Spelling Tips and Strategies

I’ve been working with one particular student lately who just has a hard time with spelling. And trust me, I. Get. It! The struggle is real. I can’t tell you about the countless Thursday nights I stayed up as a child crying and spelling, crying and spelling in preparation for the following day’s spelling test. “Why do I have to know these?!?!” I would sob. I mean, I don’t know any other languages fluently, but I’m pretty sure English is the hardest to learn and get all of the rules memorized. Yes, our language is a beautiful mixture of worldly cultures, filled with dipthongs, consonant pairs, silent letters, r-controlled vowels, blends, and don’t even get me started on the rules when adding suffixes, all tied up into a nice little package that we call English. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


So what do I do when I have a student that just can’t remember how to spell? I teach a lot of phonics rules, and that helps a lot, but “just sound it out” doesn’t always cut the musterd mustird mustard. Here are some tips that I actually use for myself, and a few others that I’ve taught to my students that seem to help them too!

Behold! Spelling Tips and Strategies 101!

1. Use mnemonic devices.

“What’s that?” you say? A mnemonic (new-mon-ick) device is just a tailor made way to help you remember something. Ever heard of “My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nachos”? Or how about “i before e except after c”? Those are all mnemonic devices. (By the way, mnemonic is a really difficult word to spell over and over!) Mnemonic devices were my saving grace when I was studying for any tests where I had to memorize something. My dad actually introduced me to them. I can remember it so vividly – “Georgia” was the spelling word I was trying to spell, and I just couldn’t get that “G-E-O” part right. My dad said, “Just think of the car Geo (the Geo Metro was very popular at the time), and think, Geos are made in Georgia!” Of course I replied with, “They are?!” “No,” he said, “it’s just a way for you to remember how to spell it.” Light Bulb!  Now, I recommend this method with caution. Some things will stick – such as ‘Geos are made in Georgia’ and some won’t. This isn’t a great method for long-term memory, but it can get you through those tireless nights of studying for spelling tests. I will only add one more piece of advice – have your child be part of the process. Come up with these together. It will go a long way.


A recent brainstorming session. You can see we were using all different types of strategies.

2. Good old phonics rules and “chun-king” words.

As I said, I teach a lot of phonics. I teach a lot of my students how to chunk words into their syllables and their phonemes. A phoneme is just a single sound that you hear in a word. Sometimes they are made by one letter, sometimes they are made by 2 or 3. The word “a” has one phoneme – the long a sound. The word “dog” has three phonemes – /d/-/o/-/g/. The word “fish” also has 3 phonemes – /f/ – /i/ – /sh/.  This is a great strategy when students are maybe trying to go too fast, and just plain skip a lot of letters when they spell them. For example, the word “birthday” might be spelled “brthda”. If students break apart this word into its syllables, birth – day, and then focus on each phoneme they hear, they will hear the r-controlled vowel sound of the “ir”, and if they have learned it through phonics, will know that a word that ends in the long a sound is usually spelled “ay”.

3. Visual cue cards.

There is a lot of study behind students who learn visually and can benefit from seeing words represented in a visual way. Get a stack of index cards and not only write each spelling word on them, but draw pictures around them to make the word into an image. For example, the word “look” can have two eyes drawn inside the Os. The word “tall” can have nice long tall Ls for legs of a stick figure. First, identify the part of the word that your child is having trouble with, and focus on that part specifically when making your visuals. Again, have your learner be a part of it! Don’t just make the cards for them. Let them be a part of the process!

4. Write-Say-Test.

Gesh. I really wish I had a better, cuter, more clever name for this spelling practice exercise. We’ve all heard “write the word 3 (or 5, or 10) times each,” but Write-Say-Test does more. I actually learned this from a former employer at my first tutoring gig. Here are the steps:

  1. Write the word as you are looking at it from your list, and say each letter as you write it.
  2. Write the word again as you say each letter again.
  3. Write the word a third time as you say each letter again.
  4. Either fold your paper or flip it over and test yourself on the back by writing the word while saying each letter as you write it.
  5. Do each word one at a time. Don’t write each word three times on the front and then flip over your paper to test. Once you’ve written a word three times and said each letter as you wrote, immediately test yourself on the back, and then go on to the next word.

It’s very important to note that you need to say each letter as you are writing it. A lot of kids try to skip that step, but there are so many things at work with this technique when all of the steps are followed. Motor skills of writing the words, visually seeing the words, speaking each letter in the correct order, hearing the letters by saying them out loud, and finally, immediate testing of the spelling are all helping the brain to retain the information when studying with this strategy.


They have started on the first 2 words in the list.


And then tested themselves on the back.

5. Find smaller words.

Look to find any smaller words that are “hidden” inside larger words. For example, in the word “further” I can see “fur”, “her”, and “the” – all words that students who are being asked to spell “further” should be able to spell.

6. Games!

Maybe I should have listed this one first…or maybe I saved the best for last. Either way, I love games, and so do most kids. There are many many games out there. Honestly, when I’m looking for a new game idea, I start with Pinterest and then modify some of the ideas I find there to fit my needs. Here are a few of my favorite spelling games:

  • Spelling word tic-tac-toe: Make a tic-tac-toe grid, but instead of playing with Xs and Os, you choose two different spelling words to write inside the grid! Genius! Jill at A Mom With A Lesson Plan gets credit for this idea.
    Sight word Tic Tac Toe - what a fun idea!

    I like the two different colors she uses too!


  • Spelling Battleship: This game is probably my favorite, but set up can take some time. Luckily, for us, someone over at Deceptively Educational has created a free printable!

Spelling Battleship

  • Spelling Hangman: Who hasn’t played hangman before? It’s a fun game, and kids need to specifically focus on where each letter goes when they are the ones writing the letters as you guess them! It also forces them to pay attention to where each letter goes and what other letters might be missing when they are the ones guessing the letters.

    Hangman spelling

    Hangman with sight words.

  • Spelling Magnets: Get some of those great alphabet magnets, clear some space on your fridge or other metallic surface and have a ball! If your kids really need the extra support, choose the letters they need and either place them on the fridge out of order, or in a jumbled group. Then, let them sort out the letters into the correct order. You could also give them a choice between 2 or 3 letters each time they are adding on a new letter to the word they are spelling.

    long vowel spelling with magnet letters

    You can see we were working on “magic e” with long vowels

Well? What do you think? Have you tried any of these? Do you think some of these would work for your learner? I’d love to hear how they work for you, so please feel free to comment below. Thanks for stopping by!

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