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Spelling: In Practice

Spelling: In Practice

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A spelling program at any grade level has many components. Examples of the main components typically introduced in the primary grades are highlighted below.

What should be included in a spelling program?

In kindergarten, children can typically write a letter or letters for most consonant and short-vowel sounds (phonemes). They can spell simple words phonetically, drawing on knowledge of sound-letter relationships. By the end of kindergarten, children usually can spell at least some three-phoneme, short vowel (CVC) words correctly, such as man, hop, or fun.

In first grade, most children can use conventional spelling for words with common spelling patterns and for frequently occurring irregular words. First graders can also spell untaught words phonetically, drawing on phonemic awareness and spelling conventions. For example, most first graders can correctly spell not only CVC words, but many other short-vowel words with consonant clusters, such as thump, stick, flat, and pond.

They can also spell some common irregular words, such as the, what, was, and were. They are beginning to learn to spell other common patterns in one-syllable words, such as words with silent e (take, like, ride) and words with common vowel team patterns (book, tree).

Even their misspellings are usually highly recognizable as the intended word, because they can spell well phonetically. For example, an ending first grader might spell thirsty as therstee, which, despite being misspelled, is easily recognizable because every phoneme has been represented in the correct sequence.

Second through third graders should be introduced to plurals and past tense, and patterns or rules including:

  • q followed by a u (the sound /kw/)
  • drop e
  • adding suffixes
  • ch-tch
  • c, k, and ck
  • hard and soft c and g
  • plural endings
  • prefixes
  • consonant doubling

Our instruction should also include activities for common homophones (sea/see), contractions (cannot; can’t) and compounds (two words that when combined have a different meaning than when they are separate, e.g. cup and cake become cupcake). In Grades 2 and 3 children also can learn some useful spelling rules, such as those for adding endings to a base word.

The chart below shows some examples of spelling rules appropriate to teach in the primary grades. As in teaching syllable types or other phonics rules, it is helpful to focus on having children look for patterns in printed words as instead of just reciting the rules. However, we must understand the generalizations, as well as their common exceptions, in order to teach them effectively to children.

Spelling Rule (Generalization)DescriptionExamplesComments
“Floss” rule for final f, l, sIf a closed syllable ends with an f, l, or s immediately after the short vowel sound, double the final letter.will, pill, tell, dull, miss, mess, staff, gruff, sniffThe rule also applies to many words ending in /z/ (e.g., jazz, fuzz, buzz), but is less consistent for these words.
Rule for –ck, -tch, -dgeIf a closed syllable ends in the sound /k/, /ch/, or /j/ immediately after the short vowel sound, then use     –ck to spell /k/,      -tch to spell /ch/, and –dge to spell /j/

stick, duck, block, deck, snack

hatch, itch, crutch, match

bridge, dodge, grudge, fudge, badge

The rule does not apply unless the relevant sound comes immediately after the short vowel. For example, in desk and task, the /k/ does not come right after the short vowel sound, so these words are spelled with –k, not –ck.

Lunch and branch are spelled with –ch not –tch, for similar reasons.

K ruleUse the letter k, not c, to spell the sound /k/ before the letters e, i, or y.kit, kept, keep, rake, spoke, spiky, KyleK must be used instead of c because a c before e, i, or y would be “soft” and would be pronounced /s/.
Doubling ruleWhen adding an ending to a closed syllable base word, if the closed syllable ends in just one consonant, double it. Otherwise, just add the ending.

