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Student-Active Learning Approach to Spelling Instruction

Jerry Zutell, Ph.D. Professor of Elementary Education and Reading, The Ohio State University

Dr. Zutell is best known for his research on word sorts and word webs. He is author of numerous articles that have appeared in journals and books such as Reading Teacher, Reading and Writing Quarterly, Language Arts, and NCTE's Encyclopedia of English Studies and Language Arts.


During the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a de-emphasis on focused spelling instruction in American schools. In their enthusiasm for more holistic approaches, many educators believed that learning to spell would happen "naturally" if students had wide experiences in reading and writing. There was also a general dissatisfaction with traditional drill and skill and rote memorization. Many school systems moved away from formal spelling materials and began using words from children's compositions as the only source of words to be studied.

More recently, however, educators have realized the value of a focused approach to spelling. While a strong language and literature-based reading program and a greater emphasis on the writing process do greatly aid students' literacy learning, they are often not sufficient to successfully teach spelling skills and strategies. Now the challenge is to develop focused approaches that not only help students become fluent spellers, but also are systematically connected to the writing process. These new approaches should be consistent with language and literature-based instruction and with child-centered, active approaches to student learning.

Why is proficient spelling important?

Proficient spelling is important for a number of reasons:

  • It is a courtesy to the reader and an aid to communication when words are spelled correctly.
  • Occasionally a misspelled word can actually change the meaning of a text and lead to serious miscommunication.
  • Misspellings are a distraction to the reader, drawing attention away from the meaning, and possibly lowering the credibility of the writer.
  • To some, a poorly spelled message implies a careless attitude and careless thinking.
  • Good spelling ability also aids the writer because a fluent speller can concentrate more fully on the message she or he wants to convey, spending less mental attention on the details of words because they can be produced easily and automatically.

Recent studies have also shown that there is a strong relationship between spelling ability and reading, both in isolation on word lists and in text reading (Morris, 1992; Zutell and Fresch, 1991). Proficient spelling requires a high degree of word knowledge, so it is not surprising that good spellers read more accurately and more fluently. A strong spelling program that significantly extends students' spelling vocabularies should have positive effects on reading speed and accuracy as well.

What do we know about how children learn to spell?

We now understand that learning to spell is not simply a matter of memorizing a list of individual words or even a set of rules and procedures. Learning to spell is a complex process in at least two important ways.

First, research has shown that learning to spell is a developmental process. Students begin by stringing random letters together. Next they attempt to match letters to the sounds they hear in words, producing "words" that are not always understood or recognized by adults. As they begin to acquire a sight vocabulary for reading, they become aware of visual patterns in familiar words, such as silent letters and letter combinations. Gradually they incorporate these patterns in their spellings. Later, children produce many conventional spellings for familiar words but still must work on how to join syllables, for example, by dropping final "e" or doubling consonants when -ing or -ed is added. Finally they learn to spell the complex patterns associated with Latin and Greek elements and other foreign words borrowed into English (Gentry, 1982; Henderson, 1990; Templeton and Bear, 1992). All of these stages of spelling development can be seen by observing the ways students misspell words and the kinds of words they are able to spell correctly.

Second, learning to spell is a conceptual process. Good spellers recognize differences and similarities between words. They establish categories of word types. They apply their developing concepts and strategies when they attempt to read and spell new words. They use the feedback they get from checking their attempts at reading and spelling to confirm or revise their hypotheses.

Seeing words often, through wide reading and regular writing provides the information to build word concepts. Building such concepts provides the "intellectual glue" necessary for words to "stick" in memory and be quickly available for recognition in reading and production in spelling (Morris, et al., 1995; Zutell, in press).

What do current perspectives tell us about children's learning?

Of course, we must also keep in mind that learning to spell is not an isolated process. It happens within the larger context of literacy development and learning in general. To internalize concepts and solve complex problems, learning must be "student-active," i.e., students must be actively engaged in the learning process. They should

  • relate what they are learning to their own experiences and activities;
  • be allowed to control a significant part of what they are to learn and how they will learn it;
  • have the opportunity to practice complex problem-solving as they are learning;
  • develop the ability to monitor their own learning, recognizing when and how they are successful and choosing to increase their efforts or change their strategies when they are not.

In this context, learning proceeds from performance assisted by teachers, peers, parents, or other "experts" to self-sufficiency and internalized, automatic control (Berk and Winsler, 1995; Graham and Harris, 1994; Tharp and Gallimore, 1991).

