Lists, Rules & Exceptions – 11 Engaging & Effective Tips for Teaching Children Spelling and Vocabulary

There are so, so many options for activities and strategies to use when it comes to teaching and practising spelling. Yet, I know that sometimes as teachers we can still find ourselves searching for new ways to try to keep our students interested in their spelling work. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite tips for teaching spelling and vocabulary to students that will not only keep them engaged, but will also be effective for helping them practise that tricky English language. 

Create Themed Spelling Lists

Themed spelling lists provide a fun and simple way to get your students interested in their spelling lessons. You can get creative with this and even use topics that are of particular interest to your students to guide the spelling list themes. I also like to use seasonal spelling lists, like the one in the image below

Unscramble Words

There are a couple of reasons why unscrambling words is an effective spelling activity for students. Firstly, the challenge of figuring out the hidden words often keeps students engaged. Secondly, by providing them with all of the letters in a word, you are helping them to call on their spelling knowledge to work out which letter combinations should go together. You can even use this activity along with a themed spelling list to give students more context, as you can see that I’ve done in the resource pictured below

Roll & Spell

A lot of spelling practice involves repetition. So, why not make this repeated practice more interesting by adding an element of chance? In ‘roll & spell’ students roll the die to determine how they write out their spelling word. As you can see in the image below, you can easily incorporate themes into this activity too. You can find a copy of this template here

Focus on Phonics

I’ve talked about how helpful phonics is when teaching decoding skills in a previous post, and spelling and decoding go hand-in-hand. Through my experience as a teacher, I have seen the effectiveness of taking a phonetic approach to teaching children sounds. A phonetic approach involves explicitly teaching children the different sounds that each letter and combination of letters makes, so that they know how to identify those sounds within words. There are a lot of phonetic sounds in the English language, and while it can seem overwhelming to teach your children all of them, slowly working through them together will be so helpful when they are presented with more complex words. After spending too long trying to find some simple review practice for different phonetic sounds, I created a set of mixed review phonics practice pages that you can find here.

Use Sight Words

While I wholeheartedly support a phonetic approach to teaching spelling, I do also encourage students to learn their sight words. Sight words are short, high frequency words that students can memorise by sight so that they don’t need to sound them out every time they come across them in their reading. The image below shows an example of a simple set of sight word cards, which can come in handy for many different spelling activities.

Practice Spelling Rules

We can’t expect our students to know their spelling rules unless we’ve explicitly taught them. I recommend taking one spelling rule at a time and focusing on that for a while before moving on to a new one. For example, you might want to teach students the rules around making words plural and offer them some practice tasks, like the example below. Then you can continue to encourage them to apply the rule of plurals independently while you move on to teaching a different spelling rule. 

Teach the Exceptions

Here’s a funny thing about the English language: most of its rules have exceptions. Often, students will be able to grasp the spelling and grammar rules you teach them quite easily. It’s when they’re faced with those exceptions that they can start to get confused, and understandably so. Therefore, whenever you finish teaching them a new rule, I recommend teaching them the exceptions as well. For example, when to teach students to add ‘ed’ to a verb to make it past tense, you should also cover irregular past tense verbs, as I have in the activity pictured below. This helps them to notice the exceptions to the spelling and grammar rules while those rules are still fresh in their mind. 

Make it Colourful

Adding a pop of colour to your spelling work is a super simple way to keep kids more engaged. Using a simple ‘rainbow words’ activity is an easy addition to your weekly spelling rotations. Students are often excited at the chance to use their coloured pencils and they’re getting some useful spelling repetition happening. If you want to try this activity, I have a set of templates that you can find here.

Give Students Recording Booklets

One of the most effective strategies I’ve found to help students have more independence and take more responsibility for their spelling and vocabulary learning, is using recording booklets. Also known as ‘student dictionaries’ or ‘personal word wall books’, these recording booklets give students a continuous reference to all of the spelling words they commonly use in their writing. Any time that they need help with spelling a new word, they can record it in their booklets for future reference. I find that this helps them to gain confidence in their writing overall, as they are able to develop their spelling and vocabulary and are proud of the new words that they can use during their writing tasks.

Teach Students to Use a Dictionary

Another strategy that helps students take ownership of their spelling knowledge is equipping them to use a dictionary. Yes, an old-school, pull-it-off-the-shelf, turn-the-pages dictionary. When students are able to use a dictionary, they can look up vocabulary words to find both spelling and definitions. If they are trying to spell the word ‘delight’, for example, they are likely to know that d-e-l-i are the first four letters. So, they can refer to that section of their dictionary to find how the rest of the word is spelt. Sure, this technique may not work if students aren’t able to figure out the first few letters of a word, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be amongst their toolbox of spelling techniques – especially once they’re a little older and more confident with spelling. The bonus of using this strategy is that they can clarify the meaning of the words they look up too, which helps them to write those words in the correct context. 

Give Students a Choice

I’ve mentioned giving students a choice in their learning activities, particularly through the use of student choice boards, a number of times on the blog now. If you’d like more info about student choice boards, you can read this post. Offering students a choice during their lessons allows you to easily adapt tasks to suit your learners, while also keeping them engaged and giving them a say in how they learn. One of the simplest ways to do this for spelling is by using a spelling activity choice board, or spelling menu. These are fairly simple to put together and can be reused each week, when you change your students’ vocabulary words. If you’d like to save yourself some time by accessing the spelling menu pictured below, you can find that here.

I hope that these ideas inspire you to try something new with your students when it comes to teaching spelling and vocabulary. You can use the links to buy your own copies of the resources I’ve referenced. 

Do you want some ideas for teaching grammar while you’re here? You can read part 1 of my ‘Grappling with Grammar’ series here

Have a question or a request? You can contact me at

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