Tuesday, October 24, 2023

In many classrooms across the United States, spelling lists are no longer viewed as the critical tool for instruction that they once were. In the 21st century, most students complete their schoolwork using technology such as spell check to automatically correct spelling errors. Now that students have access to tools like spell check, Grammarly, and word predictors, do spelling lists have any instructional value? While online spell checkers provide instantaneous support for students, they do not offer long-term impact for students to spell effectively (Yen et al., 2022). Although our computers and smartphones provide omnipresent access to spell checkers, which correct immediate poor spelling on emails and in texts, these devices cannot observe and remediate the close relationship between decoding skills, developed through reading instruction, and the establishment of encoding skills, learned through spelling instruction (Frisby & Wang, 2018).  

Researchers have consistently found that the mastery of spelling is essential for acquiring other English language skills and developing literacy, (Yen et al., 2022). These spelling skills establish critical connections between the processes of learning to read and the processes of learning to write (Frisby & Wang, 2018). Additionally, spelling skills have been shown to support reading comprehension and fluency (Ritchey, 2008). Spelling skills, too irreplaceable to leave in the hands of spell check, prove crucial and predictive of future literacy skills.

What Should We Avoid When Creating Spelling Lists?

Many teachers may be unfamiliar with recent research on effective spelling instruction. Because of this knowledge gap, many teachers are not systematically and explicitly teaching spelling (Frisby & Wang, 2018). Many teachers administer spelling tests to their students out of obligation; however, for spelling lists to inform instruction, they must go beyond rote memorization. The conventional method of teaching spelling involves lists of about fifteen “grade-appropriate” words for students to memorize, but the words on these lists do not necessarily exhibit any targeted morphological or phonics patterns. Thus, these lists do not always systematically instruct children, nor do they inform additional instruction because these lists do not monitor the progress of student’s mastery of learned spelling or phonics patterns.

How Should Spelling Lists Look?

The very basis of spelling skills is encoding words using phonetic and morphological rules. The central reason for spelling lists is to provide students with words that allow them to put into practice what they have been explicitly taught so that they can demonstrate their ability to discern words in reading for application purposes in writing. Grouping words with similar structural and morphological characteristics can be an effective strategy for supporting spelling mastery (Frisby & Wang, 2018). Additionally, progress monitoring assessments in spelling must require students to demonstrate mastery in skills that align with the scope and sequence. To learn more about scope and sequence, check out our previous blog post, “Scope and Sequence: What Is It, and How Do Educators Use It to Guide Instruction?” Instructing in this way ensures learning and mastery while also dictating a pace throughout the curriculum. When assessments include both reading and spelling elements that encompass skills that should be mastered, teachers truly can get the most out of these formative assessments.

Why Include Nonsense Words on Spelling Lists?

Nonsense words address a student’s understanding and ability to apply a phonics rule while controlling for familiarity. Teachers can use nonsense words as a helpful tool to assess the mastery of specific spelling and sounds patterns. While reading authentic texts, students will come across words that are not in their explicit vocabularies and need to practice encoding unfamiliar words. Using nonsense words can sharpen the encoding skills of students until the process becomes automatic. Research has proven nonsense word fluency’s predictive ability for phoneme segmentation fluency and rapid automized naming among native English speakers (Vanderwood et al., 2008). Phonemic segmentation refers to the ability to break down words into their phonemes. Rapid automized naming refers to quickly and accurately naming a series of familiar items aloud. Both of these skills are necessary for students to develop in order to read fluently. A student’s ability to fluently encode nonsense words in the first grade can be indicative of a low risk for future reading difficulties (Vanderwood et al., 2008).

How Often Should Students Receive Spelling Lists?

Research suggests that administering weekly spelling lists can support steady progress of correct spelling over the school year (Frisby & Wang, 2018). If teachers are aligning formative spelling assessments with progress through a scope and sequence, then the timing of spelling tests will align with the class's progression through curriculum units or with specific skill introduction and instruction within the scope. In this case, it would stand to reason that tests would be administered every week to ten days. Through these spelling tests, progress monitoring occurs through the course of the year, in addition to observing generalization of learning and retention (Hintze et al., 2006.)

How Can We Use the Results of Frequent Spelling Assessments?

