“Teacher, how do you spell (insert any word here)?”
If you teach kindergarten or first grade, it’s a question you likely hear all. the. time!
I know we wish we could clone ourselves during writing time so we could sit with each student and help them with their spelling, BUT of course we can’t. If we really could clone ourselves, though, I’d probably opt for other tasks: cleaning, cooking, laundry… but I digress.
Since we can’t sit with everyone at once, we need to teach them to become independent with spelling strategies. The earlier you teach your students spelling strategies, the more. . . independent they will be when writing!
Below are some strategies that are helpful for early writers. I can’t say enough how important it is to model each one several times, as well as refer to an anchor chart to find the strategy that would help. Read the end of the post for tips on creating an anchor chart to help your students become independent spellers.
And, be sure to grab this spelling strategies anchor chart freebie at the bottom of this post!
spelling strategies for early writers:
Stretch it Out
Of course, this is probably the most popular strategy we teach our students. And with good reason; if they learn to stretch out a word and isolate the sounds, their spelling will surely be more accurate. Read how I “speak whale” to help emergent writers stretch out words.
Use a Word Wall
You likely have some kind of word wall in your room, whether for sight words, vocabulary, theme words, or sound word wall. Are you using it effectively, though, or is it like wallpaper or other décor- pretty to look at but unused? Model using it, play games with it, refer to it so that children get used to using it when they need. For more ideas, read this blog post about how to use your word wall effectively so that it doesn’t become wallpaper.
Try 3 Ways
This is one of my favorites. Often, kids have seen the word they want to spell before! Sometimes just seeing the word can trigger the memory. So, teach them to write the word 3 times on a post-it note, using all they know about different ways to make the sounds. Then, look for which one looks right. Many students will be able to figure it out themselves!
Use an Alphabet or Sound Chart
Sometimes kids know the sound, but can’t remember the letter that makes it OR what that letter looks like. A reminder of this reference tool may be the nudge they need.
Think of a Word You Know
This is such a helpful strategy that kids often forget to use. A simple reminder that it rhymes with a word they know leads them to figure it out.
Or, they can listen for a part they know, for example if they’re trying to spell the word this, they can think of the word the to spell the /th/ sound.
Identify the Base Word
Oh my goodness, is this a big one! If I had a dime for every time I said, “Think of the base word,” . . . well, you get it.
Isolating the base word (in a word with a suffix, of course) helps kids hear the final sound and also remember to add the suffix correctly.
Take the word wanted. You don’t hear the /t/ when you say it (or maybe that’s just a NY example ?!), but when you remove the –ed, you can clearly hear it. Same with the /k/ in asked.
Also, if kids know that ed can sometimes sound like /t/ or /d/, they’re more likely to spell it ed when they’ve written down the base word first. Otherwise, they might spell it playd, dresst, or jumpt.
Reread after Spelling
After students do any writing, I ask them to reread to make sure it makes sense and do any editing. Teach kids to reread tricky words especially. Model sliding your finger under the word you wrote to read it phonetically, making sure every sound is accounted for.
Find or Count the Vowels
Every word must have a vowel. It’s something I drill into my kindergartners and I change it to Every syllable must have a vowel when we become more advanced with our writing. After writing a tricky word, get your kids in the habit of checking for the vowels. Does the number of vowels match the number of syllables?
Here’s a fun little game to drill this concept. Tell your students they’ll earn some free time if they can give you a word that doesn’t need a vowel (be sure to exclude sound words like shhhh and brrrr!). As they give you words, write them and ask them to find the vowels. After a few, tell them it’s because Every word must have a vowel!
Note: If they give you a word like my or cry, you’ll have to go over how the letter Y can sometimes be a vowel if you haven’t taught that yet.
Break it up into Syllables
You know that trick some joggers do where they set a “goal marker” to run to, then when they reach it, they set another, then another? This makes it easier to run a mile without giving up (or maybe that’s just me).
Just like I get overwhelmed by the thought of running a mile non-stop (don’t judge me), many kids get daunted when attacking longer words. Even if they don’t, they’ll often omit some sounds when they try to stretch out the entire word at once.
Breaking up a word into syllables is a huge help for early writers. We say the whole word, clap for each syllable in the word, then clap again and say just the first syllable. Then, tap out that syllable and write it. Clap the second syllable. tap it out, and write, etc.
Writing it by syllables helps kids hear and record letter(s) for each sound. For one-syllable words, breaking it up into onset and rime is helpful too, but is difficult for early writers to do.
Learning about syllable types can also help with spelling. Read my post on tricks for teaching the 6 syllable types.
Think of a Rule
Digraphs, bonus letters, ck rule, silent e. These are phonics skills and rules you’ll likely teach your students in kindergarten and first grade. Remembering these rules will help your students with their spelling as well.
Students who Struggle
If students are having a particularly hard time with spelling, one skill they need more practice with may be oral segmenting. Start with segmenting compound words and syllables: say cupcake and have the child say cup-cake. Then, use words with 2 phonemes (sounds): me, who, knee. Increase to 3 sounds, etc as they get better with isolating each sound. Learning to break apart a word into individual sounds can be challenging for many kids so segmenting practice is a big help.
Also, consider your phonics instruction. I know most teachers use the program given by their district so you have limited control over this. Evaluate the program to see if there are gaps in phonics skills. Does it teach phonics skills in a logical order? Does the pace allow enough time for kids to master a skill before moving on? Does it include assessments to confirm that kids are mastering the skills? If not, how can you address these gaps in small groups?
Putting it all Together
All of these spelling strategies will be useless unless kids remember to use them. One of my favorite ways to help kids remember to use strategies is using anchor charts. I have a post with tons of tips for creating anchor charts (and a freebie).
A Spelling Strategies anchor chart will make a great reference tool. Make it together, adding strategies as you model them. When it’s complete, keep it up in your room for easy access. You can also take a picture of it and print out mini-charts for your students’ folders or notebooks.
Grab the anchor chart pieces shown to help you get started with your anchor chart below!
A Final Note
Despite teaching all these spelling strategies, you’ll still have kids who ask you that question. How you respond will dictate whether or not they continue to ask it.
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “If you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime.”
If a student asks you how to spell the word book, it can be faster to tell them, “It’s like the word look but with a different beginning letter.” Their eyes will probably light up and say, “Oh, yeah!” and immediately spell it correctly.
But, will this help them the next time they have a word that can be spelled by thinking of a similar word? They won’t learn to find that strategy independently.
So instead, say, “Can you check the chart for strategies you can try?” This will teach them how to fish, so to speak, instead of providing them the fish. Read here how I help students with decoding in a similar way.
Lastly, make sure to model, model, model using your reference tools and strategies often.
Which is your favorite spelling strategy? Any new ones here, or ones you can add? I’d love to read your comments below!
Also, don’t forget to grab your free anchor chart pieces below!