Spelling is one of those subjects we dread to teach, and making spelling fun is an ongoing battle. It is so hard to make learning spellings fun, and the truth of the matter is, the only real way to learn English spellings is by writing the word out lots and lots of times. In fact, studies show that children need to write out a word in their independent work about 10-15 times before they learn it’s spelling off by heart. Some children might need less, but some children will need more – a lot more.
A common misconception amongst parents is that once a child has managed to spell a word correctly once or twice, that’s it, they know it for life. I have seen some very frustrated and anxious homeschooling parents – ‘I taught my child that spelling a few weeks ago and they keep getting it wrong’. Parents who helped their children learn their weekly spellings for a test would be amazed when, a week later, a perfect score was not attained.
Retaining ten new spellings a week is ambitious at best. They might well get 10/10 on their test, and two weeks later when their heads are full of the new spellings they now have to learn, those old ones will be completely forgotten. Spelling tests aren’t without purpose – they teach children self-motivation and encourage independent work. There’s also a good chance they’ll retain one or two of the spellings along the way. But it would be unfair to judge your child’s spelling ability by them.
How then, can you help support your children with their spellings?
A Few Facts About English Spelling
English spelling has more exceptions than rules. It is actually quite unfair that your child has to grow up learning English, as in other languages you are able to read and spell as soon as you learn the phonetic alphabet. In English, the phonetic alphabet will let your read less than a half of all words. On the flip side, learning phonics will help your child to read half of all words. But still, you get the point, it ain’t easy. Take the sound ‘ough’ for example. It can be pronounced in ten different ways.
There are 44 distinct ‘sounds’ in English, but over 1,110 ways to spell them. No other language can boast this! The English language has many, many different roots, which is why it is so complex. It has a fascinating history that reflects our past. That doesn’t particularly help children to learn to spell, but it can help us appreciate why it’s such a tricky subject and why we should be especially patient with kids when they’re learning to navigate this diverse language!
How To Teach Spelling
With this in mind, you should now understand why your child might well be struggling with their spellings. It’s no wonder that it’s such a tricky subject to teach. This section is designed to explain a little about some of the different methods of teaching spellings (but by no means all!), and some advice to help you navigate such a difficult subject. If you’re just after some fun spelling activities to try out then skip out this ‘theory’ section and move straight on to the fun spelling activities!
There are plenty of phonics schemes out there designed to help children with reading and spelling. Phonics are great for helping children to read, and they’re also great for building children’s confidence with their writing. When I first started teaching children were encouraged to ask for every spelling they didn’t know. You can imagine how slow their creative writing was! I had no idea whether a child who struggled with spellings had great vocabulary or a flare for story writing because they constantly had their hand in the air to ask for a spelling. With knowledge of phonics they can write with confidence, sounding out words that can be read even if they aren’t quite spelt correctly!
The problem with using phonics alone is that firstly, they only teach how to spell sounds, but don’t help children to work out which words they should apply the different spelling to. For example, ‘fly’ could be plausibly spelt ‘fligh’, ‘fli’, ‘flye’ and so on! Like I said – great for confidence building but don’t expect the easy ride that a lot of phonic scheme producers will promise! Secondly, like everything in teaching, learning through phonics will suit some children and not others.
This being said, having used various methods for teaching spellings I do think phonics are very useful and important. Hopefully your child’s school will have informed you which scheme they’re using, so try to stick to this rather than delving into something completely different. There are so many resources out there that can help, flashcards like these by RWInc are great to help children who learn visually, and have rhymes for those that prefer auditory!
High Frequency Words
These are words that children will probably read and write the most, and therefore great ones to focus on learning first. Put ‘high frequency words‘ into google and you’ll bring up a huge list, the first 100, 200 and so on. If you can help your children to spell these words correctly then they won’t be spelling them wrong over and over again every time they write them (which will be frequently!)
Little rhymes and patterns to help children remember tricky spellings are super. Obviously you can’t do this with every word, but if you can identify key words they’re finding really tricky and make up a silly sentence or rhyme to help them remember then this can work really well. An obvious example, and the only reason any of us can spell the word ‘because’, is ‘Big Elephants Can’t Always Use Small Exits’.
As long as children understand there will be exceptions to the rules (and this won’t frustrate them too much) then we can give them spelling rules to help them learn their spellings. Rules like i before e except after c can serve as a great reminder when we come to write unfamiliar or tricky spellings.