What are some word study and spelling activities that support student-active learning?

Based on this perspective, an effective spelling program should be organized around a cycle of events that encourages and enables students to take active control of their own learning as they develop the concepts and skills essential for accurate, fluent spelling. Such a cycle should engage students in finding words for study with the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher; examining words carefully to see patterns of relationships and to attend to the details necessary for accurate spelling; mastering words through practice activities; and developing good spelling habits (or "spelling consciousness") as children apply knowledge, concepts, and strategies to their own writing. Below I briefly describe several specific activities that support student-active learning and have been shown to be effective in developing children's spelling ability.

Word Hunting

Word hunting actively engages students in finding new words that they want or need to learn. It is an effective instructional activity for several reasons. It gives students a sense of ownership and decision-making about their learning. It helps them recognize the relevance of what is being studied to their own reading and writing activities. It is a way to individualize spelling word lists to match the instructional level of the learner. And it encourages students to attend to word features in ways that make learning words easier.

Word hunting can be as simple as allowing students to choose a few words to study each week, or it can be used to reinforce the study of a particular spelling pattern or strategy. With the former, teachers allow students to hunt for any words that they want or need to learn.With the latter, teachers direct students to hunt for words that illustrate a spelling pattern or strategy being taught. In either case, the words come from students' reading, writing, and curriculum.

Word Sorting

Word sorting helps students notice important features of words being studied, and it can contribute significantly to students' proofreading abilities (Zutell and Compton, 1993).

First, words are written on individual cards or paper strips. Then students sort their words into columns or categories according to the features that teachers ask students to examine.

Depending on the instructional purpose, word sorts can be

  • closed (teacher-determined) or open (student-determined);
  • single (one sort with one set of words) or multiple (multiple sorts with the same set of words);
  • semantic (based on meaning rather than spelling) or orthographic (based on the relationship between pronunciation, letter pattern, or meaning and spelling);
  • blind (with decisions made after each word is said, but before it is seen) or visual;
  • done in a group, with a partner, or individually (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, and Johnston, 1996; Zutell, in press).

Word sorting significantly increases students' ability to read words and spell them (Hall, Cunningham, and Cunningham, 1995; Weber and Henderson, 1992). There are several important features that make it so effective. Word sorting is manipulative--students can move words around and compare them directly to decide which words fit together. It is also flexible--students have the opportunity to change their minds and rearrange words as they see patterns and contrasts emerge. Feedback from the sort itself, peers, or the teacher can lead to the discovery of a new set of relationships and easy revision. Word sorting is conceptual in that sorts require the formation of categories and decisions about class membership based on significant word features. In order to sort successfully, students must focus not individually on pronunciation, pattern, or meaning, but on the connections between each of these and specific spellings. Peer sorting also allows for the use of discussion as a tool for discovering underlying relationships. When students sort with a partner, they explain their choices, support each other in those choices, or justify why they think words should be moved to different columns. When the accuracy of the sort is clearly established, students can be required to sort on their own and then "speed sort" to ensure internalized, automatic control.

Flip Folder

A flip folder is a simple but effective device for independent spelling practice. To make one, use an ordinary cardboard file folder. Position the folder horizontally, with the wide, open end closest to your body and the fold furthest from your body. Cut the top half of the folder into three, equal "flaps," trimming from the wide, outside edge to the fold. Each flap should remain connected to the folder at the fold. Write "Look-Say-Cover-See" on the first flap, "Write-Check" on the second flap, and "Rewrite" on the third flap. Then position a piece of paper horizontally, and divide it into three columns to match the three flaps. Ask a student to copy his or her spelling word list in the first column, and then slide the list into the folder. Then ask the student to follow the directions on each flap. As students use the flip folder, they can focus on the part of each word that they have trouble spelling. The flip folder combines the advantages of a manipulative with the popular look-and-say, cover-and-see method of word study. It is excellent for independent practice.


Almost any board game can be adapted for spelling practice. Just change the rules so that to complete a move, a player must spell one of his/her spelling words correctly. Then ask students to write each of their spelling words on a separate game card. Games offer at least three important advantages: (1) they keep student interest high, (2) they allow students to compete on equal footing with less able and more able spellers (simply ask each student to work with his or her own stack of spelling word cards), and (3) since players are responsible for checking the accuracy of their opponents' spellings, games engage students in examining a wide variety of words and spellings.

