Spelling regular words: An evidence-based literacy strategy

Spelling is the ability to make a visual representation of a word. To spell, we need to think about the individual units of sound in a word (phonemes) and then write the letters that represent those sounds (graphemes). 

We can use “phonetic spelling” for most words because there’s a direct correspondence between the sounds and the written letters. About 84 percent of English words follow the sound-spelling rules of the language. These words are often called regularly spelled words. (For irregular words, students must use a whole word strategy to memorize words.)

Read on to see how this seven-step spelling routine can help students learn regularly spelled words:

  • Say the word.

  • Blend the sounds.

  • Identify the number of sounds.

  • Identify the individual sounds.

  • Spell the word.

  • Blend and check the spelling. 

  • Repeat.

Watch: See this spelling strategy in action

Watch this classroom video from EL Education to see phonetic spelling in action with students. 

Read: How to use this strategy for spelling regular words

Objective: Students will segment the sounds in a word, write a letter or group of letters for each individual sound, and read the word. 

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:

Plan daily practice. Teach spelling as part of your literacy routine (not in isolation). Set aside five to 10 minutes to practice this strategy. Also, make sure you’ve explicitly taught your students phonics blending before trying this strategy. 

Choose one to three patterns to practice in one lesson. For example, you might choose short i, oa, and g. Make sure to include only the patterns you’ve already explicitly taught or are sure your students know. (Because students most often struggle to spell vowel sound-spellings, try to practice at least one of those vowel patterns every week.) 

Pick four to six words that follow your chosen patterns. For instance, if the patterns are short i, oa, and g, the words could be goat, him, load, mitt, and sit. You can use a resource like Phinder to identify regularly spelled, decodable words by sound-spelling patterns. Double-check that each word is not an irregularly spelled word. 

How to teach:

1. Say the word (example: sit). Tell students they will be spelling the word sit today. Invite students to repeat the word. 

2. Blend the sounds. Ask students to slowly blend the sounds in the word with you. Emphasize each unique sound in the word. 

3. Identify the number of sounds. Ask students how many sounds they hear in the word (three sounds in sit). If students don’t identify the correct number of sounds, say and blend the word again, but more slowly this time. After that, if students still can’t identify the correct number of sounds, tell them the answer. You might say, “There are three sounds in the word sit. How many sounds are there?”

4. Identify the individual sounds. Tell students to listen as you blend the word one more time. Prompt students to identify each individual sound: “What’s the first sound in sit?” Then, “What’s the second sound?” and so on. As students identify each sound, give them feedback. If students misidentify a sound, tell them the sound and ask them to repeat it. 

5. Spell the word. After students identify all the sounds in the word, have them write the word on a sheet of paper or a whiteboard. You can also give students the option to say the final spelling aloud while a partner writes it for them. When students spell the word out loud, make sure they state the letters in the word, not the sounds.

6. Blend and check the spelling. Finally, ask students to point at the word they wrote, blend the sounds together, and read the word aloud. This is a chance for students to self-correct their spelling. But if students don’t see their own mistakes, offer one of these supports:

  • Repeat the check process with the student. For example, if the word is arm and the student wrote am, ask the student to identify the individual sounds again. Then ask what letter is missing. Say, “Let’s blend the sounds together in the word arm. Aaarrrmmm. What was the first sound you heard? What was the second sound? The third? What letter are you missing?” 

  • Model the correct spelling of the word. Then have students repeat the word and write it themselves. Have them blend the sounds together and read the word they wrote.

7. Repeat. Repeat this process for the remaining regularly spelled words. Offer students choices of support tools to use as they work through the steps. Some options could be: 

  • A paper or digital reference sheet that lists the seven spelling steps — with picture cues to give students visual reminders. 

  • A paper or digital reference sheet of the spelling steps with room for students to work out the spelling on their own. 

Understand: Why this spelling strategy works

With this routine, students practice phonetic spelling slowly and repeatedly. This repeated practice encourages students to focus on the individual sounds in each word. By doing that, students develop phonemic awareness, an important skill for both reading and spelling. Students also benefit from regular and immediate teacher feedback in the routine.

This strategy is useful for all students and particularly beneficial for certain groups of students.

For students who learn and think differently, repeated exposure to words helps them to retrieve the words from their long-term memory. 

For students with dyslexia and other language processing disorders, this phonetic spelling strategy helps them identify individual sounds in words — a frequent struggle for these students. The repetition in this process gives students more “think time.” Plus, with immediate feedback from teachers, students experience success again and again. Over time, students will build confidence to use the strategy on their own. 

For English language learners (ELLs), the focus on individual sound-spellings and patterns helps students whose home languages may spell sounds differently than in English. The phonetic spelling strategy gives ELLs a chance to practice identifying the new sound-spellings they have learned and get regular feedback in the process.

Give families a list of the seven steps for spelling regular words so they can practice with their kids at home. With that list, send home another list of words that includes the sound-spellings you have already taught. You can also share with families this list of common spelling rules

Research behind this strategy

“Spelling research and practice: A unified approach,” from Focus on Exceptional Children

“How spelling supports reading,” from American Educator

“Best practices in spelling instruction: A research summary,” from Journal of Direct Instruction


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