Making Spelling Fun – Activity Ideas
With all these different techniques in mind, let’s look at some activities we can try to make spelling fun! Modern technology can help a lot – there are numerous great apps and websites that children engage really well with – but I’ve stuck with activities that are a little more creative for those of you wanting something a bit different to try. Remember that spelling via a phone pad or keyboard is a little different to putting pen to paper. I’m not saying better or worse, just a slightly different skill set. Bare this in mind when you’re teaching spellings.
#1 Get Out Your Super Soaker
Grab a water pistol and write the words on the patio using the spray of the water. Don’t expect too much from their handwriting, and be aware that this may descend into mayhem!
#2 Write It On The Windows
Get yourself a pack of window writing pens and let them write their spellings on the window (I promise they do come off!) Children love doing things they aren’t usually allowed to do, so this has a bit of the naughty factor! It’s hard to write at a funny angle, so the writing might not be the neatest, but it’s still encouraging them to thing about the letters used to make up the words.
#3 Make A Poster
This takes a little time, so it’s best used with a certain word they’re finding a challenge. Get them to make a poster of the word, either one that just looks pretty or a poster that would help another child learn to spell that word. This works especially well for children who learn more visually, or for children who love being creative. You can even involve paints and collage.
#4 Spelling Games Help With Making Spelling Fun
There are so many different spelling games you can play. When you play spelling games with them make sure you take part too. They’ll know deep down you can spell the words, but they’ll love playing along when you fake getting it wrong sometimes and they’ll enjoy correcting you (which is making them check how it’s spelt!) Below are a few that were always popular with children I tutored.
Kings and Queens
Pick a spelling out of a hat and read it to them, they then spell it back. If they get it right they can stand on a chair and be the king or queen, and then they read a spelling to you so you can try and take their crown and so on.
Pick from a list of their spellings to make it a little easier for them. They then have to guess the letters before you complete the picture – whether you choose a hangman or not is up to you!
Create two ‘boards’ with 6 numbers on them. You can make them pretty! Then you take turns to roll the dice and give each other a spelling. If you get the spelling right you get a counter on that number.
#5 Make Word Jewellery
Order some of these letter bead jewellery kits and trick your kids into practising their spellings! The only problem with them is that they’re capital letters, which isn’t always the easiest for kids to differentiate between. But it’s definitely way more fun than look, cover, write!
#6 Play Classrooms
Get a white board or black board and play classrooms with them. Children love being the teacher, so give them the task of teaching you (the naughty child) their spellings. You’ll be surprised what they come up with!
#7 Magnetic Letters Or Scrabble Letters
Scrabble letters can be more challenging to use because they’re all capitals. They might make a good challenge for more able spellers though. Moving letters around to create words is fun and less permanent than putting them down on paper, so children with lower self-esteem might like spelling out words this way.
#8 How Many Times
Create a spelling challenge. Grab a whiteboard and a pen each and see how many times you can write a word in 30 seconds. Explain the word only counts towards their total if it’s spelt correctly and you can read it. And make sure you let them win (sometimes!)
#9 Make A Spelling Treasure Hunt
Hide the letters to a word they’re learning and get them to find the right letters from around the room. You can hide some letters that aren’t in the word too if you really want to challenge them.
#10 Write It In The Mud To Help Make Spelling Fun
This is a great one to do when you’re out for a dog walk or on holiday on the beach. Just throw a word at them and challenge them to spell it in the mud or sand (they can use a stick or their fingers!) If you want it to stay a fun activity then just one or two words is all you should try, but you’d be amazed how quickly they learn that word if they’re writing it every day.
#11 Reward Them
Create a fun reward system that encourages them to think about the correct spelling before they write a word. You could write out their 5 spellings onto pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and give them one of the pieces every time they spell it correctly (so that they finally end up with the whole puzzle to play with – maybe don’t pick a 100 piece puzzle for this one!) You could use a simple sticker chart with a reward at the end.
#12 Bath Crayons
I don’t really need to explain why these are fun. They’re crayons. And you can use them in the bath.
#13 Make Up A Song Or Rap
If you and/or your child are creative then give them the challenge of making up a song or rap to help them remember how to spell a tricky word. Again, this is great for auditory learners but some kids will find this much harder.
#14 Give Them A Spelling Swatter!
Give them a fly-swatter, or just fold a piece of paper to make a fan like strip that they can use to ‘swat’ any of their spellings they see on a day-to-day basis. When they see one of their spellings (in a book, on a cereal packet, or where ever) they can swat it, and then check it’s spelt correctly. Who knows, they might even find it spelt wrong somewhere!
