Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Memorization gets a bad rap, but it works very well for some words and children. Time and again researchers find that focused attention, transcription, and recollection of select words helps kids master challenging spellings. The key is to treat memorization as a supplement, not as the sole or even primary method of spelling instruction.

First and foremost, parents teaching spelling at home should strive to create a culture of interest and engagement with words. We should focus on weaving a variety of spelling games, routines, and activities into daily life. But here’s some advice for getting the most out of memorization, the last resort for words kids just can’t recall any other way.

The “cover-copy-compare” method is your best bet for training hard-to-learn spellings. Students have used the procedure across subjects, from math to geography, and significant research has documented its effectiveness. Plus, it’s straightforward, low-cost and time-efficient—a win for parents.

For spelling, the “look-say-cover-write-check” variation of cover-copy-compare is particularly effective. (Yes, these are technical terms.) As a parent, your job in this case is to support your child in studying important words they’ve failed to learn by other means (that you’ve taught them). You provide the model spelling, explain the self-study practice routine, and get out of the way.

Then it’s up to the child to follow the procedure:

1. Look at a correctly spelled word and mark the challenging parts.
2. Say the word.
3. Cover the word, close their eyes, and try to visualize the word in their mind.
4. Write the word on paper.
5. Check for correctness by comparing the written word to the model.
6. If incorrect, note the nature of the error and copy the word correctly.

I’ve witnessed this method firsthand. My daughter’s teacher sent home an 18-step variation of this spelling practice routine. She taught the procedure to students in class. Then she shared an abbreviated version in a video demo for parents—the students just copied words once in the video, instead of the prescribed three times. This was the first sign that this process might be too long and repetitive for at-home use. At any rate, here’s the full procedure, in case it works for you:

1. Look at the model word.
2. Say the word.
3. Define the word to distinguish it from homophones (words with the same pronunciation but different spellings).
4. Analyze each letter of the word one-by-one and mark the challenging parts.
5. Say the word out loud again.
6. Name each letter while tracing it.
7. Name each letter while tracing it a second time.
8. Name each letter while tracing it a third time.
9. Close eyes and write the word in the air with the index finger. This procedure is often called “air writing” or “memory writing.”
10. Air write the word a second time.
11. Air write the word a third time.
12. Say the word again.
13. Spell it on paper without access to the model word.
14. Spell it a second time.
15. Spell it a third time.
16. Compare to the model word.
17. Check for correctness.
18. If incorrect, note the error and copy again.

The full procedure felt like overkill to me so I never asked my daughter to do it. Later, I got some support for my view when I came across research suggesting that repeated word copying adds no value. It’s the self-evaluation and self-correction steps in the practice routine that matter most.

It’s worth parents’ time to help kids memorize challenging words by focusing on their sound, meaning, and construction; practicing recalling the spelling; comparing their spelling to the model; and fixing mistakes. Just don’t get stuck there: your main aim is to teach how the English spelling system works, not to train individual words.

Read my post on How Children Learn to Spell for the lowdown on where memorization fits among spelling strategies, and keep an eye out for more spelling tips in upcoming posts.

Teaching Your Kids To Spell Does Memorizing Work

Sources and Further Reading

Joel Erion, Cindy Davenport, Nicole Rodax, Bethany Scholl and Jennifer Hardy, “Cover-Copy-Compare and Spelling: One Versus Three Repetitions,” Journal of Behavioral Education 18, no. 4 (December 2009): 319-330

Olivia O’Sullivan, “Teaching and Learning Spelling,” in The Literate Classroom, ed. Prue Goodwin (London: Routledge, 2017), 141-156.