Parents and teachers often ask: “What’s the best way for my child or student to learn and retain words from the weekly spelling list? How does one get beyond simply memorizing words for a Friday spelling test only to forget how to spell the word the next time it pops up in writing?” Based on a study of the five best learning techniques from cognitive psychology, here are five excellent strategies your students should use every week.

Five Excellent Weekly Learning Strategies for Retention of Spelling Words

1. Take a Self-Test! Always begin study of a weekly unit with a self-test or pretest. The pretest, followed by a week of various activities for closely examining words culminating in a posttest, is a research-proven best practice (Wallace, 2006). It trumps word sorting alone, a single-strategy method popularly called “the word study method,” which fails to use a list of words that is adjusted for the instructional level of the speller and eliminates weekly tests, including the self-test.

In a classic study by cognitive psychologists, self-testing was shown to be one of the most effective learning strategies (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, and Willingham, 2013). Self-testing enables the learner to focus on those words that are unknown. In the spelling literature, it’s expected that an elementary student can already spell half of the words in a 20-word research-based spelling list appropriate for the student’s grade level (Gentry, 2004). That means the child is expected to learn about ten “unknown” high-frequency core knowledge words each week. At this pace, the number of words a child can automatically retrieve from his or her brain for both reading and writing grows exponentially. In independent spelling research (Wallace, 2006), giving a weekly spelling list and administering words in a pretest-teach-posttest format with students self-correcting the test are proven to be characteristics of effective spelling instruction.

2. Self-correct the pretest, focusing on each misspelled word and have the learner ask “why is this word spelled incorrectly?” Self-correcting and asking “why” is an example of the psychologically proven effective learning technique called Elaborate Interrogation (Dunlosky et al., 2013). For example, if you misspell sacrilegious as s-a-c-r-e-l-i-g-i-o-u-s as many adults are prone to do, it’s probably because you incorrectly associated sacrilegious with religious. Asking the question “why” takes you to a deeper level of word knowledge and retention: sacreligious is incorrect because the two words have different etymologies or word histories/derivations. Sacrilegious derives from the Latin sacrilegium, from sacr-, meaning “sacred” + legere meaning “to take away or steal.” Thus grave or temple robbers were sacrilegious. The word has no direct relation to religious.

A third-grader who self-corrects great as grate on a pretest would learn “why” the word is misspelled in a third-grade lesson on single-syllable homophones such as roll and role, scent and cent, and grate and great using Elaborate Interrogation to learn to spell both spellings and use them correctly in context.

3. Self-explain as you take the pretest, asking the question “how did I know how to spell this word?” As you self-explain, think of how your spelling relates to information you already know. Did you spell it by sounding it out, by pattern, by rule, or by using multiple strategies? Or did you “see it in your mind’s eye” and spell it correctly because you are sure you already know it?

Self-explanation comes into play with spelling rules. In a research-based spelling book, a third grader will learn a few good rules. Here’s one for grade 3: If a word ends in a consonant followed by y, the y changes to i to add any suffix except –ing: mystery, mysteries; carry, carried; hurry, hurrying. If a word ends in a vowel followed by y, the base word is unchanged: delay, delayed, delays, delaying (Gentry, 2016).

4. Mix up the practice for long-term effects using a technique called Interleaved Practice. This involves implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of word study activities, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session (Peha & Gentry, 2013). In a research-based spelling curriculum, third graders might practice words they missed on the pretest using a Look-Say-See-Write-Check “Flip Folder” technique. On different days of the weekly unit they might do meaningful workbook pages, use online spelling games, and/or do word sorting with a buddy. These are all available resources for weekly study and mixing up practice in an effective spelling program that incorporates Interleaved Practice. Mixing up these activities boosts learning.

5. Break up the practice into short sessions throughout the week with a psychologically proven technique called Distributed Practice. For spelling, the research recommends breaking up explicit spelling study into short sessions of 15 minutes per day or 60 minutes spread over the week (Moats, 2005/06). Students leave it and come back to it day after day—but only for a short time.

Too often students don’t have long-term retention because they waited until the night before to cram for the Friday spelling test. Cramming is not Self-test—Study—Posttest; rather, it’s simply memorizing words for the test and forgetting them later. Cramming for the test doesn’t work!

Of course explicit spelling study using these techniques should be integrated in all aspects of language arts and reading. The core of words a child stores in “the dictionary in his or her brain” (Gentry, 2004) for automatic retrieval is constantly retrieved, applied, built upon, and expanded by motivating and challenging children as readers and writers, giving them autonomy, and encouraging them to use the words in their brains for their own purposes. Additional spelling words are added in rigorous and interesting content area study (Wallace, 2006).

That being said, at the core of the reading/writing brain one needs a large corpus of high frequency words and patterns ready for automatic retrieval (Willingham, 2015). Start with a research-based grade by grade curriculum, adjust the list to your student’s individual needs, and follow the effective learning strategies listed above to ensure long-term retention. It works!


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., & Willingham, D.T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology.  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. © The Author(s). doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266.

Gentry, J.R. (2016). Spelling connections. Columbus, OH: Zaner-Bloser.

Gentry, J.R. (2004). The science of spelling: The explicit specifics that make great readers and writers (and spellers!). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Moats, L.C. (Winter 2005/06). How spelling supports reading: And why it is more regular and predictable than you may think. American Educator, 29(4), 12-22, 42-43.

Peha, S., & Gentry, J.R. (2013). 5 learning techniques psychologists say kids aren’t getting. In Psychology Today, Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers by J. Richard Gentry. Retrieved from

Wallace, R.R. (2006). Characteristics of effective spelling instruction. Reading Horizons, 46(4), 267-278.

Willingham, D.T. (2015). Raising kids who read. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Spelling Connections for grades Kindergarten through Grade 8. Follow him on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.

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