#15 Spaghetti Spelling For Making Spelling Fun
Let them play with their food for a change and do a spelling or two at dinner time. You can do this with a lot of different food, but something like spaghetti would probably be easiest! This is great for letter and number formation too.
#16 Make a Spelling Word Origami Fortune Teller
You know those things where you pick a colour, and spell it out, and it tells you your fortune!? Well make one with your child’s spellings on it instead. When you pick a word they have to spell it out as they move the origami fortune teller until they can unfold your fortune. Some children find it tricker to spell words out loud because they rely on writing the pattern of the letters together, others will prefer saying them out loud and it will help them learn. A mixture is always best!
#17 Use Sensory Play
Create a ‘spelling tray’ and leave it out somewhere. Try to fill it with something different every few days to encourage them to stick their hands in it and get spelling! Some suggestions are sand, shaving foam, liquid soap, sugar, flour or corn flour mixed with water or play dough or similar that they can squish the word into. Sensory play is great fun for a lot of kids, so doing spellings this way takes the edge off a little, even if it does create a bit more mess than pen to paper.
#18 Trace The Words In Rainbow Colors
As I said earlier, it’s thought a child needs to write a word 15 times until they really remember it. This doesn’t mean 15 times over and over again, but the more times that word is written, the more likely it is they’ll remember it. It will be in their muscle memory. Write their spelling out large for them and get them to trace over it in the colours of the rainbow. It will look pretty (or like a big mess) at the end, and they’ll have written out the word over and over!
#19 Highlight Words In A Newspaper
Don’t ask me why, but getting out the highlighters was always a super exciting time in the classroom! Give them a highlighter, or even better, give them several different coloured highlighters, and challenge them to highlight their spelling words in the newspaper. They’ll need to check that the author spelt them correctly as they go!
#20 Roll And Write
Come up with 6 challenges. I’ll add some suggestions below. Whatever number your child rolls is the spelling challenge they need to complete! Simple yet effective!
1 – Write the spelling in green (you could continue with 2 – red, 3 – blue and so on)
2 – Write the spelling with the ‘wrong’ hand (left if they’re right handed, right if they’re left handed)
3 – Write the spelling three times
4 – Write the spelling as many times as you can in 20 seconds
5 – Write the spelling in the air
6 – Write the spelling in the air with your nose / elbow / foot
Some Things To Consider
Only Pick Five Spellings
Some children can cope with more, and some children will need less, but use five to start with and see how it goes.
Don’t Correct Every Spelling
Scribbling all over their five page story with spelling corrections is not going to build confidence. It’s tempting to do, but it’s not going to encourage them to write that creatively again! Instead, choose only a few high frequency words to correct and make a note of them to work on in the future. I would usually pick one or two words from a page of writing for them to focus on in an early morning activity, or to write out three times to try and remember. Something quick that they could do right away.
Of course, there are times when you might want to correct most of their spellings – if they’re producing a ‘best’ copy up of a letter to their Gran, or sending off their work for a competition, or something like that! Just think of how to approach it so you don’t ruin confidence. Explain how proud and impressed you are by the complex and exciting language they’ve used, and talk them through why you’re going to help them with their spellings.
There has been numerous studies into whether joined handwriting helps children with their spellings and you can argue either way. After A LOT of research I think I fell on the side that claims joining handwriting helps spelling, for numerous reasons that I won’t delve into. I expect it is more of a case of it suits some children better and not others, as is so often true. It is worth considering if your child is really struggling.
Capital Letters Are Different!
For children who are really struggling with their spellings, modern technology can work wonders. Apps and games on the keyboard are fun and interactive, but keep in mind that a lot of keypads use capital letters, which won’t always help a child that can’t easily interchange the two. Muscle memory
Treat Them As Individuals
Try your hardest not to compare your child’s progress to Matilda next door who can spell every word in the English dictionary. I know so many children who struggled with spellings in Year 2 and were spelling with no problem at all by Year 6. I also know children who were still hopeless at spelling in Year 8 but were writing the most incredible creative stories. Every child progresses differently. That’s ok.
Your child will enjoy spelling so much more if it goes hand in hand with lots of genuine praise. Be thrilled by your child’s achievements, however big or small. Sometimes just getting them to sit at a desk with a pencil in hand is a massive step forward. Try to treat them as an individual, and when they try hard or make progress for them then let them know you’ve noticed.
Comment below to let me know all the spelling mistakes I’ve made. Be nice though – English spellings are tricky!