Spelling Strategies:
Guiding Kids to "Discover" Spelling Rules
By Diane Snowball

One of the strategies used by successful spellers is the application of rules. The most useful rules are those related to how to form plurals and add prefixes and suffixes to base words. I have found that students understand and apply these rules better if they learn them through a discovery process. Here are the strategies I use.

Strategy 1: Use Kids' Writing

Observe students' writing to decide whether they know enough about the spelling of base words to learn a particular rule  —  and which rule would be most helpful to start with. Share your observations: "I have noticed that you often write stories that tell about something that happened in the past, but you are not always sure how to write words ending with -ed. Let's see what we can learn about this together."

Strategy 2: Find Words Together

As a class, reread a big book, a song, or a poem, and ask students to watch out for relevant words and list them on a chart. For example, words ending with -ed in the story The Old Man's Mitten (Mondo Publishing, 1994) include: hopped, squeaked, curled, croaked, and snuffled.

Strategy 3: Note Base Words

Beside each word kids find, write the base word. For example:

  • hopped/hop
  • squeaked/squeak
  • curled/curl

Ask students to search for other related words in their reading and writing, to list the words, and to write the base word for each one.

Strategy 4: Think About Patterns

Ask students: "What do you notice about what happens to the base word when -ed is added? Do we always do the same thing? Can you figure out what happens to different groups of words and explain this to someone else?" Give them several days to add more words to each group and to talk about their observations in pairs or small groups.

Strategy 5: Have Kids Voice Rules

Encourage students to explain the rules they've discovered. Allowing students to use their own wording  —  such as "When the base word ends with an e, throw the e out the window before adding the -ed"  —  makes the rules more meaningful. Tell students to watch out for example words to check their rules by, and if necessary, revise their statements. For example, students usually think that the last letter is always doubled for base words ending with a short vowel-consonant, but then they notice words such as orbited and edited, and realize that the consonant is only doubled if the stress is on the last syllable.

Strategy 6: Make Rule Books

When students know one rule, they can investigate whether the same idea applies to other situations, such as adding -ing, -er, or -est. They may want to make class resource books about their discoveries to refer to when writing.

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Diane Snowball is an internationally known educational consultant focusing on language arts. Some of the material for this column was adapted from Ideas for Spelling and Teaching Spelling (Heinemann).

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