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Five Ways to Ensure Long-Term Retention of Spelling Words

Here's how to build a dictionary in each child's brain for lifelong use.

Teachers often report the dilemma of children scoring 100 percent correct on a Friday spelling test but misspelling the same words the following week in their writing. Cognitive psychology has given us an answer for overcoming this age-old problem.

To begin with, we know that cramming doesn’t work. Students can cram for a spelling test on Thursday night, get 100 percent correct on Friday, and guess what? It doesn’t stick. Cramming is not the way to develop long-term transfer or word permanency in the brain.

In 2013 John Dolosky and his colleagues published “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology” (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013), which highlighted five research-based techniques to improve memory: (1) self-testing, (2) self-explanation, (3) elaborative interrogation, (4) distributed practice, and (5) interleaved practice. Each of these effective learning techniques can be applied to weekly spelling lessons promising better results for moving beyond rote memorization and toward long-term retention.

Here’s how it looks in practice:

  1. Self-Testing. Students take a self-test or pretest as part of weekly Pretest/Study/Posttest research-based methodology.
  2. Self-Explanation. Students ask themselves “how” questions, such as “How does something new relate to what I already know?” For example, in a research-based third grade curriculum, students who can spell great as in Great Lakes, great-grandfather, or “You did great!” can integrate this knowledge with new knowledge gleaned from a lesson on single-syllable homophones in English. When learning new spellings, as in “to grate cheese” or the “grate in the fireplace,” they explain how correct spelling in English sometimes must match the word’s meaning—not just the sound and that this is often due to the different origins for words that sound alike. They must learn the correct spelling that matches the meaning.
  3. Elaborative Interrogation. Here students demonstrate deeper levels of word learning, retrieval, and retention by turning facts to be learned (in this case correct spellings) into “why” questions. For example, in a research-based Grade 3 curriculum students learn two rules (i.e., facts) for spelling words that end in y: Rule #1: If a word ends in a consonant followed by y, the y changes to i to add any suffix except -ing. Rule #2: If the word ends in a vowel followed by y, the base word is unchanged to add any suffix. Using elaborative interrogation, third graders use these rules to explain why carry, carried, carrying, and delay, delayed, and delaying are the correct spellings.
  4. Distributed Practice. Students engage in distributed practice when they break up the practice into short sessions throughout the week rather than cramming the night before the test. Short practice tests throughout the week are excellent practice.
  5. Interleaved Practice. Students build long-term retention of words by mixing up the practice for long-term effects. Rather than sort words all week, interleaved practice might include using a Look-Say-See-Write-Check study technique, practicing with a buddy, or reconstructing the correct spelling in an exercise or online spelling game and the like.

Generally it’s reported that seven to ten memory re-engagements in the brain help build word permanency. For full-alphabetic word reading, Ehri and McCormick (1998) report “…students must possess working knowledge of the alphabetic system to be able to look at words in text and perform the matching operations linking graphemes to phonemes. Students who have practiced reading new words in this way, perhaps as few as four times (Reitsma, 1983), retain the new words in memory and can read them by sight.” (Ehri & McCormick, p. 352) Encoding or spelling the word is an even deeper level of word knowledge because the amount of information to be drawn from memory is greater for spellers (Ehri, 2000).

5 Time-Honored, Research-Based Practices

As effective as these five best learning techniques may be, they can’t be presented in a vacuum. Decades of time-honored research-based spelling practices now newly supported by 21st century research provide strong support for five traditional best practices that have been abandoned in many classrooms:

  1. Use word lists but not arbitrary lists. Construct lists to reflect words and patterns likely to be used by writers at developmentally appropriate grade levels and teach a few key rules (Gentry, 2004; Moats, 2005/2006; Wallace, 2006).
  2. Pretest and have students self-correct (Gentry, 2004; Wallace, 2006).
  3. Teach students to use a research-based word study technique (Gentry, 2004; Weakland, 2017).
  4. Use the “test-study-test” cycle (Gentry, 2004; Wallace, 2006)
  5. Use spelling games including interactive digital resources, scavenger hunts for words that fit the weekly unit pattern or rule, and similar re-engagements with the weekly spelling words to increase motivation and to take advantage of the social context of learning (Weakland, 2017).

For decades, too many schools put spelling on the back burner, creating a gap between what 21st century research supports and what is practiced in many classrooms (Graham, 2000; Reed, 2012). Importantly, we know that spelling is for reading—not just for writing (Graham & Santangelo, 2014; Ouelette & Sénéchal 2017). We need to bring explicit, standalone, grade-by-grade spelling instruction back into 21st century classrooms to increase reading scores and give students a gift for a lifetime—a dictionary of words in their brains for reading and writing. As we embrace the new digital age sometimes it important to close those laptops or not just rely on spell check. It’s critical to remember this: If you want successful readers and writers, there’s no substitute for the human brain to do the thinking.


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. In Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.

Ehri, L. & McCormick, S. (1998). Phases of word learning: Implications for instruction with delayed and disabled readers. In D. Alvermann, N. Unran, & R. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th edition) (pp. 339–361). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ehri, L.C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Language Disorder, 20(3), 19–36.

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

Graham, S. (2000). Should the natural learning approach replace spelling instruction? Journal of Educational Psychology, 92 (2), 235-247. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.92.2.235

Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing, 27(9), 1703–1743.

Moats, L.D. (2005/2006). How spelling supports reading: And why it is more regular and predictable than you may think. American Educator, 29(4), 12, 14–22, 42-43.

Ouelette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1) 77– 88.

Reed, D.K. (2012). Why teach spelling? Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Reitsma, P. (1983). Printed word learning in beginning readers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 75, 321–339.

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

Weakland, M. (2017). Super spellers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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