sit, sitting, sitter; plan, planned, planning, planner; fun, funny; sun, sunny

jump, jumped, jumping, jumper; mist, misted, misty; land, landed, landing

This rule only applies to endings that begin with a vowel, such as –ed, -ing, -er,  -est, or –y. If the ending begins with a consonant, such as –ful, -ness, or –ly, the rule does not apply (e.g., glad, gladly, sad, sadness). In this case, you just add the ending.
Dropping silent eWhen adding an ending to a silent e base word, drop the silent e before adding the, liked, liking; spice, spicy; hope, hoped, hoping; fine, finer, finest, finedAgain, this rule only applies to endings that begin with a vowel, such as –ed, -ing, -er,  -est, or –y. If the ending begins with a consonant, such as –ful, -ness, or –ly, the rule does not apply (e.g., hope, hopeful; like, likeness; late, lately). For these words, keep the e, and add the ending.
Y-to-I ruleWhen adding an ending to a base word that ends in a y preceded by a consonant, change y to i, then add the ending.shady, shadiness, shadiest, shadier; happy, happiness, happily; shiny, shininess, shinier; sunny, sunniest; fancy, fancifulThis rule applies even when the ending does not begin with a vowel, as in the case of –ness, -ful, or –ly. However, the base word must end in a y preceded by a consonant; if the final y is preceded by a vowel, the rule does not apply (e.g., joy, joyful; play, playing, playful, played; prey, preying, preyed). Also, the ending –ing is an exception (e.g., fancy, fancying; copy, copying); for these words, just add the ending.

Examples of spelling concepts for grades 1–3

Short vowel patterns
-ask -in-ock-ump
-ad -ig -unk
-ash -ing -uck

*To spell a short vowel sound only one letter is needed. (e.g., at, red, it, hot)

Consonant blends

A group of two or three consonants is a consonant blend. Each sound is heard in a consonant blend.

  • L-Blends: (bl,cl,fl,gl,pl,sl)
  • R-Blends (br,cr,dr,fr,gr,pr,tr)
  • S-Blends (sc,sn,sk,sm,st,sp,sw,str)

Consonant digraph

A group of consonants that stand for one sound that is different from either of the letters. . (e.g. shot, the).

Long vowel

To spell a long vowel sound you must add a second vowel. The second vowel sound may be next to the first in the VVC pattern (boat, maid) or it may be separated from the first one, making a CVCe pattern (made, ride, etc.).   

Doubling a consonant can be thought of as “protecting” a short vowel because it prevents an incoming vowel from getting close enough to change its sound from short to long. This is known as the VCCV pattern and the first vowel remains short. Examples of consonant doubling include madder and dinner.

Silent letter graphemes

Letters that appear in a word but do not represent themselves with a spoken sound are called silent letter graphemes. Examples are the letter e in the word time or the letter k in the word knee.

‘q’ followed by ‘u’ (the sound /kw/)

This sound is always spelled with the letters qu. (Sidenote: In the English language q is always followed by u.)

Dropping ‘e and adding ‘ing’

For words that end in “silent e”, the e must be dropped before you add a suffix beginning with a vowel (such as -ing or -ed). For example: ride — riding, cure — curable, age — aging, ice — icicle, offense — offensive.

Adding suffixes

Adding consonant suffixes is easy. Just add them, but if a word ends with a y that is preceded by a consonant, you must change y to an i before adding any suffix. Common suffixes include: -ness, -less, -ly, -ful, -hood, -wise, -cess, -ment, -ty, -ry, -ward, -age, -ant, -ance, -al, -ism, -able, -an, -es, -ed, -er, -est, -y, -ist, -ish, -ing, -ar, -on, -ous, -or, -ual, -unt, -um, -us, and -ive.

The sound of /k/

First and second grade: This sound can be spelled four ways (c, cc, k, and ck).

Third grade: ‘ch’ also spells the /k/ sound in words with a Greek origin (e.g., character, ache, echo, chemical, technology).

Hard and soft ‘c’ and ‘g’

The consonants c and g make two different sounds, hard and soft. Teach the spelling rule that governs when the c spells /s/ and the g spells /j/ (the soft sounds). They spell their soft sounds when the next letter is e, i, or y. The letter ‘k’ is used to spell /k/ before these letters (e.g., kite, sky). This rule is reliable for the letter ‘c’. However, it is less reliable for the letter ‘g’ because there is no other letter that spells the /g/ sound (e.g., begin, nagging).

Below are examples of these sounds.

