Spelling irregular words: An evidence-based literacy strategy

By Shannon Kelley, MAT

English has plenty of rules — but language doesn’t always follow the rules. When it comes to spelling, about 16 percent of English words break the rules. These words are spelled in a way that the letters don’t match the sounds. That can make spelling these words tricky.

To spell irregular words, students must use a “whole word” or memorization approach. (For regularly spelled words, you can use a phonetic spelling strategy.)

Read: How to use this strategy for irregular words

Objective: Students will use memorization techniques to recall and produce irregularly spelled words.

Grade levels (with standards):

  • K–5 (Common Core ELA Literacy CCRA.L.2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Small groups
  • Individuals

How to prepare:

Choose words to teach. Choose one or two irregular words each week for students to practice. (Students have to memorize words to use this strategy. Kids who have trouble with short-term memory may need to practice the same words over and over again.) 

Use a resource like this list of irregular, high-frequency words from Read Naturally to identify which words to teach. You can also choose irregular words from the books your students are reading. Remember to double-check that those words are irregular words. 

Plan to practice. Work this strategy into your weekly literacy routines. Make sure to practice these irregular spelling words before asking students to read for comprehension or fluency.

How to teach:

1. Choose one word (example: was). Write it on the board, a handout, or flashcard (or all three). Use a digital option if that’s available. 

2. Introduce the word. Tell students they will be spelling the word was today.

3. Repeat. Ask students to repeat the word. 

4. Explain what’s different about this word. Tell them that this word doesn’t follow the normal patterns in English. Explain that the best way to learn the word is to practice it many times and focus on each unique letter as they spell it. 

5. Tell students how the word is spelled. Emphasize each letter. For example, you might say, “Was is spelled w, a, s.”

6. Prompt students to repeat what you just said. Ask, “How do you spell was?” Tell them to say it with you: “Was is spelled w, a, s.”

7. Check for understanding. Ask students to tell you on their own how the word is spelled (“Spell was”).

8. Reinforce. When students spell the word correctly, reinforce their responses. “That’s right, was is spelled w, a, s.” If students don’t spell it correctly, tell them the spelling again: “The word is was. What’s the word? Was is spelled w, a, s. Tell me, how is was spelled?”

9. Offer different ways to practice. Staring at the same flashcard may not help some students remember the word. Variety is really important. Let students choose how they want to repeat the spelling of the word several more times. For example:

  • Pretend to dribble a ball as you say each letter, then shoot the imaginary ball as you say the word.
  • Write the word with your finger in a tray of sand or shaving cream.
  • Type the word.
  • Write the word on a whiteboard.
  • Close your eyes and write it in the air.
  • Do a jumping jack as you say each letter and then a push-up as you say the full word.
  • Write the word with your finger on a piece of sandpaper.
  • Write a sentence that uses the word. 

When you add multiple senses to the learning experience, students will be more likely to engage in the activity. Keep in mind that each child has different sensory needs and will have different preferences.

10. Practice every day. Include these irregular words in a daily practice over the course of several days so students have multiple opportunities to work on the word. 

Understand: Why this spelling strategy works

Research shows that a student’s spelling ability directly relates to reading ability. That’s because the ability to spell a word shows how well the word is stored in a student’s long-term memory. The more words students have in their memory, the more fluent their reading can become. But even strong readers can struggle with spelling. That’s why all students benefit from spelling practice. 

Because irregular words don’t follow the rules, they need to be explicitly taught and memorized. This strategy gives students a variety of ways to repeatedly say, spell, write, or read the word. By focusing on only one or two irregular words each week, students will practice the same words for many days. 

For students who learn and think differently, the repetition gives them the extra practice needed to commit a word to long-term memory. It also helps them to practice the same word in a variety of ways.

For English language learners, learning to speak, read, and write in a new language can be challenging. Frequent practice with irregular, high-frequency words allows them to add these new words to long-term memory faster. This supports the development of both their written and oral language.

Share this resource with families to help them understand why some kids struggle with spelling. You may also want to share a list of multisensory techniques that families can use at home to support their child’s reading and spelling skills.


Research behind this strategy

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    About the author

    About the author

    Shannon Kelley, MAT is a PhD student in educational psychology. She previously taught secondary English and special education.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Allison Posey, MEd, CAST, Inc. is a curriculum and design specialist at CAST.