How to Teach Children to SPELL

Teaching children to spell correctly is not an easy task! Learning to spell correctly occurs over many years and grade levels, and is a developmental and cumulative process. First, the foundation must be laid in the preschool and kindergarten years. Then, the first layer of instruction begins, in late kindergarten and first grade. Subsequent layers of instruction take place throughout most of the remaining elementary years. However, learning to spell conventionally, for some students, is a lifelong process and struggle, as new vocabulary is introduced, and as new and advanced spelling skills are presented and absorbed. Spelling is the act of transcribing spoken language into written symbols. Thus, spoken language is the platform for spelling in our English alphabetic system.

It is difficult to discuss spelling skills without touching on reading skills, because reading and spelling are reciprocal skills, and they reinforce and enhance one another. Thus, this blog, while focusing on spelling development, will also touch on the reading process.


Building the Foundation:

The foundation for spelling begins at birth, with the infant learning about how communication works. Infants focus intently on the sounds that they hear from their parent's speech. Cooing, babbling, and then first words begin to emerge, as the child starts to understand that speech sounds can be imitated, replicated and enunciated.


The First Layer of Instruction:

In the preschool years, children grow their vocabulary and practice and internalize appropriate sentence structure. Preschoolers are introduced to concepts such as rhyming and identifying oral syllables within words, through nursery rhymes, songs, and stories, and through teacher-planned phonological awareness tasks. They begin to understand that spoken sentences can be broken down into individual words. Additionally, they begin to understand that individual words can be broken down into syllables (called phonological awareness). Finally, around the beginning of the kindergarten year, children learn that syllables are constructed from alphabet sounds, which get blended together to make real words (called phonemic awareness). It is the teacher's and the parent's collective job to help students to understand and own these concepts, in a timely manner, and with sufficient mastery.

The Second Layer of Instruction:

By mid-year of kindergarten, students should have mastered the skills of phonological awareness, and should be starting to learn the skill of phonemic awareness: the concept that alphabet sounds can identified, isolated, blended, manipulated, and omitted, within words. By mid-to-late kindergarten, all students should be masters of both phonemic and phonological awareness skills. These skills are needed for the third layer of instruction, typically presented in first grade.


The Third Layer of Instruction:

At the beginning of first grade, students should be ready to learn how to use the alphabet sounds for both encoding (spelling) and decoding (reading). These skills require the mastery of phonemic and phonological awareness skills.

Some schools begin formal reading and spelling instruction in the kindergarten year, but not all students are ready to learn these skills in kindergarten. In the third layer of instruction, students learn how to use the alphabet sounds and letters to transcribe spoken English (speech) into written English (spelling), and how to decode written English (reading).

Beginning with the short vowels, students learn how to read and spell small, three letter, decodable words, such as 'cat' and 'pig', by looking at the letters, in order from left to right, and sounding them out. In addition, some non-decodable words, such as 'the' and 'was', are taught by visual memory, and thus added into the student's reading repertoire, in order to enlarge the students' reading vocabulary, so that students can read basic sentences.

In mid-to-late first grade, students are usually introduced to digraphs (th, sh, wh, ch, ck), and long vowels. Many students get lost at this point, with the introduction of the long vowels, because they haven't yet mastered reading and spelling with the short vowels. This arbitrary instruction schedule is a grave error on the part of the educator and the educational system, because many students who get lost in first grade never catch up to their peers. New instructional material is continuously introduced, and remediation of the lower level skills never occurs.


The Fourth Layer of Instruction:

In the fourth layer of instruction, typically presented in second grade, students are learning the concepts of consonant blends (cl, br), and how to read and spell compound and two syllable words. Fourth layer students are also focusing on improving their automaticity and fluency with reading and spelling, with the cumulative skills which they have gained thus far. Any deficits that exist at the earlier layers of instruction will be clearly evident, as students are now expected to use prior literacy learning as a platform for the new instructional information being presented.

The Fifth Layer of Instruction:

In third grade, students are usually introduced to the vowel teams (oa, ee, ey). There are over 30 sets of vowel teams, and some letter combinations make more than one sound. Thus, the teaching and the learning of vowel teams is a complicated process. Additionally, at the fifth layer of instruction, students learn about many of the exceptions that exist in our English language, such as: soft c and g; advanced digraphs such as ph and gh; silent letters such as g in gnat; trigraphs such as tch in witch; advanced suffixes such as tion in vacation; and a host of other variations.


The Common Thread:

The common and necessary thread that runs throughout all of these layers of instruction is the concept of invented spelling, which is: the process of the student using what he knows to sound out and approximate the spelling of words he wishes to write. Students need to be allowed to practice what they are learning about English spelling. Without practice, they are just learning theory. Students need to be allowed to make mistakes, and to experiment with their knowledge about the English orthographic system, as it develops. Many parents and teachers are appalled by the practice of invented spelling, but it is, indeed, a necessary developmental phase in literacy development.

