Top Teaching > Angela Bunyi > Individualizing Spelling Instruction and Strategies

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Individualizing Spelling Instruction and Strategies

Whether your district mandates a certain spelling program or allows some flexibility to meet your students' specific needs with individualized spelling lists, I have some easy to incorporate strategies to help your students become more efficient, self-reliant spellers. This includes five printables, student work samples, and three easy to use spelling strategies for your students.

Photo: These students are practicing their self-selected spelling words with the "Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check" form.

First, Our Spelling Program

Our school uses Words Their Way to start the year off with spelling assessments. This gives us a picture of where our students are developmentally. Based on these results, students are then given individual, developmentally sequential spelling words throughout the year. These words are based on word patterns and are not meant to be drilled and killed for a test on Friday. 

If you follow Words Their Way fully, it can be quite overwhelming, having students meet in spelling groups, sorting words, and assessing everyone by the end of the week. I was excited to start this program at the beginning of the year, but I just felt like something was missing. After thinking about it, I realized that my concern was about high frequency words and words misspelled in students' writings. How could I correct this? Even if your students already use one traditional spelling list each week, I have something you can incorporate into your schedule to help.

Study Buddy Spelling

Luckily, our literacy coach was able to come up with a great solution. She helped organize and launch "Study Buddy" spelling for several teachers. In our room, this means:

1. Students self-select five to six spelling words each week to work on.

2. As a teacher, I can determine words through writing conferences and grading. If I circle a word and correct it (e.g., "thay" for "they"), it goes on that student's next spelling list. If you have ever felt frustrated at seeing a misspelled word on a social studies assignment, here's your chance to correct it and make a difference!

3. Students are paired up with another student who is at the same developmental stage in spelling. They are then called "Study Buddies."

4. Throughout the week, Study Buddies work together to help spell self-selected words correctly, as well as those from the "Words Their Way" spelling list for the week (if needed). This lasts no more than five to ten minutes on any given day.

5. Study Buddies complete assessments on each other, not the teacher.

6. Study Buddy assessments are not recorded in the grade book, but they are collected and analyzed for accuracy and completeness.

Here is an example of students assessing each other:



The Details of Making It Work

Step 1: Words to Learn

First, I need to say that this is a work in progress. I began this approach recently, and have already made some changes. For now, I rely on my conference time with each student to take a second to address spelling concerns. I ask my students to circle any words in their Writer's Notebook that they would like me to spell for them, and I correct them before they are placed on their "Words to Learn" sheet. This all goes in a spelling folder that each student has and maintains.

I also ask students to be responsible on their own part and continually be on the lookout for words they may need to learn how to spell. I often utilize Fridays to remind students to update their lists, but it can work at anytime. Each student also has a personal dictionary that includes a list of commonly misspelled words. Several students choose these words, but they sometimes opt for a word of their picking from the dictionary itself.


Photo: Download "Words to Learn" PDF

Monday: Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check

On Mondays, each student takes time to complete the "Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check" form. If you look at the main photo, you can see it used in action. The student places the form in a laminated file folder with three flaps cut. The flaps allow students to lift up the first column, the second column, and the third column.

Under the first column, students write the words correctly from their "Words to Learn" sheet. They look at the word, say the word, cover the word by putting the file folder flap down, write the word in column two, and check it under column three (by lifting the first two columns). You can see a picture of this in use in the main photo (they're the green file folders).

Research supports that learning how to spell words through this method is much more effective than writing words "X" number of times.


Photo: Download "Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check" PDF

Tuesday/Wednesday: Buddy Check & Magnetic Letter Practice

On Tuesday or Wednesday students meet with their Study Buddy and check each other's progress through the "Buddy Check" form. This is also kept in each spelling notebook with many blank forms.

The steps include the buddy reading the words to their partner and checking them. This is followed by trying it again if it is not correct the first time. Students then spend some time highlighting parts of words that give them trouble.

On Wednesday this can be followed up with magnetic letter practice, or in my case, laminated spelling letters for each student that are placed in Ziploc bags. 


Photo: Download "Buddy Check" PDF

Thursday: Make Connections

Here is another form that can be utilized for one of your spelling Study Buddy sessions. It allows students to attack word parts from either their "Words Their Way" spelling lists or "Words to Learn" list.


