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Building Strong, Confident Spellers

It’s happened to every teacher: You finally get your students in their seats working on a writing task, only to be bombarded with the question, “How do you spell..?” For some students, a lack of confidence in their spelling creates a barrier to their writing fluency and doubles the time needed for writing assignments. Sometimes, it leads to avoidance of writing activities altogether. In this post, we will share ideas for routines and activities that explicitly target spelling skills, building more confident and proficient spellers that are ready to tackle new words!

Cover photo with title Building Strong, Confident Spellers : Routines and Activities to Start Your Year Off Right


When we provide students with a consistent, structured process to sound out and spell words, as well as repeated opportunities to practice this process, they will eventually internalize it. The more automatic this process is for them, the more confident they will become. For many students, “sounding it out” doesn’t come naturally, and they need to be explicitly taught spelling strategies in addition to letter-sound correspondences.

Simultaneous oral spelling steps look and listen, repeat and segment, name letters and write, read and check

Simultaneous Oral Spelling

Simultaneous Oral Spelling (SOS) is a multisensory strategy that supports spelling while also reinforcing letter-sound knowledge (Birsch & Carreker, 2018). It is a routine to teach and implement during spelling activities that students can then carry over into writing tasks. Routines like SOS give students a clear starting point for every word, and break the words down into manageable pieces. The steps are as follows:

  1. Look and listen while the teacher states a word to spell.

  2. Repeat the word. Segment the sounds, tapping a finger for each.

  3. Name the letters while writing the word.

  4. Read the word aloud and check spelling.

These steps can vary. Finger tapping while segmenting can be replaced with other kinesthetic activities like moving a physical manipulative. Some programs or teachers may not include oral naming of the letters during spelling.

For multisyllabic words, teach students to first break the word into syllables (e.g. mon - u - ment). Many programs suggest having students tap their fist on the table for each syllable, then tap fingers to segment the sounds one-by-one. For example, if students are spelling the word “practice” it might sound like this:

“Prac” - “tice”

“Prac /p/ /r/ /a/ /k/” (student spells this syllable, then returns to the second syllable)

“Tice /t/ /i/ /s/”

Many struggling spellers can have difficulty holding sounds in their memory, so spelling the words one syllable at a time can help them better attend to each phoneme in the word.

Using Available Resources

Depending on the classroom, students may have tools available to assist them with spelling. Allowing students to use reference tools can be valuable during writing tasks where students must tackle words that are beyond what they have been taught. They are also very valuable when students are editing their work and checking their own spelling!

There may be a sound wall students can reference when they’re having trouble spelling a word with the long “a” sound. There may be an alphabetized word wall for those tricky irregular words that are introduced throughout the year. Or maybe there are dictionaries available for students to look up long words they’re stuck on.

Many students benefit from explicit teaching and modeling of how to use these resources to help themselves. I like to intentionally make mistakes and model how I can check and correct myself, when appropriate. Keep in mind however that ultimately, we want students to use their own understanding of syllables and letter-sounds as their first strategy when they get to an unfamiliar word.

“Brave” Spelling

Sometimes students just need to know that it is okay to make a spelling mistake. Does this mean we want students to throw all their phonics knowledge out the window when they begin writing? Absolutely not! But students’ ideas and word choice are often more advanced than the spelling patterns they have learned. We want them to feel empowered to translate their ideas to paper. Still using the concepts and processes we’ve taught them – but without getting discouraged when they are unsure about a word!

Especially with primary students, we liked to have a lesson with our classes about being “brave spellers” who aren’t afraid to try, even if they might make a mistake. Making mistakes is part of learning, and oftentimes sharing their ideas is more important than how they spell.


The goal is for students to not only be confident spellers but also accurate spellers. These routines and activities will work best when paired with direct, multisensory phonics instruction that follows a clear scope and sequence. Spelling activities should align with the phonics pattern being introduced for decoding practice. They should not just be based on memorization, but rather application of a new letter-sound correspondence students have been taught!

Spelling Dictation

Spelling dictation is an opportunity for students to spell a list of words intentionally chosen to practice a particular phonics pattern. The list is focused on a pattern (e.g., -ay), rather than lists that are organized by concept or book (e.g., “transportation” or words from Charlotte’s Web). It also is the perfect activity to introduce Simultaneous Oral Spelling and build up that internal system that can quickly break apart words into syllables and sounds.

We use different dictation templates (available here) depending on the students and lesson. Dictating words AND sentences can be a great way to review previously learned concepts and practice writing conventions. Click on the picture if you’d like to see more examples of our dictation templates.

spelling dictation templates words and sentences

Word Ladders or Word Chains

This spelling activity is a great tool for phonological awareness development, too! In a word chain, the words you ask students to spell change by just one sound at a time (e.g., spell “cat” → change “cat” to “cot” → change “cot” to “rot”). We like to use a write and wipe template for these activities so students can quickly change the letters. Magnetic letters or letter tiles are also a fun way to practice this!

sparked literacy's write and wipe word mapping templates

Irregular Words

It can be useful to have a reference available in the room for irregular words when students get stuck, but this is often not enough to get students remembering the spelling on their own. Words with truly irregular parts (such as “said” and “was”) can be introduced in a way that draws attention to the regular and irregular parts. Then, multisensory practice with seeing, reading, saying, and spelling the word can help students to memorize it. We made a fun, foldable resource with direct instructions and steps for teaching students these types of words. Check it out here or by clicking the picture!

multisensory learned word foldable for spelling irregular words, heart words, sight words


The confidence to spell words is essential to student writing development. In addition to building students’ spelling abilities, these routines and activities can build students’ confidence with spelling so that they can access all other writing activities that are so important to their learning!

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Written by: Rachel Draper & Taryn Quaytman

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC



Birsh, J. R., & Carreker, S. (2018). Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills (Fourth Edition). Paul H Brookes Publishing.


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