Learning to Spell

Children learn to spell in fairly predictable steps that build on one another (Ehri 1986, 1994; Gill, 1992; Henderson, 1990). Two types of memory are involved in learning to spell:

Visual Memory – Also described as “orthographic” memory, visual memory is related to the ability to remember how words look when written. The ability to visualize a word is vital for learning to spell, especially in the case of sight words, which do not follow a common spelling pattern and often cannot be “sounded out.”

Spelling Memory – A child’s memory for predictable sequences of letters, spelling memory is enhanced by awareness of phonemes (or speech sounds). A child’s spelling memory is developed by his growing knowledge of how words are both spoken and written.

At more advanced levels, spelling memory draws on a child’s knowledge of word structure, the meaning of individual parts of a word, a word’s relationship to other words, and so on. A child’s understanding of new words is built systematically on the child’s knowledge of other words. This is the cycle of success that teachers love to see.

There are two types of spelling knowledge to develop: Phonetic and Morphemic.


Phonetic (or sound) spelling knowledge is developed by studying the sound-symbol relationship, or the encoding units of sound. Learning letter-sound correspondence and syllable patterns helps students develop both decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) skills. VocabularySpellingCity offers phonics activities with Premium Membership.

Word Study gives students the opportunity to explore spelling, syllables, sounds, and context, including definitions and parts of speech.

Play Word Study with a word list for Compound Words.

Initial Sound Speller and Final Sound Speller provide learners practice in recognizing correspondences between sounds and their spellings. Practicing these basic phonic skills prepares students to be able to blend words orally and in writing.

Play Initial Sound Speller with a word list of Colors.

Play Final Sound Speller with a word list of Nouns.

SillyBulls (i.e., Syllables) gives students practice identifying the number of syllables in a word, which is a key step in word decoding.

Play SillyBulls with a word list for Animals.


Morphemic (or meaning) spelling knowledge is developed by studying morphemes, the smallest linguistic units that have meaning in a word. Morphemes include prefixes, roots and suffixes. Studying morpheme patterns can greatly expand a student’s spelling knowledge by enabling him to create various forms of a word. For example: believe (root), believable (root+suffix), unbelievable (prefix+root+suffix).

Use these word lists with VocabularySpellingCity activities to study word parts:

Latin and Greek Roots Word Lists

Play Word Unscramble with a word list for the Greek root “hydr-“.

Prefixes Word Lists

Play Speedy Speller with a word list for the Prefix “anti-".

Suffixes Word Lists

Play Aim 2 Spell with a word list for the Suffix “-ly”.