photo of the alphabet as seen by naturally occurring letters on the backs of butterfliesSpelling is part of the Common Core State Standards, but doesn’t receive much coverage in education journals.  Often teachers use the same old same old strategies to teach spelling skills, including:  use the word in a sentence, copy the word ten times, look it up in the dictionary, say the letters of the word as a class in unison, take practice tests, syllabify it, and so forth.  However, if the spelling word is to stay in the human brain for longer than the spelling test, then one needs to expand the range of strategies to include methods that reach into other areas of the brain than just the linguistic areas. I like to use Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as a framework for looking at creative ways to learn how to spell words.  Here are eight ways to teach spelling skills based on Gardner’s eight intelligences:

  • Word Smart – use the traditional methods as described above (many of them are good strategies, just overused).
  • Number/Logic Smart – digitize each word (e.g. assign a one to consonants and a zero to vowels), or alternatively, learn common spelling ”rules” (e.g. ”i” before ”e” except after ”c” or when sounded as ”a” like in ”neighbor” and ”weigh”), and/or learn how to analyze a word according to its root along with prefixes and suffixes.
  • Picture Smart – visualize each word, or alternatively draw a picture of the word adding elements to the letters that stand for the meaning of the word (e.g. for the word ”bike” put spokes in the lower part of the ”b” or for ”tree” put leaves on the ”t”).
  • Body Smart – do spelling calisthenics (e.g. spell the word out loud while standing up on the vowels and sitting down on the consonants).
  • Music Smart – sing the letters of the word out loud (e.g. for seven letter or fourteen letter words, sing the letters to the music of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, for three or six letter words, Three Blind Mice, etc.).
  • People Smart – distribute single letters from A to Z one per class member and extra letters for frequently  used letters like A, E, and S.  Then for each spelling word, if you have that letter you come up to the front of the class and spell the word out as a small group.
  • Self Smart – let students spell the words the way they want to (as they think it is spelled) – this is called developmental spelling or invented spelling – research supports the idea that if children are left to come up with their own spellings, they will follow a developmental course from gibberish, to phonetic spelling, to a combination phonetic and graphic spelling, and ultimately to the socially approved orthographic spelling.
  • Nature Smart – for the nature lover, start with spelling lists consisting only of things in nature; or alternatively spell letters in sand or dirt using a stick, or cut up the photo (above) of letters found naturally on the surface of butterflies, and use them in spelling words.

These strategies should give you a sense of the broad range of methods that can be used to master the orthographic arrangement of letters in each word.  Then again, there’s the quote from humorist Mark Twain, who said:  ”Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.”

For more ways to teach spelling, vocabulary, math skills, and other academic topics, see my book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th Edition.

photo of book

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education -

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4 Responses
  1. Mahdi M. A. Ibrahim

    Hello there,
    I wonder if you kindly send me some of the characteristics of a good spelling within an essay.
    Mahdi Ibrahim, Ph.D.
    Arish University

  2. I don’t understand your request. Good spelling within an essay would require that all of the words in the essay were spelled correctly, (i.e. with the accepted orthographic version of each word). Maybe I’m missing something in your request.

  3. Angela Fulbright

    My son is 8 years old, and diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and a genetic abnormality. He is very high functioning, but struggled with spelling throughout this last year of school (second grade). Despite this, he has been working on a pirate story on his own free time and sometimes during lessons It is a very cool story, but his spelling is all “self smart”. He wants me to work with him during the summer on the story. How can I help him improve his spelling without discouraging his creativity? Should I let him continue to use “self smart” and refrain from correcting his spelling?

  4. I wouldn’t sweat the spelling. The important thing is his writing and that he enjoys being creative with it. He could always ”read” his story to a speech-to-text app and then print out the story and read it over to himself and/or others (maybe even bind it into a book form). This way he’ll absorb properly spelled words in the context of real reading and writing and won’t have someone trying to correct him over his shoulder while he’s being creative.

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