Peer Testing

In peer testing, students exchange word lists with a partner, test each other on their lists, and then correct their own tests to see what they have learned. When used for spelling practice, peer testing can help students coach each other and become more comfortable with the testing process.

Like the flip folder and games, peer testing is effective because students must produce correct spellings without seeing the word list, a significantly more demanding and appropriate activity than simply writing the words a certain number of times. All three practice techniques also offer the advantage of putting students in control of their own learning. The result? Students are much more willing to spend the time and effort required to learn the words that they are studying.

Word Journals and Word Study Notebooks

Word journals and word study notebooks are other ways to encourage students to take an active role in their own spelling development. A spelling journal can help students keep track of words that they want and need to learn, including words that they have not been able to learn in a spelling lesson and words from their reading and writing. The journal entries can then be added to weekly spelling lists. This process personalizes spelling lists and makes study more meaningful. Words are entered in a, b, c order.

A word study notebook is a conceptually challenging alternative to a word journal. With the notebook, students enter words by patterns, such as ch words or vowel-consonant-silent e words. New words and pages are added as new patterns are studied. Words that include more than one important pattern can be entered on more than one page.


The Directed Spelling Thinking Activity or DSTA (Zutell, 1996) is a lesson format that incorporates many of the activities described in this pamphlet into a process-oriented cycle of instruction. First a short pretest on words with contrasting patterns is given. This pretest helps students predict how they think each word is spelled. As the pretest is corrected, the teacher guides a group discussion about the logic and accuracy of students' attempts to spell each word. This discussion engages students in spelling as a problem-solving, strategic activity. On the following day a teacher-modeled word sort helps students discover the relationships between contrasting word patterns. Over the next several days students make connections to their own experiences and take greater control of their learning as they hunt for words with similar patterns, sort words with partners and on their own, and use a student-chosen, teacher-guided selection of practice activities which may include the flip folder, spelling games, and peer testing. A final test provides information for the teacher and for self-evaluation, and serves as a guide for journal or notebook building, which in turn lead to choices of words for future study.


Current insights into the nature of learning, specific discoveries about spelling development, and recent studies using student-active techniques all point to a change from traditional spelling instruction. In the future, effective spelling programs will replace rote memorization with study techniques that get students actively involved in their own development as spellers and writers.


Bear, D. R., M. A. Invernizzi, S. Templeton, and F. Johnston. (1996). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Berk, L. E., and A. Winsler. (1995). Scaffolding children's learning: Vygotsky and early childhood education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Gentry, R. (1982). a four-letter word. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Graham, S., and K. Harris. (1994). The role and development of self-regulation in the writing process. In D. Schunk and B. Zimmerman (Eds.), Self-regulation of learning and performance: Issues and educational applications (pp. 203-228). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hall, D. P., P. M. Cunningham, and J. W. Cunningham. (1995). Multilevel spelling instruction in third grade classrooms. In K.A. Hinchman, D. L. Leu, and C. Kinzer (Eds.), Perspectives on literacy research and practice (pp. 384-389). Chicago: National Reading Conference.

Henderson, E. (1990). Teaching spelling. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Morris, D. (1992) Concept of word: A pivotal understanding in the learning to read process. In S. Templeton and D. Bear (Eds.), Development of orthographic knowledge and the foundations of literacy (pp. 53-78). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

--, L. Blanton, W. Blanton, J. Nowacek, and J. Perney. (1995). Teaching low-achieving spellers at their "instructional level." Elementary school journal, 96, 2, 163-177.

Templeton, S., and D. Bear (Eds.). (1992). Development of orthographic knowledge and the foundations of literacy. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tharp, R. G., and R. Gallimore. (1991). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning and schooling in social context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, W. R., and E. H. Henderson. (1989). A computer-based program of word study: Effects on reading and spelling. Reading psychology, 10, (2), 157-162.

Zutell, J. ( In press). Word sorting: A developmental approach to word study for reading and spelling for delayed readers. Reading and writing quarterly.

--. (1996). The Directed Spelling Thinking Activity (DSTA): Providing an effective balance in word study instruction. Reading teacher, 50, 2, 2-12.

--, and C. Compton. (April, 1993). Learning to spell in the elementary grades: The knowledge base for effective teaching. Paper presented at the 38th annual convention, International Reading Association, San Antonio, Texas.

--, and M. Fresch. (May, 1991). A longitudinal study of reading and spelling connections for third and fifth grade students. Paper presented at the 36th annual convention, International Reading Association, Las Vegas, Nevada.

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