  • Hard G: gorilla, gum, game, glad, grad
  • Soft G: gem, gym, giraffe
  • Hard C: courage, cup, cat, clash, crash
  • Soft C: receive, cell, cycle

Plural endings

Plural words are always spelled with a single letter s, unless you can hear a new syllable on the plural word. In that case, use -es. For example: loss — losses, bank — banks, twitch — twitches, tree — trees, box — boxes.


Adding prefixes generally does not change the spelling of the word. Common prefixes include: anti-, auto-, dis-, in-, il-, im-, inter-, mis-, post-, pre-, re-, sub-, super-, trans-, and un-.

Consonant doubling

Words that end in a short vowel sound must have the final consonant doubled to protect the sound when adding a vowel suffix. Examples include: upset — upsetting, occur — occurred, refer — referred, remit — remittance

How to enhance spelling development in our classrooms

An awareness of spelling development can help us plan instruction. For beginning and semi-phonetic spellers, we should teach letter-sound correspondences, the alphabetic principle, and concepts of print such as left-to-right directionality. When children can spell reasonably well phonetically, they should be introduced to common spelling patterns appropriate to their grade level and to spelling generalizations, such as the rules for adding endings to a base word.

At even more advanced levels, they can be encouraged to apply morphemic knowledge in their spelling. For example, children can be taught that the morpheme tele means from a distance and will be consistently spelled tele, not teli, tela, etc. Thus, television is spelled with tele- at the beginning and cannot be telivision or telavision. If children are uncertain of the spelling of a word, they can be encouraged to think of a semantically related word that they do know how to spell; for example, a comparison with colonial is helpful in spelling the schwa o of colonist.

At all stages, children should be taught to spell common irregular words appropriate to their grade level. Multisensory techniques, such as repeated tracing of words while saying the letter names and then the whole word, followed by writing the word from memory, can be especially useful for learning these kinds of words.

We can encourage purposeful writing, such as the writing of messages, lists, plans, signs, letters, stories, songs, and poems. Opportunities for frequent writing, integrated with all aspects of the curriculum, should be a natural part of the daily classroom routine. Frequent application of spelling knowledge by students while they are writing will help them become better spellers.

We can also make use of instructional games since children acquire language, in large part, from their alertness to language around them.

Analyzing students’ spelling errors

Analysis of children’s spelling errors can be an especially useful assessment technique, for several reasons. As explained in the opening to this module, spelling and word reading tap many of the same types of abilities (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonics skills, morphemic knowledge), so assessment of children’s spelling errors can reveal a lot about their reading.

In addition, spelling assessments can be administered easily to groups of children, so they can be a helpful first step for determining which children may need further, more in-depth assessment in reading.

Spelling assessment helps drive instruction by helping to target where to provide instruction for students who struggle with spelling in specific areas.

Specific spelling errors may reflect limitations in phonological skills, orthographic pattern knowledge, knowledge of spelling generalizations, morphemic knowledge, or semantic knowledge. (See Apel, Masterson, and Brimo, 2014 for detailed discussion.) Here are some specific examples of errors reflecting the different types of weaknesses:

  • Intended word: lump; child’s spelling: lup. This is a phonologically based error; the child has omitted the sound /m/
  • Intended word: best; child’s spelling: bets. This is another phonologically based error; the child has incorrectly sequenced the sounds in the word.
  • Intended word: shirt; child’s spelling: shert. This is an orthographic pattern error. The child has produced a phonologically acceptable spelling of the word, but not the correct spelling. There is no “rule” for using ir rather than er in shirt; the child just has to have enough familiarity with the printed word to know that shirt is spelled with an ir not an er.
  • Intended word: stuff; child’s spelling: stuf. This error reflects lack of knowledge of a spelling generalization, the “floss” rule, that the f at the end of this word needs to be doubled.
  • Intended word: sliding; child’s spelling: slideing. This is another error related to a spelling generalization, that when adding –ing to a silent e base word, the e should be dropped.
  • Intended word: slapped; child’s spelling: slapt. This is a morphemic error. Although the word sounds like it ends with /t/, the child must recognize that –ed is used to spell past tense.
  • Intended word: psychic; child’s spelling: pyskic. This is another morphemic error that reflects confusion about the correct spelling of the morpheme psych.
  • Intended word: two (as in “two cats”). Child’s spelling: too (“too cats”). This is a semantically-based error, a confusion of when to use the spelling two (a number) vs. too (meaning “also”).
  • Intended word: except (as in “except for”). Child’s spelling: accept (“accept for ..”). This is another semantically-based confusion between two different words, accept and except, that sound similar but have different meanings and spellings.

