Does Spelling Count?

Photo by Jakob on Unsplash

“Are you grading for spelling on this?” a middle-school-aged student asked about his essay. Of course I was grading for spelling—on this essay and on other assignments. But for some older students, there is an assumption that since spelling tends to be taught only in younger grades that they do not need to proofread (or that their computer’s spellcheck will find everything for them).

Although formal spelling classes tend to be directed toward primary students, older students can also benefit from directed spelling study. Some spelling class formats, especially for older students, are more implicit, with informal redirection when a word is misspelled on an assignment rather than concentrated efforts to teach spelling patterns.

But a recent study from Great Britain shows that the explicit study of spelling based on specific roots and their derivatives “shows a sustained effect on spelling” (Burton et al., 2021). A simple reminder to a student that a word is misspelled or even requiring the student to correct it does not bring about long-term improved spelling. Rather, when the students in this research study focused on groups of words based around a specific spelling rule, their spelling test grades improved both at the time of study and then later when they were re-tested on the same spelling groups.

So practically speaking, how does one teach spelling to older students? Traditional textbooks can be used, with lists for each week and regular tests. Some spelling programs focus on individual lists for students, based on their current level. (Beverly Adams-Gordon’s Spelling Power is one textbook often used to generate these types of ability-level lists.) For students in high school, by which point most formal spelling programs have stopped, a spelling notebook or stack of note cards on which students keep track of their own misspelled words and then practice and maybe even test from their own lists can be easily implemented.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

No matter the student’s age, they should practice the words when studying spelling and not just rely on simple memorization for a test. Burton et al.’s study (2021) showed that playing games helped the students in the group that were explicitly studying the spelling patterns.

Hands-on activities can also increase student learning of new spelling words. Here are some fun and easy ways to practice spelling for students in middle grades—and most of these will also work with younger students.

  1. Use sidewalk chalk to write the spelling words outside.
  2. Use alphabet pieces from a game to spell the words being studied. Magnetic letters also work well on cookie sheets.
  3. Make a word search or crossword puzzle with the word list, and then trade with a partner and solve.
  4. Create the letters of the words with chenille stems.
  5. Create the letters of the words with play dough.
  6. Write the words on individual marker boards with different colored markers and in different styles of writing.
  7. Write the words in Morse code. (Students can find a Morse code list in an encyclopedia.)
  8. Create a code, write the words in the code, and then trade with a partner and solve.
  9. Sign the words to a partner in sign language. (Students can find a sign language alphabet in an encyclopedia.)
  10. Play hangman with a partner using spelling words.
  11. Make a box for each letter in the word, with the height of the word relative to the size of the letter (e.g. “b” is a tall box, while “e” is a short box). Make a list of the words, written in a different order. Trade with a partner and fill in the boxes using the words from the list.
  12. Cut individual letters out of a magazine or newspaper and glue them on a paper to create the spelling words.
  13. Write each word on a slip of paper. Cut the individual letters apart. Shuffle the letters, and then put them back in order.
  14. Get letter stamps and a stamp pad and have students stamp their words onto a paper.
  15. Write the words with a stick in the dirt outside.
  16. Write the words as stair steps, starting with writing only the first letter, then adding a letter on each line until the word is finished.


Burton, L., Nunes, T., & Evangelou, M. (2021). “Do children use logic to spell logician? Implicit

versus explicit teaching of morphological spelling rules.” The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(4), 1231-1248.

Pass it on:

Related Items

Leave a Reply


Leave Feedback