Teaching Spelling: Activities to Improve Your Students’ Spelling

This article outlines the importance of teaching spelling, and eight activities that students can try in class and at home.

spelling ideas at home

English spelling is one of many tricky things about English. Love it or hate it, we need to be able to spell well. British primary schools place a huge emphasis on spelling, including learning common exception words and learning spelling patterns. What about English language learners? Is it worth spending time on spelling in your English language lessons?

In this blog post, we’ll discuss whether you should teach spelling to your English language students. Then, we’ll look at some tips and activities which you can use with both young learners and adults.

Why teach spelling to English language learners?

First, let’s have a look at why we should teach spelling.

Spelling is essential for written communication. Poor spelling can make it difficult for the reader to comprehend the text and it creates distractions as the reader tries to decode the writing. Poor spelling can leave a negative impression of the writer – many employers will reject a candidate who has submitted a cover letter or CV with poor spelling.

Yes, technology does exist. We type most things nowadays so spellcheckers and predictive text can do the work for us. However, many employers or universities will ask to see the students’ English language certificates and to pass these, they will need decent spelling. 

Beyond jobs and exams, teaching our students about spelling can help make English seem less “weird” and “unpredictable”. Talking about the history of the language, including influences from different languages such as French, German, or even Hindustani (e.g. pyjama) helps students understand why the language is formed the way it is.

I’m not suggesting that spelling should become the main focus of your lessons. On the other hand, I suggest taking ten minutes out of each lesson to focus on spelling and to teach your students strategies that they can use at home.

Phonics activities

Phonics

This is how children learn to read and write in English. With your language learners, choose the sounds that they find difficult – this will depend on their first language. Diphthongs – that is, two vowels together – will likely be tricky. 

Over a series of lessons, you could focus on one sound. Let’s have a look at an example:

Sound: /eə/ (like the vowel sound in hair)

Lesson 1: Introduce sound orally. Students think of as many different words as they can with this sound in. Teacher takes note of these words. Introduce one spelling for the sound (air) and some words with this
phoneme in. The students can practise reading the words, before writing them in a sentence.

Lesson 2: Revise air spelling for the sound, then introduce ear (e.g. bear). Again, students read words with the sound in, before writing sentences. Read the students some words with air and some with ear, and get them to sort them into two categories.

Lesson 3: Revise ear spelling for sound, and introduce ere (e.g. there). Follow the same structure as lesson 2.

Lesson 4: Revise all three spellings. Read out the words from lesson 1, and see if the students can sort them into categories.

Spelling strategies

In this part of the post, I’ll suggest some techniques you can pass on to your learners to help them focus on spelling at home. Introduce a technique in the lesson by demonstrating it, then get your students to practise in class before recommending they do so at home.

Look, cover, write, check

This four stage process is a simple but effective way to practise tricky spellings. Look at the word, cover it with paper or your hand, write it out and then check it and see if you were correct.

Perhaps you’ve been teaching a set of vocabulary items in class. Ask the students to look at the words, cover, write and check. This allows them to practise recalling the chosen vocabulary items and so will not only help their spelling, but their retention of the new learning.

Create mnemonic devices

Mnemonic devices are mental tools created to help you remember something. For example, tricky words could be said differently (‘wed-nes-day’ or ‘b-e-a-utiful’). 

You could also focus on finding words inside words. For example, “Never get separated from your parachute,” helps you remember to spell separateSeparate has para inside it.

Choose a tricky word that most of your class struggles with. In pairs, come up with ways to remember how to spell it.

Just make sure that students also know how to pronounce the word correctly too!

Spot the pattern

Look at the root word – how has it changed to accommodate a prefix or suffix? What other words do you know with that affix? Can you spot any patterns?

As well as looking at affixes, irregular plurals is a great place to start when introducing pattern spotting.

spelling ideas for classroom

Practice activities for class

In this final part, I’ll suggest some games and activities you can use to practise spelling.

Dictation

Dictation is a good way to test students’ understanding of spelling, as well as improving their grammar and writing. This dictation post suggests some ways you can make dictation a little more interesting for your students.

Sparkle

Each student has three lives. The teacher chooses a word. The students take it in turns saying one letter at a time. After a pupil has said the last letter, the next pupil must say “sparkle!” 

The next pupil then loses a life.

Alphabet cards

Create a lot of small cards with the letters of the alphabet on. Make sure you have duplicates and triplicates of some letters! In small groups, the teacher says a word and the students race to make the words with their letters.

Don’t finish the word! 

This is a game to play without having a particular wordlist in mind. In turns, the students say one letter each. To make it a little easier, you can write the letters on the board as the pupils say them. The aim of the game is to not finish the word. It’s a great game for higher-level students, and also a good one to play with team points/lives rather than individual.

For example:

S   A   N   D   challenge

After the fourth student says ‘D’, the next pupil can’t think of a letter to continue the word so says “challenge” to student 4. Student 4 was thinking of the word “sandwich”. This is a word, so student 5 would lose a life.

Alternatively:

S   A   N   D   C   challenge

Student 6 challenges student 5 because they can’t think of a word. Student 5 can’t think of a word either, so student 5 loses a life. (However, they could have continued with sandcastle).

That’s all!

So, hopefully now you feel a bit more confident teaching spelling in your classes. Leave a comment below with your favourite activities or techniques, and let me know if you use any of the activities in this post.

Written by Rose Lewis for TEFL.net May 2021
Rose Lewis is a native of London in the UK and she specializes in teaching reading and writing. Rose is a contributor at Native Intonation, a resource dedicated to pronunciation, accent, and fluency.

One Comment

  • semaths.com says:

    When you re relying on memorisation to teach spelling it reinforces the idea that spelling is an innate ability so our students think what s the point? and find their practice and fluency tasks seem disconnected, purposeless and repetitive.

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