It is important to note that the nature of individual children’s errors may vary depending on the specific spelling word. For example, a typical first-grader might be able to spell most one-syllable words phonetically, but may make more phonologically-based errors on long, complex words. A student may have generally good morphemic and semantic knowledge as compared to classmates, but may still make morphemic or semantically based errors on specific words.

In evaluating children’s overall spelling abilities, spelling expectations for the child’s grade should be considered. Still, some students do make consistent patterns of errors, such as frequent phonologically-based errors or semantic errors. Targeting instruction to address these kinds of error patterns can be very helpful.

Looking at spelling

Expert Louisa Moats discusses how nonsense words can help students learn word structure.

Spelling intervention for struggling readers

For children with phonological weaknesses in spelling, explicit instruction in phoneme segmentation and letter-sound relationships can be very effective. Word-building activities involving letter tiles and patterned chains of words for children to spell, using the letter-sound relationships that are familiar to them, can be especially useful at this stage. For example, a child who knows all single consonant sounds and the short vowels a and i might be spelling a chain of words such as sap, slap, slip, sip, sit, bit, bat, brat, bran, brag, and so on.

To develop orthographic pattern knowledge as well as knowledge of common spelling rules, children can do word sorts in which they sort words into different piles depending on the pattern. For instance, to develop children’s understanding of when to use –tch in spelling /ch/, we could have children sort cards with words containing ch (chip, chop, chin, choose, cheer) and –tch (hatch, witch, etch, scratch, botch) into different piles and discuss the pattern, that –tch is used at the end of a word, after a short vowel sound.

To develop morphemic knowledge, children can be taught the concept of “word relatives” and to think of related words when trying to spell an unfamiliar word (e.g., for colonist, think of colony or colonial).

Children who struggle with decoding will invariably have problems in spelling, because the underlying difficulties associated with poor reading (such as limitations in phonological awareness) will also affect spelling. There are instructional approaches we can use to support students with phonological awareness and executive function weaknesses (including slow processing speed and ADHD). Most of these supports can be employed with the whole class.  It is also important that students’ spelling interventions be consistent with their decoding interventions. For example, children should not be asked to spell words that they have not yet learned to decode.

Spelling requires students to hear a word in the mind, apply letters to the sounds while remembering which spelling pattern to use, and then govern their muscles to write the letters. The working memory load required for spelling is quite large  working memory is the memory we use to hold and manipulate information. Weaknesses in working memory — including ADHD, slow processing, and other executive functioning issues — will have a tremendous impact on spelling.

We must build a bridge from phonological awareness to phonics, and teach the students to cross that bridge.

Instruction should be clear, but it doesn’t have to be dull! Students can become word-pattern detectives, hunting for samples of words and looking for clues to help form their understanding of spelling rules. They can develop knowledge through word sorts and spelling games. The mastering of spelling rules and patterns through fun activities can make learning enjoyable for all!

Spelling as a diagnostic tool

Specific spelling errors can signal a child’s slow progress and the need for extra help. In the video clip below, Dr. Louisa Moats shows one Washington, D.C. teacher how to identify the errors and help remediate them.

Spelling single-syllable words

For students who struggle with reading, teach only one pattern at a time. Group words by pattern and teach until spelling that pattern has been mastered.

Note that we may need to hold the word in memory for the students. As such, insert the target word in every question at first. Then, as the routine is memorized, say the target word less frequently. When all students have memorized the routine, say the target word only once.

