Five Brain-Friendly Spelling Techniques for Difficult Words

Introduction

I get a lot of questions about spelling because there’s so much debate about how we should teach it. I’ve worked with struggling spellers for over 30 years, and I want to share with you these five, easy, no-cost techniques that have worked best for my students. I’ve worked with some of the most challenged spellers you’ll ever meet, so I know these brain-friendly techniques work and can help your child too.

You may be skeptical. When your child’s spelling looks like a license plate (Cn u spl?), you have cause to be deeply concerned. Let me encourage you: your child can learn to spell and with far less effort.

Is Spelling that Important?

Strong spelling skills are crucially important to writing. Kids who often stop to think, “How do you spell that?” cannot maintain their train of thought well enough to write adequately. Poor spelling becomes a ball-and-chain to the writing process, and they become stressed and resist writing. Cognitive psychologists tell us writing is one of the most burdensome mental tasks we ask of our kids. We want to make sure they’re strong spellers so they can write without the cognitive load that poor spelling places on them. The more familiar your child can become with a word, the easier it will be to spell.

Why Does My Child Struggle with Spelling?

Your child is struggling because he’s studying words at a reading level rather than a spelling level. This means that he is briefly glancing at the spelling word and creating a general impression of how it looks. The representations we build for words we’re learning to read don’t need to be as accurate as the ones we create when we’re learning to spell. For example, your brain can make sense of, “Do yu wnt sme cookys?” even though I’ve misspelled most of the words.

Good spellers build clear, accurate mental representations of words. You can think of these representations as “templates” you see in your mind’s eye. Good spellers have an accurate picture of what the word looks like, readily seeing each letter in the correct sequence. They are good at building a template for each word and can effortlessly reference it whenever they need it. They know when a word doesn’t look right because it isn’t matching the template in their head. Some kids come at this naturally. Their brains just do it. The good news is that we can teach this skill of “templating” words. Kids who learn to template words well find spelling much easier to learn.

Let’s return to the general templates we build for reading words: they don’t work for spelling. Spelling requires your child to make a precise, clear, totally sequential template for words. By studying at this in-depth, more analytical level, the brain can accurately recall the word template later. You see this happening all the time. A child will study a word like “because.” The first time he spells it, he may write: “becuz.” He studies it again, and the next time it is “becuase.” He’s working from a better template than the original, but he hasn’t formed a complete and stable template yet. And, until he does, he will continue to misspell “because,” and become an expert at misspelling it. This process of building a fuzzy template for a word and then practicing its misspelling is why kids struggle so much with spelling. As the great philosopher Winnie the Pooh astutely noted, spelling can be “wobbly” because “the letters get in the wrong places.”* A child who can build a robust template for a word will not have to endure wobbly spelling.

What Spelling Basics Should My Child Know?

We should discuss some fundamentals of learning to spell before we dive into my five favorite techniques. Your child should know two foundational ideas about spelling. His spelling program should cover these and have him automate the most common spelling words.

  • Every syllable has a vowel.
  • We spell meaningful word parts, like suffixes and prefixes, the same way every time.
  • The 100 Most Common Words. These words should be some of the first kids learn to spell, and you should teach them to automaticity because they help form all the sentences your child will ever write.

If your spelling program isn’t covering spelling basics like these, look for another program.

The 5 Best Spelling Techniques for Learning “Booger” Words

Every child has what I call “booger” words. That is, there are certain words that he will struggle to learn to spell. I tell my students this and reassure them that if they use these techniques, they can get rid of this nasty problem and make writing a lot easier.

1. Word Templating

All brains benefit from visually analyzing spelling words. Most words a child struggles with are the visually odd ones that don’t look like they sound, such as “rhythm” and “beautiful.” Visualizing these words makes a lot of sense. William James’ work on eye-accessing cues, from the late 19th century, is the basis for this technique.

To make it easier for your child to template any word in his mind’s eye, have him follow these steps:

  • Print the word with a black marker on a white 3x5 index card. For most kids, a printed template rather than a cursive one seems clearer and thus easier to recall. Black is helpful because it provides the greatest contrast to a white background, making it easier for the brain to create a memorable image.
  • Have your child put the card in his left hand and place the card in the air so that he must look up high and to his left to see it. If he is left-handed, he should hold the card in his right hand and do the same but to his right. We don’t ask kids to spell the word aloud because we want them to focus fully on what the word looks like.

