The weekly spelling list

The weekly spelling list is still a feature in the homework given to thousands of schoolchildren every week. Rarely, if ever, is this practice greeted with any enthusiasm. Children/students with good visual memories can often battle their way, with the appropriate amount of practice, through the ordeal. Students with less than stupendous visual memories struggle from the outset.

Then, of course, there is the parental input – very often this is based on the strategies the parents used when they were at school and most often involve something to do with letter names and/or remembering the word shapes, or just writing out the word multiple times.

After all that, whether the student gets 100% in the spelling test or not, the exercise is rarely translated into successful spelling of those words a couple of weeks later in the student’s own writing.

So, if you are a teacher, parent or carer whose child is regularly sent home with a list of random spellings to learn for the following week, here’s what to do to prepare them in a way that improves their code knowledge, their skills of segmenting and blending, and their understanding of how the alphabet code works.

Day 1
Sit down next to your child with the word list next to you but on the other side of your child. You need to be able to see the list but your child must not.
You need a whiteboard and pen or a piece of paper and pencil.
Tell your child what the first word is. Let’s say it is ‘work’.
Ask your child to tell you the sounds in ‘work’ and, in full sight of the child, write the spellings for the sounds as your child says them: /w/ /er/ /k/, spelled < w > < or > < k >.

Having done this, ask your child to read the word, sound by sound, followed by the whole word. An optional extra at this stage is to provide more scaffolding such as by pointing to each spelling in the word and asking your child to say the sounds as you do. You can also ask your child to draw a line under each sound. Thus, w or k. This makes explicit the way in which each sound is spelled. If your child needs further explicit instruction, given that the spelling < w > and the < k > are relatively straightforward, point to the spelling < or > and say, “This is the way we spell /er/ in this word. It’s two letters but it’s one sound.”

Now go through the whole of the rest of the list in this way. If words contain more than one syllable, syllabify the word and then deal with each sound in every syllable as you would in a single syllable word. For example, if the word happened to be ‘witchcraft’, you would separate it into two syllables ‘witch’ and ‘craft’. The spelling that might be likely to be more challenging would be the < tch > for /ch/ and you could talk about it being a spelling alternative for /ch/: “It’s three letters but it’s one sound.”

When you’ve completed the list, ask your child to write each word and say the sounds as they do, always saying the whole word as they complete it. For example, /w/ /er/ /k/, ‘work’.
When you have completed the list, ask your child to read all of the words once more and underline the sound-spelling correspondences in each word.

Day 2
Repeat the process in exactly the same way.
If you feel it isn’t overloading the child with information, you could also make the point that we do sometimes spell the sound /er/ as < or > after the sound /w/ and give some examples: ‘world’, ‘worm’, ‘worse’, etc. The better your code knowledge, the better you’ll be at this!

You could also do further word analysis by asking your child what they would have to remember in any particular word, i.e. any spellings which, for them, might be harder to remember. And you need to remember that this is an individual thing, i.e. a sound-spelling correspondence in one particular word may be easy, while another is really hard.

Day 3
Now it’s your child’s turn!
This time, you call out the word and your child writes it, saying the sounds as they do, and then reading back the whole word. If your child makes an error, point to where the error occurred and correct it. For example, if your child spelled the word ‘work’ as ‘werk’, you would point to the < er > and say, “This is a way of spelling /er/ but in this word, we need this spelling.” And follow this by writing the spelling < or > or simply say, “It’s the ‘oh’ ‘ar’ spelling.
When the list is complete, ask your child to read all of the words again.

Day 4

Repeat as necessary. You may think that by Day 4 you are beginning to ‘beat the whole thing to death’.  I don’t think this is true because people who can read and write often don’t realise [‘expert induced blindness’] just how much work needs to go into teaching children the same knowledge and skills they, as experts, have acquired.  All of this work is valuable: whether you are pointing out for the tenth time that < or > is a spelling alternative for /er/, or whether you are simply honing those segmenting and blending skills, it’s all money in the bank for later!

2 thoughts on “The weekly spelling list

  1. Thank you! My son has been bringing home a spelling list for the past two years and instructed to complete it independently using a ‘say, cover, write’ technique. It is getting him nowhere! To be honest, sometimes he can’t even read the words he is mindlessly copying, but he hands in a ‘homework’ sheet that has them all spelled correctly at the end of the week.
    I’ve been at a loss for how to help him, but I am looking forward to trying this new technique with him.

    1. Hi Carly,
      Thank you for getting in touch and telling me what’s been happening with your son.
      To be perfectly honest, I think that it’s bonkers to give a student a word they can’t read and expect them to be able to spell it. The other thing about the technique Look/Cover/Write/Check is that it can work if a student can already read and write the words; otherwise, it’s simply a whole word memorisation exercise. Even for students who have a test on the words on the following week and get full marks or nearly full marks, when you look at their written work in two or three weeks time, the same words usually appear misspelled.
      Ideally, words that are sent home should be linked by sound. For example, words containing the sound /ae/ as in ‘play’. In this instance, the word list might include ‘train’, ‘stray’, ‘grey’, ‘break’, ‘slate’, ‘apron’, ‘vein’ and weight’. These eight different words are all linked by different spellings of the sound /ae/.
      Let me know how you get on and if you have any difficulties.
      Best wishes,

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