Photo: Download "Make Connections" PDF

Friday: Study Buddy Assessment

On Fridays, it takes less than ten minutes for my students to assess each other with the "Study Buddy Assessment" form. Words that are spelled correctly and mastered receive a check mark on the "Words to Learn" form (step 1). Words that are not mastered receive an "X" on the form or, as many have opted to do, are left blank and tried again the following week.


Photo: Download "Study Buddy" PDF


Photo: Here is an extra resource found in each spelling notebook. Not pictured is a sheet of spelling strategies, which I have posted below.

Putting It All Together & Meeting Your Students' Needs

Primarily, my focus is on the individualized spelling words created through Study Buddies. Often students use their meeting time to address the leveled "Words Their Way" spelling lists, so each student spends time on what they need rather than on a one-size-fits-all lesson or set of words. I have really enjoyed the ability to take control of words I would like my students to each spell individually, while allowing my students to select and practice words that are developmentally appropriate for them.

And yes, I still give spelling tests on Friday. I only have three spelling groups, so I quickly call the first word from each list out loud. No one ever gets confused with their words, and I just move down the lists until I finish (#1s, #2s, #3s . . . ). Since some lists are longer or shorter than others, students sometimes have a moment to go back and check their work. In total, it takes me ten minutes to give three spelling tests.

Some Spelling Strategies for Your Students

Here are some student approved spelling strategies for you:

1. Give It a Try Post-It Notes

Most master spellers are visual. And you can probably relate. Have you ever been asked to spell a difficult word and find yourself writing down a few versions until one looks correct? It works for students as well. When I ask students to circle all the words they believe they have misspelled in a piece, about 95% of the misspelled words are identified. When asked to try this method out for a few select words, students usually identify the correct spelling on their own. Easy to use. Takes no time at all to introduce!


2. Try Your Best, Circle It, and Move On

Spelling is important, but while they are writing, I don't want my students to raise their hands and ask, "How do you spell . . . " We can always go back and correct those words at a later time, and an easy way to identify them is by simply circling them. It has worked for me and my students and has made them more correct but also more daring spellers.

3. Break Up Your Syllables

This doesn't work every time, but some students prefer s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g out their words like a rubber band and checking to see if there is at least one vowel in each syllable. It can be paired up with the first tip pretty easily.


I could write much more about this topic, so please feel free to ask anything under the spelling umbrella . . . or anything educational, for that matter. For example, my literacy coach provided the forms from Fountas and Pinnell's Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom. She also showed some videos where teachers have used this as their sole spelling program, including spelling mini-lessons. I have not incorporated this into my schedule, but my son's teacher has. If you have any questions on how this might work for you, just let me know.

Much respect,






  • #1 Sarah

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 08:10 AM

    What great ideas! My school doesn't have a spelling program and I wonder if you'd recommend Words Their Way? Do your students have workbooks or where do their leveled spelling lists come from?

  • #2 Angela

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 09:27 PM

    Hello Danielle,

    Great question. In my situation I have a very involved set of parents, so high spelling grades are just a given with little support. I focus 90% of my attention on personal spelling lists and leave it at that for now. This is my first year to use Words Their Way and study buddies for spelling and HANDS-DOWN this is the most significant progress I have ever seen as a class set of writers in my teaching career. It's really incredible. One student, in particular, really struggled with spelling at the beginning of the year. Now he is a strong, proficient speller. I say all this to stress that not focusing on homework too much can still produce nice results.

    So, with all this said, I think the most successful and meaningful homework for learning words in isolation is to use the "Look, Cover, Say, Write, Check" sheet. Master spellers are most often visual, and this is supported by many of the books I have read on spelling instruction.

    I also think the "Make Connections" sheet is beneficial because it pushes the application of onsets and rimes to other words they might encounter.

    I hope that helps. The guru of spelling research is Richard Gentry, if you are interested.

    Happy Thursday,


  • #3 Danielle

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 07:46 PM

    Hi Angela!

    What about spelling homework? Do you give them anything to reinforce the spelling lists at home each night? I'm (still) struggling to find meaningful ideas for spelling homework!!


  • #4 Angela Bunyi

    Saturday, February 06, 2010 at 05:45 PM

    Hello Doris,

    Well, I am in a unique situation where ALL students read far above grade in a class of "Z" (with a few exceptions). This means they don't need as much guided attention as a traditional set of kids.

