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Spelling Lists that Make Sense (and a few that don't) - All About SpellingThere are lots of ways to teach spelling, but unfortunately, not all of them work well.

Many spelling programs are based on spelling lists. In fact, most of us learned to spell—or at least we attempted to learn to spell—with some type of spelling list method.

But if you take a close look at them, most spelling lists really aren’t designed to help a child learn to spell.

The fact is, most spelling lists don’t make sense to the student.

You’re probably familiar with the “list-on-Monday, test-on-Friday” approach.

This is the most common approach to teaching spelling.

With this method, children are given a list of words at the beginning of the week, asked to write them three to five times, and then are tested on the words at the end of the week. Teacher involvement is minimal.

A popular variation of this is “Look, Cover, Write, and Check.” The student looks at the word, covers it, and sees if he can write it from memory. Then he compares what he wrote to the original word.

There are three common themes for these spelling lists.

List Type #1: Words taken from a book the student is reading. The words on these lists are usually unrelated both in terms of content and phonetic structure. For example, this 3rd-grade spelling list from Trumpet of the Swan includes words such as catastrophe, reveille, and plumage.

3rd grade-trumpet of the swan-beige-375

List Type #2: Words showing all the different ways that a single sound can be spelled. These lists can contain words with as many as six or seven different ways to spell the same sound. This list features the long I sound and includes words such as item, timed, pie, cry, light, and kindness.

Spelling Lists that Make Sense (and a few that don't) - All About Spelling

List Type #3: Words taken from the Dolch or Fry lists (in frequency order). The words on these lists have no context and are completely unrelated to each other. A list may contain the words found, wash, slow, hot, because, far, live, and draw, which are only related to each other because they are in frequency order on the Dolch list.

Many well-meaning educators feel that these spelling lists make sense.

That’s because, as adults who can already spell, we can see the organization behind the lists. The words are grouped by literary work, or by common sound, or by frequency order, and it feels like a nice, neat package that we can hand off to children to learn from.

But in reality, this is an example of the “curse of knowledge.” We can see the big picture—the common theme behind the word lists—so the lists make sense to us. But because children lack an understanding of the underlying concepts, they have a hard time learning from lists like these.

Nothing about these lists is developmentally appropriate for children.

For many children, the “list-on-Monday, test-on-Friday” method simply doesn’t work.

Besides the problem of the underlying organization of the lists, with this method the phonograms and spelling rules generally aren’t explicitly or systematically taught, leaving students to figure out the code on their own. Rote memorization of the words on the list is difficult (and boring). And the words are easily forgotten because there is nothing for the learner’s mind to “attach” the words to.

Even children who easily memorize spelling lists may have problems. When children learn to spell this way, they can become confused as soon as they encounter new or more difficult words. They resort to guessing at the correct spelling of unfamiliar words and often spell them wrong a week or two after the test. For many children, this leads to a lifetime of poor spelling.

So what does work?

We’ve looked at three types of spelling lists that don’t make sense to learners, but there is a fourth type of list that does make sense.

List Type #4: Word lists that are centered on a single, well-organized spelling concept. This is the type of list we use in the All About Spelling program.

But we don’t just hand the learner a list on Monday and expect him to have it memorized for a test on Friday. In fact, we don’t even have tests! Instead, we teach students why words are spelled the way they are, and how all the words on the list are related to each other.Spelling Lists that Make Sense (and a few that don't) - All About Spelling

For example, when we teach the IGH phonogram (which says /ī/ as in high), we teach multiple words that contain IGH, such as:

IGH words

You can easily see how the words on the list reinforce the phonogram the child has learned and give him an opportunity to practice it.

Unlike the Long I list shown in list type #2, this list has reason and logic behind it and will therefore be easy for a child to remember and use for encoding new words later on.

But we don’t stop there.

After the student learns the words that contain the IGH phonogram, we review that newly learned concept in many ways. We review using Word Cards, being sure to mix up the new words with previously learned words. We dictate phrases and sentences using the new words, and we encourage writing original sentences. In all, we incorporate four major spelling strategies (phonetic, rule-based, visual, and morphemic), as well as five minor strategies. (Check out this article on effective spelling strategies if you are interested in learning more.)

We do whatever it takes to make learning stick, which is the exact opposite of the “list-on-Monday, test-on-Friday” approach.

When you use spelling lists that make sense, it’s a win-win. Your child gets the type of teaching he deserves, and you get the satisfaction of watching him flourish.

