Monday, July 11, 2016

English Spelling: Making Sense of the Chaos (Part 4)

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

In previous blog posts, I shared my own personal struggles with spelling, I described the class I have been teaching for a year, I shared some hard-learned lessons about teaching spelling to international students, and I listed some of the key elements to an intermediate level spelling curriculum.

This is all well and good, you may be thinking, but isn’t teaching a spelling class about the most boring thing you could ever do? Not at all! Because spelling is a tough, personal, and challenging mental activity, it’s really important that my classes be as active and interactive as possible. I want my students to be moving, laughing, talking and learning. So, now I want to describe some of the activities I used in my spelling class to help liven things up and give students multiple exposures to spelling “rules” to ensure greater retention.

Activity #: What Color do you Hear?

As I mentioned in Part 2 of this blog series, students have a really hard time hearing the difference between certain vowel sounds. If they can’t distinguish between /ɪ/ and /iy/, how in the world can they begin to spell words containing either of those sounds? To provide students with extra practice with this, we play “What Color do you Hear?”

First, I introduce a set of vowel sounds, such as the relative or short vowel sounds (/æ/, /ɛ/, /ɪ/, /a/ and /ʌ/) using the Color VowelTM Chart, which assigns each vowel sound a color and a noun to help students and teachers easily identify it. For example, /æ/ is “Black cat” and /ɛ/ is “red dress.” Then, I create a set of index cards with the target vowel symbols and colors on each card, like this:

What Color do you Hear

Once each student has a set of cards, I call out a word from the Oxford 3000 that contains a target sound. For instance, I might call out “drink” and students would hold up the card with /ɪ/ on it. Or, I might call out “health” and the students would hold up the /ɛ/ card. I like having the colors because it makes it very easy to see which students are getting it and which are still having trouble distinguishing between the sounds. (There are always way more of the latter than you’d expect!) I don’t keep score, but you could, to make it a little more exciting. In my experience, the students find this activity challenging enough even when they are only competing against themselves.

Activity #2: Ten Paces and Turn Spelling Style

My coworker taught me about this spelling game and my students really liked it. Basically, I divide the class into two groups and bring one person from each group up to the front of the class. The two students stand back to back. I start spelling a word, letter by letter. Each time I say a letter, the students take a step away from each other, so they are walking in opposite directions. As soon as one of them thinks he or she knows what word I am spelling, he or she turns around and shouts out the word. The first student to correctly guess the word gets a point for his or her team, but each student only gets one guess. If the student’s guess is wrong, he or she is “out” and the other student keeps walking and trying to guess the word. One criticism of this games is that it allows limited student involvement. The rest of the class is sitting and watching as only two students “play” at a time. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how engaged the entire class was. I could see they are all spelling the word along with the students at the front, and there is a lot of laughter whenever we play this game.

Activity #3 – Picture Card Mingle

Okay, so this is not really a fun game, per se, but it is an activity that gets students up and moving, and in my book, that’s better than boring book work any day! After students have learned a spelling tip, I prepare a set of pictures of words that contain the target sounds. On one side of each of the cards is a picture and a number and on the other side is the word. Of course, ideally the words are all ones the students have had exposure to. This would work well with a set of homemade index cards, but luckily for me, the Longman Keystone Phonics and Word Analysis spelling text has a wonderful set of big cards that I have made great use of for this activity. I also prepare a handout with a numbers list of blanks. Before the activity starts, I spread the pictures out on desks around the classroom. In pairs, the students, each with a handout, walk around the class. They stop at a picture. They write the word on the line next to the corresponding number. For instance, after looking at this picture, the student would (hopefully) write “aisle” next to number 112 on their paper.

Picture Card Mingle

Then, after both students have written next to the appropriate line, they can turn over the picture card and check their spelling. If they are wrong, they should cross out the incorrect spelling and write it correctly before moving on to the next picture. Again, this isn’t a race. The goal is to get the students up and moving because we know that blood flow increases memory retention. The students seem to like this activity because they can work at their own pace and they are getting more practice with the target words.

Activity #4: White Board Races

This is perhaps the simplest and most fun of all the spelling games we play in my class. In my program we have class sets of white boards and markers. To start this activity, I give each student (I normally have between 10 and 15 students in a class) a white board and a marker. This can be done in pairs, too. I call out a word from the lesson’s Oxford 3000 word list and the students race to spell it correctly. At first, when we played this I gave a point to the student who spelled it correctly first, but that got a bit boring because it was always the one or two strongest spellers who won and the other students seemed to become unmotivated to try. Now, I wait for all the students to write the word and give point to everyone who gets it right. That way all the students are engaged and trying. This is a really great way to see who is getting the spelling tip and who still needs practice. It’s also a fun way to review for a quiz, warm up for a lesson or fill the last 10 minutes of a lesson. The students really enjoy this and get a kick about seeing others’ bad handwriting and funny misspellings.

So, these are some of the activities that have worked for me in my spelling class. Even if you don’t teach a stand-alone spelling class, I hope this blog series has made you think more about spelling and incorporating it into your lessons. Spelling in English is hard work. It requires memorization and effort and repetition. But, it’s also important. Misspellings on work memos, in school papers and in emails communicate something about the person who is doing the writing, and if students want to have control of their public image, they need to spell things accurately. Interestingly, it’s almost never students who need to be sold on spelling lessons. Instead, it tends to be the teachers who, like me, avoided spelling at all costs because we find it hard. Well, no more! I am now a proud (mostly accurate) speller and I am happy to help students become the same.


Pearson / Longman. (2007). Keystone: Phonics and Word Analysis.  White Plains, NY: Pearson/Longman.

Taylor, K., & Thompson, S. (1999/2015). The Color Vowel Chart. Santa Fe, NM: English Language Training Solutions.


Comment from John
July 24, 2016 at 10:44 pm

Very useful tips. Thanks for sharing

Comment from Leila
June 19, 2017 at 12:46 am

Thank you for sharing.

Comment from sweety543
October 20, 2019 at 11:19 pm

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Comment from Erin M Miku
October 22, 2019 at 10:40 pm

Amazing tips

Comment from Gaurav Patyal
June 8, 2020 at 8:44 am

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