5 Ways to Improve Your Students’ Spelling

Spelling is a bit of a personal bug-bear for me… it’s not something I’m naturally great at, but as such I tend to focus on it and double check it in my own writing. I found that my Russian students, faced with an entirely different script, tended to spend a lot of their early English lessons learning the alphabet and the sounds made by the different letters, whilst my Czech students, with roughly the same alphabet plus a few accented characters, have largely overlooked this. As a result, I get lots of ‘Mondej’ and ‘čis’ (Monday and cheese respectively  – rendered as they would be if spelt phonetically using the Czech alphabet). Spelling is, to put it bluntly, a problem.

Here are five different ways I encourage my students to learn and to practice spelling in class.

Pacman

Undoubtedly the gem of spelling practice as far as I’m concerned is a little game called ‘Pacman’. No prep, no materials, and students love it.

  • Stand students so that they are spread out around the room with a fair amount of space between them.
  • Call out a word for the students to spell. If a student knows how to spell the word they put their hand up and call ‘me!’
  • Choose the first student who answers to spell the word (you can also sneakily nominate someone who isn’t participating or paying attention). If the student spells the word correctly, they can take a step towards another student.
  • When a student is close enough to touch another student, the ‘touchee’ is out.
  • The game is played as sudden death – each student only has one attempt to spell the word and any mistakes mean the attempt to spell passes to another player. The final student standing is the winner. (Students who are out can help the teacher to select words to spell).

Spelling Secret Codes

For this activity you need several print outs of a ‘secret code’ – a good example can be downloaded for free here: Secret Code Spelling . I tell my students not to write on them and then collect them in at the end of the activity, so it can be used on multiple occasions or with different classes.

  • Write a word on the board using the secret code as an example; I often write ‘Hello’ or my name. Show the students a copy of the secret code and give them 1 minute to find out the word – write the letters under the symbols on the board as they deciper each letter.
  • Divide the students into pairs (or small groups as desired). Give each group a copy of the code, a blank piece of (scrap) paper, and a copy of the coursebook/the words you want them to practice spelling.
  • Ask each group to choose x number of words (4-6 works well) and write the words in the secret code. They must not show or tell the other group(s) which words they have chosen.
  • After all the groups have written their words, take away the coursebooks and swap over the written coded words. The students race to decipher the other group’s words.

Chain Spell

Again, this is not an idea I can take credit for – it comes from a booklet called ‘Crazy Animals and Other Activities for Teaching English to Young Learners’ published by the British Council. It’s pretty stirring and so should be used with care and appropriate settling activities!

  • Divide students into two teams. Each team has a pen and stands in a line infront of the board.
  • Say a word, and the students must write this word on the board. However, each student may only write one letter at a time before passing the pen to the next student.
  • Students can correct their teammates’ mistakes, but the ‘one letter’ rule still applies. If they change an incorrect letter it counts as their turn and they must pass the pen on to the next student.
  • The first team to spell the word correctly earns one point for their team. The team with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.
  • The original description of the game (I have paraphrased here) says that it should be played using a total of six words – I’ve found this to be a good number. It can be tempting to extend it, but using more words either results in the students losing interest, or getting overly excited; either way it weakens the activity.

Anagram Jumble

I designed this activity for a class of mine who are quite weak, and who needed to become familiar with the format of the Cambridge YLE Starters exam. It requires more prep time than the previous activities, but could be used in revision or exam practice.

  • Before the activity prepare handouts with pictures of the vocabulary and anagram envelopes – envelopes or small plastic bags containing letter cards for each word. Arrange the envelopes around the room to create different work stations.
  • Divide the students into pairs (or small groups as desired). Give each team a handout showing pictures of the words they will need to find. The worksheet I prepared for clothes vocabulary can be found here: Anagram Pictures. (Optional: if your students are weak you can check they know what the pictures are at this stage).
  • Gather all the students around one anagram work station. Nominate one student to open the envelope, then encourage the students to work together to move the cards around and find the word. All the teams can then refer to their worksheet, find what picture the word refers to, and write the word in the space on their worksheet. Stress that after they have found the word they should mix up the letters again, otherwise they are helping the other groups!
  • The students then work in their pairs/groups and race each other to solve all the anagrams.

Spelling tests

They may not be cool, fashionable or student-centred, but I have to admit to being a fan of the humble spelling test. Giving the students a list of ten words to go home and learn for the end of the week/the following lesson etc makes learning spellings a manageable (and thus achievable) task, and gives a meaningful result for both students and teacher. Most importantly, it highlights to students that spelling *is* important, and demands that at least every so often they do focus on it.

Taking ten minutes out of a lesson to ask students to write the numbers 1-10, dictating ten words, and getting the students to peer mark is simple, takes minimal prep time, but is still effective.

spelling
And finally, a reminder that no matter how hard you try, students will always find a way…

I’d love to hear from you if you try any of these out and have any feedback, or if you have any other tricks and tips you use in class. 

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