The outcomes of these formative assessments can inform whole class instruction, can be used to establish flexible small groups for instruction, or even assist in determining if students need to be moved into an intervention group to master certain skills. For example, if a weekly formative assessment shows that a few students are still struggling with the previously taught long /i/ sound, then a teacher can use that information to inform groupings for her next lesson and spend some time targeting instruction on long /i/ in that small group. The teacher may also choose to incorporate some words with the long /i/ sound in the next formative assessment to track students’ progress.  For students that are struggling with spelling concepts, which will ripple to affect other English language skills, research supports the idea that repeating early spelling concepts in early, responsive interventions will result in steady growth on future mastery assessments (Simmons et al, 2015). As a result, getting a frequent stream of data can help teachers identify students in need of assistance (Simmons et al., 2015). Periodic assessments highlight which instructional adjustments should be made to prevent further literacy skill deficits for those students.


The following example illustrates how to design a spelling list that aligns with a scope and sequence and how to use results from spelling tests to inform instruction. Download your own Spelling List Template to create your own spelling list as you follow along with our example.

In a scope and sequence, the following concepts have been previously taught and are to have been mastered:

  • The 26 core graphemes
  • Digraphs
  • c /k /-ck usage
  • CVC
  • CCVC
  • CVCC
  • suffix -s
  • suffix -es

Current instruction has been based on CVC words ending in s, f, l, or z.

Given the position in the scope and sequence, an appropriate spelling test may look like the following:

5 words that review previous concepts:

  • kit
  • than
  • shacks
  • boxes
  • bonds

5 words that require application/discernment of current instructional skill:

  • fill
  • boss
  • zip
  • stuff
  • buzz

5 nonsense words that require application/discernment of current instructional skill:

  • muss
  • shep
  • kiff
  • vill
  • fip

Once a student has successfully spelled all the 15 words above, they have shown that they can apply the concepts that have been previously taught, as well as the concept that is being currently instructed with accuracy and discernment; in other words, they can prove they have learned what has been taught. This information can be used by educators to advance individual students or classes forward in a scope and sequence with confidence that learning has occurred as expected.

If errors occur, the teacher needs to discern if that student is making a one-time mistake or if the mistake is indicative of a bigger phonological misunderstanding or missed instructional concept  For example, if the focus of instruction is CVC words ending in s, f, l, or z, and a student consistently misspells CVC words that end in the /s/ sound like “moss” or “boss,” this may indicate that they need additional practice opportunities targeting this spelling pattern. If the spelling list includes words that demonstrate only mastered or instructional concepts, the teacher will be able to discern if the mistake is indicative of need for additional instruction or reteaching; whereas, if the spelling list is not carefully constructed to contain multiple words that demonstrate the rule, the teacher will not gain any helpful data about her class. Moreover, if the teacher notices that multiple students in a class are misspelling the same words, that teacher will know to go back and reteach that spelling rule to prevent further literacy gaps.

Ultimately, the mastery of the spelling skill is imperative to developing many English language skills, such as general reading and writing proficiency. With current technology, spelling skills have been overshadowed by spell check and word predictors. Effective, informative spelling instruction is an integral part of elementary education because spelling mastery is predictive of early literacy ability and retention of other language skills beginning in primary education (Ritchey, 2008). Systematic and explicit spelling lists which follow a scope and sequence set our students up for success for a lifelong crucial literacy practice.


Frisby, C., & Wang, Z. (2018). An evaluation of the word triad method for monitoring spelling progress. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 34(2), 101–133. https://doi.org/10.1080/15377903.2017.1381660

Hintze, J. M., Christ, T. J., & Methe, S. A. (2006). Curriculum-based assessment. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 45–56. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.20128

Ritchey, K. D. (2008). The building blocks of writing: Learning to write letters and spell words. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 21(1-2), 27–47. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-007-9063-0

Simmons, D. C., Kim, M., Kwok, O., Coyne, M. D., Simmons, L. E., Oslund, E., Fogarty, M., Hagan-Burke, S., Little, M. E., & Rawlinson, D. (2015). Examining the effects of linking student performance and progression in a tier 2 kindergarten reading intervention. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48(3), 255–270. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219413497097

Vanderwood, M. L., Linklater, D., & Healy, K. (2008). Predictive accuracy of nonsense word fluency for English language learners, School Psychology Review, 37(1), 5-17, https://doi.org/10.1080/02796015.2008.12087904

Yen, E., Hashim, H. & Yunus, M. (2022). A systematic review of mobile learning trends in supporting the mastery of spelling. International Journal of Interactive Mobile Technologies (iJIM), 16, 59-80. https://doi.org/10.3991/ijim.v16i24.33633