Have you tried this method of teaching spelling?


Sometimes I’m surprised at how children try to learn their spelling.  They show problems with writing, spelling and often other academic areas but also demonstrate inefficient strategies for learning.  Recently, a mom and her daughter showed me that when spelling had to be learned, the little girl had to write out the words several times – over and over again.  Does this work?  Not always – and it’s so tedious!  Mindless repetition (known as ‘rote learning’) does little to permanently anchor anything in long-term memory.  What is needed is active learning.


A good example of active learning applied to spelling is described by Don Blakerby in his interesting book ‘Rediscover the joys of learning.’[1]  Here is his explanation of why this is an effective method and a summary of the strategy he recommends (p.2-28).


All good spellers share one characteristic way of remembering words. They create a very clear internal picture of the word.  To teach them how to do this, follow these steps:

  1. Have the learner think about how to divide the word into syllables.  These don’t need to be the correct syllables because it is more important for the child to think how the word can be composed of several syllables.  For example, she may want to divide the word ‘tonight’ into to – ni – ght.  Then she looks at the word to try to remember what it looks like.  If the word is long, she might want to make a picture of each syllable and then put all the pictures together.  Ask her if she can see the word written on paper or a white/chalk board in her mind. If she says she can (as young children usually do because they have strong visual learning abilities) then you know you’re on the right track.
  2. When using this method, I find that it helps to have the child analyse the word and identify the possible problem syllables. In the above example, she might well realise that the ‘ght’ ending might cause problems.  This is part of the active learning as she is engaging with the learning material.
  3. Now, from her mental picture of the word, she should close her eyes and spell the words BACKWARDS (from right to left) out loud to you. Check that the spelling is correct and ask her to do this several times.
  4. Once she can spell it backwards, have her sound the word out while looking at the mental picture of the word.  This ‘hooks’ the sound of the word to the internal image of the word.
  5. Then ask her to spell it from left to right off the mental picture she has.
  6. At this stage, she can write it down – to practice the way she will have to spell it out for the spelling test.
  7. Go to the next spelling word and repeat these steps.


Once all the spelling words have been learned in this way, practice by choosing words off the list and asking the learner to spell them.  After practicing a word six to eight times, she should be able to just say the word, see the mental picture and spell it correctly without having to spell it backwards.  If this is done over a few days, the words should be saved in long-term memory.


You might want to practice this new strategy by beginning with small and more familiar words.  Gradually increase the size and complexity of the words on their spelling list.


Remember that the reason you have the learner spell the word backwards is to assure yourself and the learner that she has a clear mental picture of the word. They can’t smoothly spell the word backwards unless they can see it clearly.


As the learner develops her ability to visualise the words, she can drop the process of spelling it backwards because she will learn to know when she has a good picture.


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[1] Published in 1996 by SUCCESS SKILLS, Inc. www.nlpok.com

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