    Proper arm and eye Positions for Word Templating. 

    • Tell your child, “Take several mental photos of this word. Now take the best photo and put it in your brain so you can pull the word out whenever you need it.”
    • Remove the index card and have him continue to look up at where the index card was. Ask, “Can you pull the picture from your brain and see each letter clearly?” If he says no, no worries. Repeat step c. as many times as he needs. The more he tries to create mental pictures of his spelling words the easier it will be for him to create clear, accurate word templates.

    Mental Pictures of Spelling Words Lead to Accurate Word Templates.

    • Once he spells it correctly, you can make the template stronger by asking him questions about the word. He should be able to look up where the card was and answer these questions without looking at the card itself. But, again, if he can’t, encourage him to take more pictures of the word.
    • How many letters are there?
    • How many vowels? What are they?
    • How many consonants? What are they?
    • Are there more consonants before or after a particular vowel?
    • Can you start with the second letter and spell the rest of the word?
    • Can you start with the last letter and spell it in reverse sequence? For example, “because” is “e-s-u-a-c-e-b.”
    • Spell the word by first spelling the vowels and then spelling the consonants in order. “Because” would be spelled “b-c-s-e-a-u-e.”

    A student who can answer these questions has developed a robust template for the spelling word. It’s unlikely, but if your child answers these questions but then doesn’t remember how to spell them the following day, you should try spaced practice with these words. Since this is such a deep level of study, there should be only a smattering of words that require the additional step of spaced practice.

    Additionally, if your child seems to have trouble seeing the word in his mind’s eye try the following:

    • Have your child try the other side. Most kids find it easier to create a first-rate image of the word when it’s on the opposite side of their dominant hand, but there is a small percentage who prefer working from the same side as their dominant hand.
    • Once he’s taken a picture, have him spell it aloud immediately. The longer he waits, the harder it is for him to visualize the template he created.

    Quick Story

    When my students are trying to remember what a word looks like, I have them look to the spot in the air where they template their spelling words. Even if they didn’t learn the word this way, I’ve found they are far more likely to be able to visualize and spell the word correctly if they look to their “spelling spot.”

    2. Backblasting

    Backblasting is a technique we created to make learning to read easier for kids. It’s also great for improving spelling because taking a word apart and reassembling it sound by sound helps your child’s brain see how the sounds of a word map onto the letters.

    Here’s how backblasting works:

    • Choose a booger word from your child’s spelling list.
    • Have your child read the word repeatedly, dropping the foremost sound each time. Make sure he looks at the word while doing this.
    • When he says the last sound in the word, have him rebuild it, one sound at a time, until the word is whole again. Note: the goal is to analyze words by sounds, not letters.

    Example:

    The Backblasting Sequence for Simple WordsAs your child progresses to more complex words that are three syllables or larger, backblast by syllable. For example, let’s backblast the word “remember.”

    The Backblasting Sequence for Complex Words.

    3. Speed Spelling

    This is the technique for those kids who get 100% on their spelling tests but still have poor spelling in their writing. What’s happened is they learned the words well enough to retain them for the week’s spelling test but not deep enough to make them stick for the long haul. When a child only has to think about how to spell the word “because” in a spelling test, he may be able to spell it correctly. But this can all fly out the window when he’s writing. Now, not only does he have to remember how to spell “because,” but he also must remember the next several things he wants to write. His brain becomes overloaded, and the first thing to go for most kids is spelling because the expectation to get something on paper is higher than to spell accurately.

