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Spelling Sets: a phonics-based spelling activity

So you’ve been giving your students explicit phonics instruction. You’ve made nice, clear connections for your students between letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes).


Good for you. 


But … 


I don’t doubt that there are times when the best thing a teacher can do for their students is to present the learning target in a way that is easily grasped, easily understood, crystal clear and unambiguous. But what about kids discovering and figuring things out for themselves? What about kids trying out reasoned guesses and seeing if they work? What about letting children be explorers and discoverers and problem solvers? And what about fostering learner autonomy? 


Any time we hand the learning target to the students on a silver platter, we deprive them of the chance to figure it out or discover it for themselves. 


If only … If only there were some way for children to take the phonics they have learned and try to apply them in a problem-solving context. If only there were some way for them to take their best guesses and try things out and eventually have the joy of finding success on their own. If only … 


Hey, wait a minute!—I know! Let’s make a puzzle of it! And let’s call this puzzle … 


… Let’s call it Spelling Sets. 



Kids love Spelling Sets! This puzzle-like activity is primarily for phonics practice, but it also teaches and/or reinforces vocabulary, and—perhaps best of all—it encourages autonomy. 


Spelling Sets are designed for individual work. Each child chooses a spelling set he or she has not yet done (in my classroom, each Spelling Set is kept in its own separate zip-lock baggie), grabs a Spelling Set board (optional), and sets to work—without ever needing to ask for the teacher’s help to get started. 


Each Spelling Set consists of several words, each word broken into letters or graphemes, plus an associated image. Each letter or grapheme and each image is on a separate tile. The child then sets about putting together the letter/grapheme tiles to spell the words for the image tiles. 


At the end of this post, look for a link to printable PDFsof game tiles, an answer key, and checklists.
You can of course make your own version to fill the needs of your lessons.
There will also be a link to a video showing the activity in action,
and another link to a video showing how I make my game pieces.


If a child does not know the word for a particular image, they can simply ask, “What’s this?” The teacher just needs to look at the image, say the word to the child naturally but clearly, and then go back to whatever they were doing. 


When a child has put all the tiles where they think they should be, they call out, “Finished!” The teacher then checks the completed set. 




When checking a completed set, you may of course find mistakes.  



Here is what you can do to foster learner autonomy and encourage the children to figure things out for themselves: 


1. Pick up any tiles that the student has incorrectly placed, holding them in your hand. 


2. Repeat the words that had mistakes. 


3. Put the ‘mistake’ tiles back down on the table for the child to pick up and try again. 


4. Immediately go back to whatever else you were doing. 


NOTE: Of course, some children will need more support than others. For example, in some cases the teacher may want to sound the word out as well as say it (“Cat — /K/-/A/-/T/ — cat.”), or encourage the child to repeat the word out loud themselves. 


TIP: Why hold the mistake tiles in your hand? If the child has access to the mistake tiles, they may start trying to find the new, correct places for them before you have finished collecting the other mistake tiles and saying the missed words again. Holding the tiles in your hand ensures that the child pays attention to the sounds of the words they missed. This encourages the child to focus on the phonics rather than simply trying to complete the puzzle, perhaps by guessing. In the child’s mind, the important thing may be to finish the puzzle and be ‘right.’ But the teacher knows that the goal should be making the grapheme-sound connection. Finishing the puzzle should be incidental. (This is what the great guru meant when he said, “The journey is the goal.” He was talking about phonics training.) 


— When a student has completed a set, I put the letter/grapheme tiles out of view, and put one image tile down at a time, saying the word for the image as I do so. The student spells each word orally. 

If the student does not spell all the words correctly with reasonable fluency, I simply give them back the completed Spelling Set and have them go back to studying it. And I immediately go back to doing whatever else I was doing. 


TIP: If the student has not yet learned the letter names, they can write the words out instead of spelling them orally. 




As promised, here are two links to printable PDFs—one for Spelling Sets game tiles, one for an answer key and student checklists: 

PDF of Spelling Sets game tiles  


PDF of answer key & checklists  


And here is a link to a YouTube video showing the activity in action. Feel free to leave questions and comments there too!  You are welcome to respond to this blog entry with any questions or comments you may have about the PDF or the activity. 


One more! Click here for a YouTube video showing how I make game tiles.

Alan Miesch
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One Response to Spelling Sets: a phonics-based spelling activity

  1. This is a product of your years of experience. You are a wonderful person and an effective highly effective teacher. I hope others will incorporate this into their ESL classes.

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