vocabulary Instruction by Mary Jo Fresch and Aileen Wheaton — In addition to providing a large collection of phonetically organized word lists, this book also focuses on the etymology of words, as well as basic word parts.




How do you tackle spelling instruction in your classroom? Do you have a resource to recommend? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (2)

Thank you very much for sharing this resource! This is my third year teaching and until now, I simply haven't been in the frame of mind to figure out how to differentiate spelling for my kids. I've asked co-workers and I never get a straight answer on how they do it in their classroom. This resource is organized well and easy to understand. So, thank you SO much! I can't wait to implement this with my 3rd graders!


Thank you SOOO much for sharing this blog post just in time! I am teaching a 2/3 blend this year and was wondering how to best adapt my spelling program (I too used Beth's spelling ideas). I love how you have a word shopping list, but also LOVE your pretest folders! What a wonderful way to put the students in charge of their learning and make things simpler for the teacher! Love, Love, Love!

- Elizabeth

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