    Follow these four steps for speed spelling:

    • First, quiz your child and be sure he can get a 100% on the words. The last thing you want to do is practice error. Consider breaking the list into two or more sets if your spelling program covers a lot of words in one lesson. For example, breaking 20 words down to two 10-word lists feel more manageable to the brain.
    • Quiz your child as before, but for speed spelling you time yourselves. How fast can he write down the words you give him? Consider yourselves a team. As he’s writing a word, you should give him the next word on the list. When we ask the brain to respond quickly, we help it automate that task. Speed spelling gently pushes his brain to learn the word more deeply and prepares him to use the word in writing, since, as writers, we must be able to hold more than one thing in our heads as we write the current thought.
    • Give the spelling quiz repeatedly in this way, until you feel there’s no way your child can shave another second off his best time. At this point, he’s automated the spelling words, and he’ll not only get an excellent grade on his spelling test but more importantly, he’ll be able to spell these words in his writing.
    • Celebrate! Give your child a fist-bump, a few extra minutes on a favorite activity, or extra read-aloud time before bed. These are just a few ideas. Highlighting growth is important. You’ll see more of it when you do.

     4. Active Ways to Review

    Just staring at a spelling word doesn’t help your child’s brain build a richer template of it. This is a passive way to study spelling words, and passive studying is inefficient. Since the brain doesn’t have to recall anything, it isn’t working so it can’t form a robust template. Here are a couple of ways to help your child actively review his spelling words:

    Hidden Words

    This game is a fun and simple way to study actively. Look at the word and see if there are any smaller words in it. In our example, “because” the words “be, cause and use” are “hidden” within the word. Even if there are no hidden words in a word, like in “light,” looking for smaller words within a word still forces the brain to slow down and analyze the letters and their sequence. It makes the word less wobbly and builds a stronger template for the brain. 

    Spell What’s Missing

    Here’s another, near-effortless way to study a word actively. In our example, “because,” I’d write some of the letters and have my child fill in the missing letters. I might write “b_ca_s_,” and have him fill the blanks in with the missing letters, “e-u-e.” You can flip this technique and have your child write the word with the missing letters for you to fill in. Have your child “correct” your work as this will cause him to look closely at the word’s spelling, another active studying of the word. 

    I recommend working on a dry board for two reasons:

    • We don’t want kids to see misspelled words and unwittingly template the misspelling. Dry boards allow you or your child to erase the misspelled word quickly.
    • Dry boards are forgiving. If your child makes an error, it’s easy to wipe away and forget it occurred. Not so with paper, and for some kids, their study time becomes hijacked by their embarrassment and frustration over the errors the crossed-out or erased marks leave.
    5. Loading Words

      When you create a load for a spelling word, it’s like a football player who wears a weighted vest during practice sessions. During the game, without the load, everything seems a little lighter and more comfortable for him. We do the same thing mentally when we load kids during spelling.  The words will effortlessly pop into his head, and he will get through his work more accurately and quickly because he’d been “loaded” when he practiced them. This load is intentional, temporary, and beneficial, unlike the one I mentioned earlier in this post.

      Add a load once you’re sure your child can accurately spell the words. You’re helping your child to overlearn his spelling words so that he can get them right in his writing as well as his spelling test.

      Learning to spell words isn’t a favorite activity for a lot of kids, or parents. Loading lends itself to fun. It’s easier to remember what you’re learning when you’re in a light-hearted, positive state. Here are some ways not only to load your child so he can develop a stronger template but also to keep spelling time a little lighter and fun:

      Pool Noodles

      Have your child whack a chair, or you. Each time he hits the object, he calls out a letter. You can also join in and take turns calling out the letters. I have found pool noodles to be one of the best investments in “educational” equipment.

      Sit-ups

      Simply have your child say the letter of each word as he completes each sit-up. A lot of kids have weak core muscles because they are not playing and exercising much. Sit-ups are a great way to build up those critical muscles.

      Bounce on a Mini Trampoline

      Each time your child bounces, he says a letter of the word he’s studying. Many kids are sitting too much. Get them up and moving whenever you can.

      These are just a few of my favorite ways to load. The list is endless. The point is to get your child to do a second activity as he reviews his spelling words. Think about what your child enjoys and try to incorporate it into a load. Does he love soccer? Have him dribble the ball calling out each letter of a word every time he taps the ball with his foot. Vary the loads, so he doesn’t get overtired or bored with a particular load. The fun and novelty of a load can wear off fast.

      Why Do These Spelling Techniques Work?

      The techniques work because they can help your child build the rich, distinctive template he needs to analyze words and recall a word’s correct spelling accurately. It doesn’t matter if he is in 1st or 11th grade. The techniques work because they create the robust visual memories necessary for any word he needs to learn.

