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Teacher to Teacher: Helping Students Spell

by Lynne R. Dorfman

How many times have you observed writers in your classroom who do not seem to know what to do when they want to use a word in their writing but do not know immediately how to spell it?  Do some of your students just stop writing when they are stuck on spelling?  How often do your students substitute another word they know how to spell for a more difficult word that is not part of their spelling vocabulary?

Kindergarten students are often fearless about spelling. They learn to use the consonant sounds they hear in a word, especially the initial and final consonants. Vowels are tricky, and come much later in the kindergarten year or in the first grade. Invented spelling plays a big part in the work of a primary level writing workshop. Minilessons involve teaching students to stretch out words to hear all the sounds and blend them together, writing down the letters for the sounds they hear. Primary grade teachers often offer some strategies to help students spell tricky words.

Kindergarten teacher Shelly Keller celebrates students’ attempts to spell tricky words independently during writing workshop. As she circulates for roving conferences, she takes note of her students’ spelling attempts and sends one or two students each day to fill in the chart with their kid spelling. If it matches the adult spelling, the students fill in that column, too. If not, Shelly fills in the adult spelling. The students often will edit without being asked to do so. Friday is a time to celebrate these writers with a silent cheer at the end of writing workshop. Then, a new chart goes up for the next week. Shelly is celebrating risk-taking and using invented spelling to communicate ideas with words her students want to use without limiting their choice to words they are sure they know how to spell.


Rose Cappelli once told me to use index cards when I was clipboard cruising in kindergarten through second grade classes to be able to write down words the students may need in their writing. I would tell the students that if they were stuck, I would give them the spelling of the word by writing it down for them on the index card. They could ask me for two words – one for the front of the card and one written on the back – but that was their limit. Writing the words for the students saved me a lot of time and helped me confer with more students!

For our older students, it is a good idea to occasionally have writerly conversations about spelling. An anchor chart can record their collective thinking as the student writers discuss whether spelling should be an important consideration when they write or what strategies they use when they are trying to spell a difficult word. Tools such as colored pencils, spell checkers, dictionaries, thesauruses, and “reading the room” as a source of environmental print can be explored.  Teach students to use “sp” above a word or circle it if they will need more help so they do not interrupt their process.

Always encourage student writers to slow down and think about how a word should be spelled.  Sometimes, it is a good idea to rely on visual memory.  Diane Snowball & Faye Bolton (1999) talk about the “Have-a-Go Strategy.”  Students write a word three different ways until they find one that looks right.  They make a choice and move on with the writing of the piece.  Advise upper elementary school students to use the margins of the writing piece to have-a-go rather than go elsewhere.  When a student needs to spell a tricky word, he should think about what he already knows – sight words, familiar spelling patterns, and words the class has studied across the content areas.

Writing Project fellow Jim MacCall once said that we should call invented spelling “engineered spelling.”  I would certainly agree!  Jim shared that the process for invented spelling is very sophisticated indeed. It requires students to use their developing linguistic knowledge and visual memory to take risks and spell words they choose to use to write their stories, poems, and opinions.  Engineered spelling is an important step in our students’ developmental process to acquire writing fluency and spelling skills.

How do you help your students gain strategies for spelling?

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature 

lynne-headshot3Project. She will begin work on a new book about writing 

workshop for Stenhouse Publishers with co-author 

Stacey Shubitz this January.


6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I was looking for this kind of information for a long time. I find it very informative. Share some more tips to learn spellings easily.
    spelling practice


    June 9, 2017
  2. beccaswordbeat #

    I never really thought about how young writers are so “fearless” with spelling and then as we grow older we tend to avoid words we are uncomfortable spelling–I know I am guilty of that! I feel like as I got older and went through elementary school and on, there was a focus on spelling to some degree but maybe not enough. I like your ideas about encouraging students to slow down and work through the words that prove to be more challenging. I am sure there are many more tricks that can be carried through the years as students progress as writers. Thank you for sharing your ideas!


    November 29, 2016
  3. Jade Eberle #

    Thank you for this post. I am a pre-service teacher and I know that spelling is going to be an issue when I begin teaching. Despite being a secondary teacher, I still have observed students who do not know how to spell. They do what you stated above, substitute an easier word in for the word that they wanted to use. Part of this, I believe, is because they do not want to take the time to attempt to spell out the word. Another part is perhaps an uneasiness of being wrong. I know in the high school level, it kills some students when they end up being wrong. Even with the incorporation of technology which supposedly can correct all spelling mistakes, students still can spell words wrong. Hey, I even do it.

    In the case of teaching upper-level students, I believe it is a matter of telling students that it is okay to mess up spelling. It happens to everyone. Don’t run from a word because it is too hard. Embrace that word and learn how to spell it. Also, I cannot just give my students the correct spelling to words. In order for them to learn, they need to try it themselves. Make students accountable for their learning, and they are more likely to succeed.

    Thank you so much for this post! It really helped me to think more on spelling in the classroom.


    November 29, 2016
  4. Tara #

    Thanks for sharing so many great ideas. I teach 2nd grade and always encourage the students to “stretch” out the word if they get stuck. I also feel that when students stop because of spelling it interrupts their story and fluency. We also use the Wilson Fundations Program which encourages the students to write a tricky word a couple different ways and see what way looks the best. I like the idea you mentioned about putting “sp” above a word that might be misspelled. I will pass this idea along to my fellow teachers.



    November 6, 2016
  5. janiceewing #

    Many teachers have shared with me that spelling issues interfere with some of their students’ fluency during writing workshop. I’ll share this post with them. I love Shelly’s chart strategy! I wonder if the teacher modeling his or her own writing, with a few spelling errors (we all have our spelling demons), marking them with ‘sp’ and then going back to correct would help as well.


    November 2, 2016
    • Thanks, Janice. Yes! Modeling our own attempts to spell words we may not know how to spell in a writing piece is a great way to move our student writers forward. Spelling problems can definitely interfere with writing fluency and sometimes lead to frustration and inability to finish a complete text. Students need to be able to rely on several strategies to work through the spelling of unfamiliar and/or difficult words. With some strategies to use, our student writers can feel more confident and empowered to use words that may be part of their oral vocabulary, but not yet a part of their written work.


      November 3, 2016

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