Has your child ever been given a spelling list that didn’t make sense? Please share in the comments below.
About Marie Rippel

Marie Rippel, curriculum developer of the award-winning All About Reading and All About Spelling programs, is known for taking the struggle out of both teaching and learning. Marie is an Orton-Gillingham practitioner, sought-after speaker, and member of the International Dyslexia Association. When not writing or teaching, Marie can be found riding her Icelandic horses.


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  1. Absolutely love both AAR and AAS! My son is 5-1/2 and flew through AAS level 1. We are now on level two. I have a question about teaching him to spell words with muted vowel sounds (eg, broken, human, etc). The text says to pronounce for spelling. I am unclear as to whether I should pronounce for spelling when I dictate the word to him or whether I should dictate the word how it is regularly spoken and ask him to pronounce for spelling (something I’m not sure he is able to do, since he obviously is just learning how to spell the word correctly). Thanks in advance for your help!

    • Holly,
      Good question.

      Start by saying the word as you normally say it, then pronouncing it for spelling. Then let your son know that he will need to start pronouncing the word for spelling himself. Your goal is to work toward you saying the word normally, and then he pronounces it for spelling and spells it. The word isn’t considered mastered until he can do that. Some students pick up on this quickly and easily, and are pronouncing the words for spelling on the very first day you work on the concepts. Many will take longer, needing a lot of practice until they master this.

      For further information, here is a blog post on Making Sense of Schwas and how to deal with them.

  2. Why do you not recommend using a Sight Word based approach in addition to your All About Spelling program? My child is trying to use these most common words (Dolce or Fry list) in her writing but is misspelling them. And she knows she is misspelling them, so she gets frustrated and instead of focusing on content and developing ideas, she gets tripped up on these words. Not all English words follow a rule as in All About Spelling. I am just trying to bridge your program with what I was taught on how to teach spelling in 1st and 2nd grade; I know that my daughter needs to not only be able to spell in isolation but in her writing as well for maximum retention. I would love your insights and help in this matter. I taught 8th grade LA for six years, not elementary, so any recommendations would be helpful and much appreciated. :)

    • Sharon,
      You brought up some excellent questions!

      First, 90% of the Dolch List words are phonetic and follow the rules and patterns that All About Spelling focuses on. This article analyzes the Dolch List. Instead of asking students to memorize hundreds of words in isolation, we can teach the rules and patterns of English so that they can tackle these words. However, you are correct, not all words in English follow the rules. Starting in Level 2 of All About Spelling, students are periodically taught rule breakers, including the 21 words from the Dolch List that aren’t phonetic. The way we approach rule breakers is discussed as Problem #4 of this blog post on How to Handle Spelling Troublemakers.

      All About Spelling teaches words from the Dolch, Fry, and Ayres lists, with the exception of a few words that aren’t in common usage anymore. Plus, AAS teaches many words beyond these lists.

      Developing Automaticity in spelling is a common concern. We address it by having the student write phrases from dictation, then sentences, then Writing Station assignments where students are given 5 or 6 words and have to write their own unique sentences using them. As the the student moves up through the levels, the dictation and Writing Station assignments with each Step become progressively harder.

      I hope this helps clears things up for you, but please let me know if you have further questions or concerns.

  3. I like this approach! My 4th grader hates spelling and having to write the words over and over so this might be just what we need.

  4. I am a believer in All About Spelling after using it in my home. I have discussed it with a local private school because it is far superior to the weekly list, just go home and learn it, approach. I don’t expect any changes though because educators can be very set in their ways and tend to miss the point of education.

  5. Hanna Erickson says:

    My 2nd grader struggles with spelling I have been looking for something to help with out having weekly spelling tests. I am so glad I stumbled upon this post.

  6. After reading this post, I clicked to read “the curse of knowledge” post. Both were helpful. The curse of knowledge concept is often in my head as a reminder when teaching my preschooler.

  7. I am interested in both your AAS & AAR programs for my 4th grader. She reads at grade level, but I want to make sure she has a solid comprehension. Her spelling is getting better, but there is no rhyme or reason to our current spelling curriculum. What levels should I start her with in AAS & AAR? I don’t want to start her in too simple of curriculum, but if level 1 really is appropriate for AAS, then I will try it. What about the level for AAR?

    • Rebekah,
      For All About Reading, you can use the placement tests to decide which level would be best. Also, we recommend having your child read the sample stories from the previous level online as a further confirmation. You want her to be reading fluently with good comprehension before going to a higher level.