  • Dictate a word and have students repeat the word. Ensure students say the word correctly.
  • Have students segment the sounds in the word. They can use manipulatives or their fingers to hold the sounds in order.
  • Ask: what is the first sound, the next sound, the vowel sound, the last sound?
  • Model how students can hold the sounds in order, using the manipulatives to anchor the sequence.
  • After rehearsing the sounds, spell the word aloud using the manipulatives.
  • Write the spelled word.

We may have to repeat the target word while directing the class through the steps. For example, we may say, “What’s the first sound in ‘next’?”

As students learn the routine, the instructions can be shortened. For example, we can say, “First sound?” instead of “What is the first sound in [word]?”

Some students will need to practice holding the word in memory. Once those students know the routine, they have more attention available to hold the target word in memory. Repeated routines are highly supportive.

For the class at large, the routine can be truncated gradually. For students who struggle, provide more time between spelling words. Instruct students to use all the steps to sound out the word for spelling if they need to. In this way, we have taught how to move from phonological awareness to phonics. Then we must gradually release responsibility to students to move through those steps themselves. For many students, these steps are quickly internalized; so much so, they are unaware they are performing them.

For overlapping spellings, such as long vowel spelling patterns, provide ample repeated reading opportunities for the words before attempting their spelling. Teach each spelling pattern individually before mixing the patterns. That is, teach spelling ‘long a’ words with the silent-e pattern before teaching ‘eigh’ spelling pattern or other ‘long a’ spelling patterns.

Spelling multisyllable words

Multisyllable words typically have several spelling patterns within the word. It makes sense then to teach new spelling patterns in single syllable words first, and then introduce those patterns in multi-syllable words.

Remember to create a ‘repeat-safe’ environment for students who need the word repeated.

  • Dictate a word and have students repeat the word. Ensure students say the word correctly.
  • Have students segment the syllables in the word. They can use manipulatives as needed.
  • Ask: what is the first syllable?
  • Tell students to sound it out in their heads, and then write the syllable.
  • Repeat for each syllable of the word.
  • For students who need more practice with a single syllable, take them back through the steps for sounding out a single-syllable word.

Teaching “schwa” spellings and other unusual spelling patterns

Once students are reading and spelling multisyllable words, they must learn about schwa. Schwa is the vowel sound sometimes heard in an unstressed syllable and most often sounds like /uh/ or the short /u/ sound, as in ‘cup’.) Most syllables with the schwa sound have a predictable pattern. Teach the patterns one at a time.

For overlapping spellings, it may be true that students can spell the word within one letter of being correct. Words such as ‘table’, ‘nickel’, ‘vocal’ all end in the /ǝl/ sounds. These words represent three common schwa spelling patterns. But until these words move into long-term memory, spelling the final syllable will be a struggle. We can help by providing many dozens, even hundreds, of opportunities for writing and reading words with schwa patterns. Common words with schwa spelling patterns will move to long-term memory. Students should be able to spell the less common of these words within one letter of fully correct. Fortunately, spell-check will be able to catch these misspellings for students using software.

Spelling instruction should be fun!

Instruction should be clear, but it doesn’t have to be dull! Encourage students to become word-pattern detectives, hunting for samples of words and looking for clues to help form their understanding of spelling rules. They can develop knowledge through word sorts and spelling games. The mastering of spelling rules and patterns through fun activities can make learning enjoyable for all!

Word patterns

At Sudduth Elementary School in Starkville, Mississippi, Tina Scholtes teaches first graders a handy spelling pattern that helps them recognize word clusters.


Apel, K., Masterson, J. J., & Brimo, D. (2014). Spelling assessment and intervention: A multiple linguistic approach to improving literacy outcomes. In A. Kamhi & H. Catts (Eds.), Language and reading disabilities, 3rd edition (pp. 152- 169). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Kaufman, C. (2010). Executive function in the classroom: Practical strategies for improving performance and enhancing skills for all students. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

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