Building Your Own Spelling List

Posted: September 10, 2020 | Updated: September 10, 2020
Created by: Ms. Sylvia

Do We Really Need to Learn to Spell These Days? Really? (Yes.)

Ah, spelling. A confusing but beautiful subject.

Yes, we live in an age of spellcheck and autocorrect, which can make it seem as though learning spelling rules and perfecting the nuances of the language is a waste of time.

But learning to spell is still important and even surprisingly relevant. Spelling solidifies the connection between letters and sounds; it strengthens pattern identification and mathematical thinking; spelling can help young writers gain confidence in both their reading and writing. Though--rightly or wrongly--spelling and writing skills also affect our ability to communicate and how we are perceived by prospective employers, friends, and connections, I feel that those social dynamics are secondary to the real cognitive benefits that a focus on spelling can bring to young learners.

That said, it’s important to be relaxed enough about learning to spell that children feel uninhibited in their writing. Some children will limit their stories or descriptions to the words they know how to spell. Spelling and descriptive writing both have value and deserve focus, and you can certainly emphasize and build up both. If you have to choose, then prioritize beautiful language, description, and storytelling in the early years (pre-K through 2nd), then when that is established, focus on spelling. But remember -- both are important.

Three Easy Steps to Building a Developmentally Appropriate and Academically-Tailored Spelling List

If you are homeschooling or looking to supplement your child’s education, this might be your first time building a spelling list. If you are a phenomenal teacher who has a background in math, science, history, art, music or any other subject than English language who has always chosen spelling lists at the last minute because it’s just not your focus, this might inspire you to make a few simple changes. Whatever your need, we are here to help you not only create a list, but to make a meaningful list.

It can be tempting to choose spelling words based on the vocabulary you want to focus on, but let me convince you to keep those lists separate! Vocabulary is just as important as spelling, but it is a separate skill. We humans begin speaking long before we learn to write, so our knowledge of words outstrips the words that we can accurately spell. There may (and should) come a time when the two knowledge sets converge, but for elementary and even middle school learners, it’s important to sequentially develop a student’s understanding of spelling conventions in ways that a vocabulary list simply cannot serve.

Today, I will share with you the tools I found most useful in developing spelling lists for my students. There are many different spelling programs and many different approaches, but here is my favorite approach in three clear steps:

1. Start with sight words

An amazing colleague of mine called sight words “friendly words”, because they are the words that visit so many books and stories. Like good friends, they’re the words you recognize right away and can get excited to see over and over. Learning sight words, which are often exceptions to the spelling “rules” or norms, helps students master words that they will often use. This builds confidence as a reader and as a writer. For young learners, this is a great starting point. If a student has mastered these, skip straight ahead to the next step. If a student is still working on these, infuse sight words systematically into their targeted “word work”, based on what you learn from the next step.

2. Do a “Spelling Inventory” from Words Their Way

My favorite assignment to correct is always a spelling inventory. Why? Because this simple assessment gives so much data while placing a very low assessment burden on the students. It’s also hugely rewarding to save their spelling inventories and note their progress. I truly cannot say enough good about this teaching tool.

So what is a Spelling Inventory? It is a product of the Words Their Way spelling approach. I would strongly recommend purchasing their materials (often you can find a used older edition for a very affordable price), but you can access the inventory itself, along with instructions on how to use it, for free.

Words Their Way breaks spelling down into five stages of development that children move through in the primary years through upper elementary (and often into middle school, if not beyond). Those stages are Emergent Spelling Stage (generally pre-K to 1st grade), when a child is still working to identify beginning and ending sounds, then the Letter Name - Alphabetic Stage (generally grades K through 2), when a child is mastering the alphabetic principle, followed by the Within Word Pattern (generally grades 1 through 4), where letter combinations and patterns are mastered within shorter words, followed by Syllables and Affixes, where more complex beginning and ending patterns are addressed, then leading to the Derivational Relations phase (generally grades 5 - 12). As you can see, several stages can overlap and students move through these stages at different paces, but in my experience these stages are an extremely accurate and helpful label for the progress we all make in our journey toward a better understanding of this strange English language.

For me, this was a resource that completely changed (and improved!) the way I approached teaching spelling. I hope it will be the same for you.

3. Build a spelling list that targets your students’ needs

When I used Words Their Way in the elementary classroom, I had students complete a Spelling Inventory at least four times each year. I used what I saw in those Spelling Inventories to create differentiated spelling lists. Though in an ideal world each student might have their own personalized spelling list, I was able to facilitate four different lists to target different stages and skills that students were developing. As they looked for patterns within their list, students would share out the spelling patterns they “discovered”, so that everyone could benefit from their knowledge while all students targeted skills in their developmental stage.

If you are designing a list for one specific student, you can really zero in on the skills that you see need developing from the Spelling Inventory. Of course, you can generate these yourself, but I was very impressed with the suggested lists from the Words Their Way books, which is another reason to purchase a copy for yourself.

Next Steps

Wherever you derive your targeted spelling list, finding ways to practice the words in a meaningful way is the next important step. Words Their Way has wonderful resources for this… and so do we! Be sure to check out our monthly Spelling Challenge or simply browse our suggested Spelling activities to find integrative ways to practice and master the words from your list.