the wrong way to learn spelling words and how to do it right

Almost every child in elementary school comes home with spelling words each week. They might be called something different, but they are still a list of words that they will be tested on by Friday. The way kids learn spelling has changed a lot since we were kids. There is a completely different philosophy regarding spelling and in my opinion, it is an appropriate change that I could not agree with more. I am a big fan of current spelling pedagogy. 

the wrong way

Most parents see a list of spelling words and think, “let’s get memorizing!” Yes, that is how we learned our spelling words in the 90s, but that is not how it’s done now. If you want your child to be a successful speller and reader, you will want to avoid memorization. That means avoiding all activities that are based in memorization. For example, writing each word ten times, rainbow writing, fancy writing, etc. Anything that involves writing or reciting to memorize, is something to avoid. It’s true that doing these activities will help your child to learn how to spell the words on their list. But that is it. Instead, read on to see how correctly exploring that small list of words can actually help your child learn how to spell hundreds of words…


While we never want kids to memorize their spelling words, there is one exception: sight words/high frequency words. These are words that follow irregular spelling patterns or are very frequently occurring. These words do in fact need to be memorized and this is the perfect time to break out those fun memorizing activities like rainbow writing! Usually, the spelling list will indicate which words are sight words, but if not, ask your child, or email your child's teacher for clarification. You can also identify the sight words yourself by checking for irregular spelling patterns or high frequency words (I, am, see, if).

the right way

Instead of memorizing spelling words, we want kids to learn spelling through patterns. The majority of words have patterns and the exceptions are sight words. It’s important for kids to learn spelling through patterns because they can then generalize that pattern to many other words. If your child simply memorizes how to spell ‘tap,’ then she can spell ‘tap.’ If your child explores the ‘ap’ pattern as a way to learn how to spell ‘tap,’ then she can also spell, ‘lap, cap, rap, map, nap, gap, sap, zap.’ There are so many wonderful spelling activities that are pattern focused. These activities are fun and are the best way to ‘learn’ spellings words. Not only will this help our kids to spell many more words, it will help them to understand the composition of words and various other reading/writing skills such as phonemic awareness, blending, segmenting, encoding, and decoding. 


Here are some of my favorite ways to learn spelling words the right way…

Word Sorting

Word sorting allows kids to group the words based on pattern and this helps them to more clearly see and understand the pattern. There are a bunch of different ways to sort words…

1. Cut out words (or write on index cards) and sort words by pattern. Arrange them in columns to clearly see all the words that share the same pattern.

2. Timed Sort. My students always loved this. Follow the same steps as above, except this time, time your child (or have him time himself). Then, have your child do this several more times, trying to beat his best time. 

3. Blind Sort. Don’t let your child look at the word. Simply say the word and have your child place it under the correct heading. This reinforces the pattern sound.

4. Written Sort. Instead of manipulating the words or index cards, have your child write the pattern headings (ex. ap, at, in, ip) at the top of a paper and then write each spelling word underneath the correct heading.

Word Hunts

My students also really loved word hunts. On a paper, have your child write the headings for each pattern. Then, your child can search through any print (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) to find words that fit those patterns and record them under the correct headings.

Write and Highlight

What kid doesn’t love using a highlighter? Offer a variety of brightly colored highlighters and have your child write their spelling words and then go back and highlight the pattern in each word. 

Nonsense Words

Nonsense words are made-up, fake words, but they follow common spelling patterns. Examples would be: wap, rin, lep. Kids are actually assessed on their ability to read nonsense words (this is called nonsense word fluency) and it is a great indicator of early reading ability. 

Have your child write headings for each pattern. Underneath each heading, have your child list as many nonsense words as he can think of. For example, if one of the patterns/headings is ‘ap,’ underneath I would list, ‘wap, bap, dap, fap, hap.’ You could also extend this by including some blends or digraphs: ‘thap, brap.’


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An education blog created by Kim. A former elementary school teacher turned stay-at-home mom. Useful tips and tricks from a teacher to parents.

2 thoughts on “the wrong way to learn spelling words and how to do it right

  1. I think teachers need to give a combination of word patter spelling and sight word spelling. So many times I hear teachers saying they expect children to know their sight words for reading and spelling, but never have them master the spelling part. I truly believe we do this backwards. When children learn to write these words they are more likely to be able to read them, where as expecting them to write something just because they can read it doesn’t work.

    1. I agree. Every week my students had 10 pattern words and 5 sight words. They needed to be able to read AND spell them.

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