Seeing Spelling

People who generally spell well sometimes look at a word and think "Hmm, that looks wrong". People who are weak spellers often just don't have that sense of whether a word looks right or not. So how can we help them?

Often what we see when we see a misspelled word is the wrong overall shape. So it is useful for learners to start to recognise the shapes of words that they have problems spelling or that are very important for them. Let's take the words 'which' (often misspelled as 'wich' by learners of different nationalities) and 'bicycle' as examples.

The learner or the teacher writes the word correctly and clearly by hand in lower case. Then the learner draws around the outline of the word, showing clearly where there are 'sticks' (tall letters like b, d, h) and tails (letters that drop below the line such as g, p and y). Like this:

Physically engaging with the word in this this way and being forced to notice the shape of the word helps some students form a much stronger mental image and therefore helps them to spell the word correctly later. This doesn't work for all learners, but some find it really revolutionises their spelling abilities.

Words can also be 'built' this way using Cuisennaire rods. By using the white 'one's and red 'two's, learners make a very strong visual picture of the word, which means there is more chance of becoming 'printed' in the memory. Here are 'which' and 'bicycle' again.

The teacher can then 'dictate' words that students have studied. The learners don't write them they just build the word patterns with the rods. This releases them from the stress of having to be sure of every letter but still makes them think very carefully about the spelling of the word.

I have had no resistance from adult learners when asking them to make words with the bricks (only a resistance to handing them back at the end of the activity!)

When learners have had some practice with this method they can do activities like this - matching words to their shapes. They can also make such activities for each other.

If you decide to try this method or have used this or something similar in the past, please post a comment about it.

And remember there are more spelling activities at


  1. Your approach strengthens the VISUAL input.
    My approach strengthens the AUDITORY input.
    Lucky learners who get both!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Judy. Yes, I do believe the visual input is very important for many people when trying to improve spelling. But actually I think the most important thing (especially when working with adults of different nationalities, educational backgrounds, cultures, etc, as I do) is to offer them lots of different gateways into spelling improvement. For example I had a student many ears ago who was studying academic English to get into a British university for post-graduate study. She was very bright but struggled with English spelling. I taught her the drawing round the word method and the next week she ran and hugged me and said "I've just got 100% in a vocabulary/spelling test for the first time in my life!" Another student exclaimed, "Why hasn't anyone ever taught me this stuff before?" when I helped him to discover some useful spelling patterns. So there are 'horses for courses'. All we can do is offer varied methods, see which appeals most to individuals and run with those.

    I just had a quick look at your blog. Your 'Cloudspelling' looks interesting, but would it work with adults who are learning English as a second language I wonder. For the majority of my learners pronunciation is more important than spelling and I don't want them to start sounding out silent letters for example.

    I'd be interested to hear what you and others think.

  3. I love this approach because of the visual element, but I do agree we need to provide varied opportunities for all types of learners.
    I have found the visual approach is so often left out, thanks for this great idea.

  4. my kids hate this approach. it frustrates them no end, to the point where one of them scribbled on the page so hard they tore through 3 pages of their homework book. horses for courses indeed

  5. I agree with "horses for courses" as TESOl teachers do. But it is always encouraging that we have a variety of techniques we can offer our students. Thank you for this method it is new to me but I can already identify students who will benefit from this method.
    regard D