9 strategies for learning primary school spellings

Spelling letters
If learning spellings always ends in tears and tantrums, trying another technique could help make it a less stressful process. We've rounded up the best methods to try.
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Unless you’re in a small and very lucky minority, helping your child learn their spellings probably drives you to the brink of insanity – week after week after week. It can be a thankless task, and even more so when, despite all their practice, your child still only manages to get four out of 10.

Primary schools often have their own preferred strategy for learning spellings, but there’s no guarantee that that particular method will work for your child. Fortunately, there are other ways of practising that might suit them better and help them get full marks every week.

Look, say, cover, write, check

Look, say, cover, write, check is the method used to practise spellings in most primary schools. It works because it’s a multi-sensory approach, using sight, sound and touch: research shows that the more senses a child involves in their learning, the better the outcome.

With this method, your child will start with a list of spellings written down on paper. They then go through the following steps:

  1. Look at the word carefully. Pay attention not just to the letters and their order, but also to the shape the word makes on the page
  2. Say it aloud. Say the word both as you would usually say it, and then again enunciating any silent letters, e.g. Wed – nes – day.
  3. Cover the word with a piece of paper or your hand
  4. Write the word down from memory.
  5. Check your answer letter by letter. If you’ve got it wrong, write it out again correctly.

Children are usually encouraged to repeat this once a day.

Download our free Look, Cover, Write and Check free blank word list template to put this technique into practice at home.

Spelling sentences

More commonly used in KS2, this involves practising spellings by writing sentences that include the words that have to be learnt. For example, if a child was given the word ‘highlight’ to learn, they might write:

‘Going to the roller disco was the highlight of my weekend.’

The benefit of writing sentences is that it doesn’t just help children learn how to spell the word, but it also reinforces the meaning and how to use it in context. Teachers sometimes make the task more challenging by asking children to write a compound or complex sentence.

Dictation

This is similar to spelling sentences, but instead of children writing their own sentences, the teacher reads out a sentence that includes the spelling word. The child has to write down either the word itself, or the whole sentence, for example:

‘A shape with four sides is called a quadrilateral. Spell 'quadrilateral'.”

This is the method used to test spelling knowledge in both the KS1 and KS2 SATs.

Spotting patterns

Often, children will be given a list of words that are connected by a certain rule, such as ‘I before E except after C.’ Making sure your child knows the rule can take a lot of the effort out of learning what might look like difficult spellings, as the pattern can be applied to most or all of the words. It is, however, important that they know any exceptions to the rule to avoid slipping up.

Listen and spell

This may seem like an old-fashioned way of learning spellings, where the word is simply read aloud and your child has to write it down. But while it may not be the most revolutionary or exciting technique, it works well for children who are auditory learners.

There are two different ways to do this:

• Saying the whole word aloud and getting your child to write it down.
• Spelling the word out letter by letter, with your child writing each letter as you say it.

You can make the task more engaging by letting your child record themselves saying the words aloud using your phone or tablet; they can then play the recording back and write the word down.

Mnemonics

Often used for so-called tricky words (generally those that don't follow a spelling rule), a mnemonic is any sort of memory aid that helps you remember something. The most common type of mnemonic is an acrostic, where you make up a sentence where each word starts with the letters in the word to be learnt, for example:

Big elephants can always understand small elephants = ‘because’

However, mnemonics can take many forms: a visual learner, for instance, might draw a picture that helps them remember how to spell the word.

Tracing

Here, your child copies out the words that they need to learn using their best cursive handwriting. They then place a sheet of tracing paper over the top and trace the words they’ve written. This helps your child build a muscle memory of the word, and can be a useful tactic for kinaesthetic learners who learn best when they’re doing something physical.

Beat the clock

If your child is the competitive type, getting them to practise their spellings against the clock might appeal. This is as simple as it sounds: you read out the word and get your child to either write it down or spell it out aloud, and see if they can do it a bit faster each day.

It’s a useful task if your child is preparing for a spelling bee or similar timed spelling competition, but make sure that you check that they’re spelling the words correctly, especially if they’re spelling them out loud.

Word puzzles

These take a bit more preparation, but word puzzles such as crosswords, wordsearches, anagrams and Hangman are great ways to make spelling that little bit more fun. These encourage children to think carefully about the order of letters in a word. You’ll find lots of wordsearch and crossword makers like Puzzle-Maker online.