Spelling Instruction

There are several ways to teach and reinforce spelling words for special needs learners. 

Many students are reluctant to practice spelling words because they have difficulty with handwriting itself.  Others are not motivated to study independently.  It is important to keep in mind that some students have learning styles that respond best to ORAL testing, while others are able to excel when working on pencil and paper testing.  Others may prefer doing spelling work by choosing a correct answer from a multiple choice group, similar to standardized test formats.  It is important to know your students’ optimal learning styles to assist them in doing their best.  The following list contains some “options” for practice and testing of spelling that have proven successful over my twenty years of classroom teaching experience.  Additional suggestions may be found on internet web sites, such as http://www.ldonline.org, clicking the appropriate links found there. 


Instead of merely writing word lists three to five times each, try the following exercise.  It promotes independent work, and it usually motivates the student to compete with himself.  Visual learners benefit from using this method of study.  The student is to copy (or work from a parent-supplied copy) of the spelling word list.  Copy words down the left margin, skipping lines.  Provide the student with a narrow strip of blank paper.  The student is then instructed to:

      a.  Cover the spelling word list.  “FLASH” the first word — look at it long enough to get a “mental picture” of the word.

      b.  “COVER” the word and tell the student to “WRITE” the word using the “mental picture” that he made. Encourage him to speak each letter as he writes it.  This will provide maximum attentiveness. 

      c.  The student is to check the accuracy of his first written word and compare it to the original. 

      d.  This process is to be completed until the student can write the word correctly THREE times in a row.

      e.  He may then proceed to the next word.  “FLASH-COVER-WRITE” is done for each word.

   2.  FILL IT

When students are “reluctant” writers, try the following for spelling practice.  “FILL IT” helps reduce handwriting load, yet it helps students focus on the most difficult portions of the word.

      a.  Start with a short group of words.  Write the original words down the left margin. 

      b.  Next to each word, print each word, but omit two or three letters.  (If you have observed that the student is typically making a specific error, make certain that at least one of the respective letters is left out.) 

      c.  Cover the original word list.  Challenge the student to “FILL IT” so that each word is complete.  Do this ONE WORD at a time until it appears the student has mastered that word with two-three blanks.

      d.  Keep removing more and more letters until the student can correctly spell the entire word.  Make it fun and get excited when the student is able to reproduce the entire word from memory.

      e.  This exercise can be adapted successfully for students who prefer to work orally.


   For the student who needs some help seeing similarities and spelling patterns, it is very helpful to teach him how to re-write a spelling word list that groups similar words together.  Surprisingly few textbook manufacturers today use this simple tool to assist beginning spellers, yet it is very important for students who cannot readily discern differences in the sounds or the spelling rules used. 

     a.  In the early part of this process, which should take about two months, the parent/teacher re-organizes the spelling list for the student, grouping similar patterns, such as doubled letters, silent “e” words, initial consonant blends. 

     b.  The parent/teacher explains the rationale for the grouping to the student, and the student is taught to study the words by their groups.

     c.  Testing is administered BY GROUPS of similar patterns

     d.  Gradually, over the two months, transfer responsibility to the student, so he groups the original spelling list into reasonable groups. Expect the student to be able to explain his grouping choices.  The exercise is to teach him to seek out details in words. 

     e.  Finally, simply assign the “GROUPING” as the first day’s spelling assignment, and allow the student to do it all.

     f.  Testing can be gradually changed to words randomly arranged from the lists so that they are no longer taken by groups.  Initially, however, the student will probably protest when he is tested on a word list that is in a different order from the list on which he studied.  The long-term goal, however, is mastery of each word as it stands alone — not as it falls within a set pattern on a list!  Work patiently to achieve this last step.  Do not undermine the student’s success, but work to steadily stretch his confidence.


   Sometimes spelling terms are taken from content area textbooks.  When the student’s spelling list is based on a specific vocabulary, this exercise can reinforce both vocabulary meanings as well as provide a method for the student to self-test his spelling of the terms.  It would be typical to think of having a student draw as a way to help him escape vocabulary study.  In this case, however, the choice of what is drawn and the work itself are reinforcing the student’s learning of a definition!  Correctly done, this exercise permits the student to self-test, which develops independent study habits.

     a.  Take a word list and a set of small plain file cards.  The cards do not need to be full sized for this unless the student is very young or writes very large letters.  (For additional study benefits, colored cards can be used.  Different colors can be assigned separate functions, such as pink cards for nouns, or for important muscle names, while blue might serve for verbs,  and so on.)

     b.  Ask the student to carefully print one word on each card.

     c.  Now show him that he must double check his spelling, since he will be studying from these cards.

     d.  One at a time, help the student to think of a way to either draw something that will help him recall the meaning of the word OR to write a short definition. 

     e.  Once all the cards are drawn, have the student begin work with them.  This can be done as follows:

          1.  The student looks at the word and tries to recall the definition — this is actually more difficult.

          2.  The student can look at the picture, recall the correct term AND write/recite the correct spelling. 

        **For students with serious motor-control problems, the words can be spelled orally by speaking into a tape recorder, and then a parent or sibling can help them look at each word on the card as they listen to the tape playback. 


One side of the file card has a word printed; the back side of the card illustrates the meaning.


Students who have trouble spelling longer words can frequently be helped by dividing words into syllables.  The rules that govern syllabication of words help students to hear separate parts of the word and transfer that information into correct spelling.  Students should be taught to use dictionaries and/or glossaries to divide words, as well as to learn the correct pronunciation from the “KEY” at the base of each dictionary page.  Have students write words in syllables as one of the daily exercises in their weekly spelling assignments.