      Can I Use These Spelling Techniques with My Child’s Spelling Program?

      Sure. Your child will learn to spell some of his words through the program. Use the techniques in this post for words the program doesn’t seem to help him with.

      Is It Worth the Work?

      It will cost your child some extra work to study spelling words at this deeper level.  While this is not exciting, his alternative is to be weighed down by spelling errors as he tries to write. Don’t let apps that check spelling and grammar fool him into believing he doesn’t need to learn to spell. The more errors an app flags, the more time your child will lose in correcting them. Also, poor spelling will still be costly because the apps don’t catch everything. Finally, spelling is a proxy for intelligence. Even if your child writes the most compelling essay in his class, researchers tell us his readers will think he is less bright even if he makes just a few spelling errors. Helping your child build his spelling skills is well worth the time.

      Do you know someone who could benefit from this article? Be sure to share!

      Quick Story

      I recently worked with a bright 8th grader who hated to write because he was such a poor speller. (He ranked in the 5th percentile.) After about eight weeks of using these techniques, his spelling improved markedly. He began keeping a journal, and the quality of his writing samples took a leap because he wasn’t trying to “write around a word” (that’s when kids use simple substitute words so they can avoid spelling the more accurate, but difficult word they wanted to use.) He wrote a paragraph about a rocket he wanted to build and used words like “explode” and “parachute.” Being able to write more easily about rockets excited him and motivated him to do more research on it. That’s the power of spelling.

      What’s the Idea Behind These Spelling Techniques?

      The basic idea to remember is that spelling is simply a visual representation of sound mapped onto letters. Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t always use the same letters to make each of its 44 sounds. Spelling varies from word to word. For example, the short u sound is the first sound in “umbrella.” There is a logical match between the short u sound and the letter “u.” But this same sound is in the word “does.” Here the short u sound matches, or “maps onto” the letters “oe.” Crazy! But it is what it is, and we must help our kids develop perfect templates for unfair words like “does” because English is loaded with unfair words.

      Do I Need to Use All the Techniques for Each Spelling Word?

      No! That would wear you and your child out and isn’t necessary. Every child has certain words that he will struggle to learn to spell. You only pull out these techniques when you run into those booger words.

      Experiment with these techniques. You may find one that works particularly well for your child, and it’s the only one he needs to use when he’s working on a tricky word. Some kids need to apply more than one technique to template a huge, green booger word. Deeply analyzing a word from more than one angle is their ticket to becoming good spellers.

      Your Take-Aways

      • It’s common for kids to struggle with spelling because the English language doesn’t consistently “map” sounds to letters.
      • Kids who learn to analyze words at the spelling level, rather than only well enough to read them, become strong spellers.
      • Good spellers build rich, robust templates for words that they can readily see in their mind’s eye.
      • While building these templates takes a little more time and work, it’s well worth the effort. Good spellers are mentally freed up to share the fullness of their ideas.
      • This post shows you five simple, highly effective spelling techniques: word templating, backblasting, speed spelling, active ways to study spelling words, and loading. You can use one or all these techniques with your child to help him learn any words that he is struggling with. Goodbye booger words!

      Do you want to learn more about how your child learns? Join our mailing list (below), and we'll let you know of new blog posts and announcements. We never try to sell you stuff through our emails. 

      Have questions? Ask me below. I’d love to help.

      Bridget Mosley, MEd, is a WowzaBrain cofounder and a Cognitive Learning Specialist with more than 30 years’ experience as an educator, reading clinic director, and parent workshop speaker. She is a die-hard fan of parents who believe they can help their kids overcome learning challenges.

      *Milne, A. A. (1926) Winnie-the-Pooh. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.


      2 comments

      • Hi Sherry,
        Thanks for reading the post and sharing it. I’m glad you find it helpful.
        If you have any questions about the spelling techniques, please let me know.

        Bridget Mosley, MEd
      • Thank you so much for sending! It is such a great article, and I have forwarded it to several of my friends. Please tell Bridget thank you from us. We are going full force on spelling next week as it is still such a struggle for my son. We both have been discouraged in this area, but Bridget’s blog is very encouraging. Thanks again!

        Sherry

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