The Development of Invented Spelling typically looks like this throughout the Stages:

Foundation Level: squiggles made with a writing implement to represent whole words or thoughts

Layer 1: Preschool/Kindergarten: children can write some letters, but tend to put them in random order, seemingly to represent whole words, without consideration of the sounds that the letters represent

Layer 2: Kindergarten: Students attempt to write words, based on what they know about letter sounds, but without regard for, and without mastery of, the order in which they hear the sounds in the word. Example: the word 'boat' might look like this: 'bt' or 'bto'

Layer 3: First Grade: Students can accurately sound out small words, and can hear the order of the sounds in the targeted words, but may not know the exact letter representations to use in conventional spelling. Example: the word 'boat' might look like this: 'boot' or 'bote' 'bot'

Layer 4: Second Grade: Students can spell three letter, short vowel words accurately, and can sequence the order of the sounds correctly, but may struggle with the spellings of words with long vowels, vowel teams, and with two syllable words. Students may leave out the vowels in some multi-syllable words.

Layer 5: Third Grade: Students are typically learning the correct spellings for words with vowel teams, but this is a very difficult task for some students who have been struggling since kindergarten or first grade. Example: for the word 'boat': bote, boat, bowt, boet. Example: for the word 'costume': custom, custome, costome.

The Difference Between Good Spellers and Poor Spellers:

The difference between good spellers and poor spellers (and good readers and poor readers) lies in the principle of skill mastery. Student must be required to gain complete mastery at each individual level, before they can be allowed to move ahead to the next level. The pacing of spelling instruction in our schools needs to be individualized for many students, to allow for mastery to occur, because spelling skills are cumulative. Spelling instruction should parallel the same order of presentation as reading instruction, and should occur concurrently.

The Problem with the Common Core State Standards:

The current Common Core State Standards for literacy focus heavily on comprehension skills and critical thinking skills, and leave little time in the curriculum for these basic, mechanical foundational skills to be taught, and to develop. This process takes TIME. When the mechanical skills are not taught to mastery, students can't read the passages adequately enough to be able to complete the comprehension portion of the assignment. Adequate time needs to be devoted to developing the foundational skills, before comprehension and critical thinking skills can enter into the equation.

Here is a story to illustrate that point: When baking a cake, the cake must cook at the appropriate temperature for the designated period of time. If one raises the temperature, in an effort to try to bake the cake more quickly, the cake will burn. Children are like cakes. Their time requirements and the pacing of the instruction (the temperature) must meet THEIR needs, not the school board's needs.


Teaching Spelling through The Orton Gillingham Approach:

Teaching and learning spelling in the English language are both difficult tasks. The English language has many variations and exceptions to be learned, and it is wrought with irregularities. However, teaching spelling through The Orton Gillingham Approach brings order and systematic logic to the instructional process of spelling. Spelling is not about memorizing a sequence of letters in any given word. There exists an infrastructure upon which the logic of English rests, and this structure can be taught through an explicit, systematic, and cumulative instructional approach, known as Orton Gillingham.

The Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions Orton Gillingham Curriculum Scope & Sequence teaches reading and spelling skills in the follow sequence:

Short vowels, the Floss Rule (ex: ll, ss, ff), Digraphs (ex: ch, th), Chunks (ex: ong, ank), Blends (ex: cl, br), Long Vowels, Compound Words, Two Syllable Words, Bossy R (ex: ar, ir), Vowel Teams (ex; oa, ai), Soft C & G, Vowel Diphthongs (ex: oe, ia), Trigraphs and Advanced Digraphs, Silent Letters (ex: w). Suffixes and prefixes are woven into the Scope and Sequence, to build word knowledge and skill.

Students utilizing the Lil' Reading Scientists TM curriculum are required to reach mastery at each level, before moving on to the next level.

Ultimately, teachers must teach the logic of English, in a specific hierarchy of difficulty, and then students will be strong spellers. The act of simply memorizing words, for the purpose of spelling, disregards the logic that is inherent in the English Language. Teaching students to spell needs to occur over a number of years and grade levels, and cannot be rushed. Take time to teach these skills to mastery, and require mastery before advancing to the next level of skill. Adopt an Orton Gillingham curriculum, and you will be on your way to spelling success!

Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, Author of this BLOG, is a Certified Reading Specialist, a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner, a Certified Pre-3rd Grade Teacher, and a Certified Montessori Educator, with 35 years of experience in the field of education. She is an avid advocate of students with reading issues, an educational conference speaker, a school consultant, and the Author of the Lil' Reading Scientist Literacy Solutions TM Orton Gillingham Curriculum. To contact Jenelle, please email her at


To View the Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM Curriculum at THE ORTON GILLINGHAM STORE, please go to: Our curriculum contains highly multisensory hard good materials, and Orton Gillingham Digital Downloads.