    Under many schedule programs (eg- Pavleka), it is suggested that you meet with struggling students on a near-daily basis with stronger readers being meet with less frequently. Because I don't have any, here is what I did last year. Those first 20 minutes of school can be used for this IF you teach your class morning routines. That is one big help on using your time wisely, but it takes practice. That's almost 2 hours of help each week.

    But to answer your question, I meet formally once with each group each week. However, in addition to this, students are now starting up literature circles which run (pretty much) without me. I believe my kids highest level of reading needs involve the element of talk and discussion. They don't necessarily need me for that...or at least intensively at this point.

    I hope that helps. Good luck with your group that you are leading. It sounds like you are doing an awesome job!


  • #5 Doris

    Saturday, February 06, 2010 at 05:01 PM

    I love your approach to teaching in general. I'm a third grade teacher and am leading a Guided Reading Professional Learning group with teachers from my school. Most teachers are running into problems fitting it all in. With your schedule, how many guided reading groups do you hold a day? Do you run literacy stations while you work with them?

  • #6 Angela Bunyi

    Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 11:27 AM

    Hello Katy,

    They are tested on their "Words Their Way" words on Friday, and the number of words just depends on the group. It's usually shorter than the traditional 20 words.

    The personalized words are also "tested", but this comes from my student's study buddy. I will admit that I often run out of time for this on Fridays, so we sometimes test each other on Mondays. I do not put this grade in the book, although I have given grades for successful completition of the daily spelling sessions.

    Hope that helps. Thanks for sharing your questions. :)



  • #7 Katy

    Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 11:21 AM

    What a great program you have! On your weekly spelling tests, how many words does each student have? Are they tested only on their "Words Their Way" words, or also on their self-selected words?

  • #8 Angela Bunyi

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 08:23 PM

    No problem Liz. Glad I was of some help. :)



  • #9 Angela Bunyi

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 08:22 PM


    I am not totally positive that I am helping you, but I believe you are looking for a web host to upload your teaching resources and files. If this is the case, a free and easy route is right here through Scholastic. They offer free websites for teachers with free hosting.

    If this is not what you are looking for, please let me know!

    I hope that helps...

    Mrs. Bunyi

  • #10 Liz

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 09:15 PM

    Thanks so much for your response. I have been trying to incorporate more of a workshop approach in reading and writing. Right now I am working on fitting it all in with the rest of the schedule. Thanks again for your help!

  • #11 Teresa

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:09 AM


    I'm sorry this does not relate to this posting, but I was searching for an answer and was hoping you might have some ideas. Do you know of a website or a way to make a teaching portfolio (for free!)? I do not know of a website host or what program I would use to start making my own.

  • #12 Angela Bunyi

    Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 01:33 PM


    Seriously, I had heard about this during the summer but couldn't remember the name for the life of me. Yippee for posting it here. I am about the check it out, and I am sure many others will as well.

    Also, we use Wordly Wise school wise, so I would be interested to hear how you blend the two (textbook and eSpindle). I address it twice a week, but the upper grades focus on it much more heavily. If you revisit this post, please let me/us know. :)


  • #13 James Kinney

    Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    Our school just started a program called eSpindle. It can work with our textbook (WordlyWise) and any other, and students take totally customized quizzes online.
    It's a nonprofit project, and I think we even got some scholarships from eSpindle to make it work. I'm very impressed, and thought I'd share this.
    It saves so much time, and the kids love it.

  • #14 Angela Bunyi

    Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 10:31 PM

    Hello Liz,

    Thanks for writing! Here is my schedule:

    Reading mini-lesson:10-15 minutes
    Reader's Workshop: 35 minutes (individual conferences)
    Writing mini-lesson: 10-15 minutes
    Writer's Workshop: 35 minutes (individual conferences)
    Share time: 5-10 minutes (5 students share what they are reading/writing)
    Spelling: 5-10 minutes
    Literacy rotations: 20 minutes (guided reading, read with a partner, spelling, etc.)

    This is followed by math and either social studies or science each day. I still manage to have a full one hour math block, and a full one hour social studies/science block every other day (S.S. on M/W and science on T/TR). This means EVERY second counts, and I hate it...but I do keep my eye on the watch during our literacy block each day.

    I hope that helps. Feel free to post any other questions you may have.



  • #15 Liz

    Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 02:55 PM

    Thanks for this post. I am currently looking for more ways to challenge all students with spelling. You posted some great strategies. Could you post a schedule of how you break up your literacy block? Thanks!

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