      Level 1 sample story
      Level 2 sample story
      Level 3 sample story
      Level 4 sample story

      Evaluate (without correcting your daughter) for the following…

      Her ability to decode the words in the story.
      Her ability to comprehend the story.
      Could she fluently read the story with expression?
      Did she understand the words from a vocabulary standpoint?

      For All About Spelling, we do recommend that most students start with level 1 to build a strong foundation in spelling.

      All About Spelling is a building block program with each level building upon the previous one. The rules and concepts learned in Level 1 are applied in Level 2, and then those are applied in Level 3, and so on. Placement for spelling is based on the student’s knowledge of spelling rules and concepts rather than grade level, reading level, or the words a student has memorized.

      For example, we find that many students simply memorize easy words like “cat” and “kid” but have no idea why one uses a C and the other uses a K, or that the same rules that apply to these words also apply to higher level words such as “concentrate.” Other students switch letters or leave out letters entirely. This usually occurs because they don’t know how to hear each sound in the word. Level 1 has specific techniques to solve these problems.

      The article Should We Start in Level 1 or Level 2? has more information on the concepts taught in level 1 and will help you decide the appropriate starting level.

      Level 2 of AAS focuses on learning the syllable types, when they are used and how they affect spelling. This information is foundational for higher levels of spelling. Three syllable rules are introduced in Level 2, and then more in Level 3 and up. For this reason, we generally recommend starting higher than level 2.

      Marie encourages parents and teachers to “fast track” if the student knows how to spell most of the words but does not understand the underlying basic spelling concepts. In this case, very quickly skim the parts that she already knows and slow down on the parts that she needs to learn. Pull out several words as examples. Make sure she understands the concept being taught, and then move on. This blog article has a good example of how you might fast track.

      I hope this helps, but if you have further placement questions or concerns please let us know.

  8. I have been looking for a spelling program for the past two weeks and I came across your blog posts which have been very helpful. I am interested in seeing how my son does with AAS. He is a very wiggly little boy and hands on are always better for him than sitting and writing out of a workbook the whole time. We have never used AAR so I wonder how he will do. Cathy Duffy’s review says that AAS is both a spelling and reading program. I am curious to find out if this is really the case.

    • Jennifer,
      The good news is that our spelling and reading programs are perfect for wiggly learners! Hands on learning is scheduled right into every lesson.

      All About Spelling isn’t a reading curriculum. Still, many students experience improvement in their reading as they use AAS because it’s work with syllable division rules and other things. However, All About Spelling doesn’t work on decoding skills, fluency practice, reading stamina, comprehension, or other skills needed to be strong readers.

      We don’t recommend starting AAS until the student is already reading. We recommend starting AAS 1 after completing All About Reading Level 1, or the equivalent reading level. You can use the placement tests to confirm if your child is reading well enough to be ready to start spelling.

      I hope this helps, but if you have further questions or concerns please let us know.

  9. We are planning to start AAS Level 1 after the holidays. My 3rd grader really struggles with spelling so we are very hopeful this program will work. AAR has helped us already! Thanks for developing such a wonderful program.

  10. We are using AAS Level 1 with our second-grader this year, and I really enjoy how it is organized. We’ve gotten a little behind in the past month or so…..we need to jump back in after the holiday craziness!

  11. Wow, this is really true for my oldest daughter! When she was at international school, she was given these random lists based on that week’s theme. I remember she always got poor scores on her Friday spelling test. She would come home in tears. One day, she even said “Mommy,” tears, tears and more tears, “I don’t think I will ever be a spelling teacher!” Then, we had a good laugh. The next year, I homeschooled her and found she has no problem spelling when I focus on teaching the phonograms and why words are spelled the way they are.

  12. Studying phonograms is how we started learning phonics and spelling. I would like to continue, but our basic phonics curriculum is too easy now. Would love to check out your spelling lists in more detail.

    • Jessica,
      We teach 72 basic phonograms. These basic phonograms allows us to spell 97% of English words. We also teach some advanced phonograms such as rh, eu, gu, and others. All About Spelling Level 7 (the final level), students are spelling high school level words. We use all of the modern Ayers list words which ranks up to 12th grade, and other various lists that rank words between 9th and 12th grade.

      Let me know if you have further questions!

  13. I’ve been searching for a program to help my struggling learner get on track without tears and frustration. Every program we’ve tried thus far has been very stressful for him. I love the sounds of the All About Spelling program and pray that we will have better results with it.

  14. This is how my daughter’s 3rd grade public school spelling tests are designed, which is good. However, it’s becoming obvious that she needs the rules and the “why” reinforced at a slower pace.

  15. This makes so much sense, especially for a dyslexic child like my son!

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