Bruce Murray, College of Education The Reading Genie


Wordmapping: How to Study Spelling Words

Hungarian readers may read a translation by Elana Pavlet here. Ukrainian readers may read a translation of by Anna Matesh here. Portuguese readers may read a translation by Artur Weber here. Russian readers may read a translation by Kirill Sukhorukov here.


When poor spellers begin with the written word, they often try to memorize a spelling as if it were an arbitrary letter string.  Arbitrary strings are terribly hard to remember; think how long it takes to learn a phone number, and then imagine trying to learn 88,500 phone numbers–the estimated number of words in printed school English.  The wordmapping strategy helps students focus on the pronunciation of a word before seeing its spelling.  This helps them understand that a spelling is a meaningful map of the pronunciation.  When spellings are understood as pronunciation maps, they are much easier to remember.

The wordmapping procedure has nine steps.  For five steps, the student examines the phonological structure of the word by attending to phonemes (mouth movements), all without seeing the word.  For the remaining four steps, the student constructs and studies the spelling as a word map.

First, examine the mouth moves of the spoken word.                 Example

1. Say the word.                                                                           night
Say the syllables if there are more than one.

2. Stretch the word.                                                                   /nnnIIIt/
Work syllable by syllable with multisyllabic words.
If a phoneme can’t be stretched, exaggerate it.

3. Segment (split up) the phonemes.
Work by syllables if necessary.
First phoneme?                                                                              /n/
Next phoneme? etc.                                                                       /I/
Last phoneme?                                                                               /t/
Skillful spellers may simply report the segments.

4. Count the phonemes.                                                                  3

5. Draw blanks.                                                                     ___  ___  ___
The blanks stand for the phonemes.
Put slashes between syllables.

Next, construct a word map to learn the spelling.

6. Record the spelling phoneme by phoneme.
On the first blank, write [letters]                                           n  ___  ___
On next blank, write [letters]                                                n   igh  ___
On last blank, write [letters]                                                 n   igh   t 
If there are silent letters, caret them in.

7. Write the word in your best handwriting.                       night

8. Study the spelling.
Ask what a pattern says  OR                                                What does igh say?
Ask about how a phoneme is spelled OR                             How do we spell /I/ in night?
Ask what we need to remember about the word.                 What’s tricky about night

Only ask about tricky parts.

9. Ask about the meaning.

What does ___ mean?                                                           When it’s dark out.

Wordmapping Mnemonic: A shortcut version of the strategy for studying spelling words

Teacher      Student, with teacher guidance
 Mean it.1      Stretch it, count it, dash and slash it.
 Spell it.2       Write it, study it, mean it.
1Mean it means “tell what the word means.”
2Spell it means provide the spelling for students, blank by blank.

Spelling in Tutorial Lessons

Some students are too advanced for the letterbox lesson because they have mastered most regular vowel correspondences in one-syllable words.  The words these students are having trouble reading are irregular, polysyllabic, or both.  When students have moved beyond the letterbox lesson, we can work on more subtle spelling patterns with wordmapping lessons.

The first step in constructing a wordmapping lesson is to examine reading miscues; these involve spelling weaknesses serious enough to impede reading.  Consider misspelled words in written messages, but give priority to misread irregular or polysyllabic words.  Identify one missing pattern to address in a spelling lesson, e.g., c (ei, or y) = /s/, or the common syllable tion.

Make a list of 3-12 example words and nonexample words, including irregular and polysyllabic words and review words from previous lessons.  Put the words in syllable order, e.g., oncecrumbtrunkbalancecircus, and ambulance.  Provide the dictionary syllabication and phoneme counts, e.g., bal-ance, 3-3; cir-cus, 2-3; am-bu-lance, 2-2-4.

Explain and model how to spell an example word, using the nine steps.  With polysyllabic words, use the dictionary syllables, e.g. for diligence, dil-i-gence.

If the student is catching on, look for shortcuts in the nine-step procedure.  After the student orally syllabicates a word and counts the syllables, work by syllable.  Have the student stretch each syllable, count its phonemes, draw blanks, and make a slash to prepare the way for the next syllable.  After the blanks are drawn, provide the standard spelling for the student to record blank by blank.  Do not expect the student to invent the standard spelling, which often involves irregularities and ambiguities.  Next, have the student recopy the word “in your best cursive handwriting,” and then study the tricky parts.  Make sure the student understands what the word means.

After all the words are processed, give a written spelling test.  Include examples of the spelling pattern not covered in the lesson.  For example, students who have studied yield should be able to spell yield or shield.   Students who have studied fiction should be able to spell faction or fraction.  Conclude the lesson by having the student read the list of spelling words.  Words represented with good spellings in memory can be read fluently.

A Weekly Procedure for a Spelling Group

  1. Locate a systematic spelling program that develops students’ spelling power.  Sort the words on the weekly list for spelling patterns, e.g., a common phonogram, a common digraph or cluster, or a common prefix, root, or suffix. Choose a representative word from each group, a key word. After group study, this word will go on the word wall.
  2. Introduce key words on Monday with the whole class (use the routine outlined above). Before introducing each word, make certain of the number of phonemes (sounds) and which letters spell each phoneme.  You will need the dictionary syllabication for multisyllable words.  A pretest will help indicate which words need extra work.
  3. Cooperative learning groups study the other words Tuesday and Thursday. Teams should be as balanced as possible in spelling ability; each team should have a mix of good spellers and struggling spellers. Plan a reward for teams that average above 90% on the weekly test. The reward could be something as simple as 10 minutes free time or the right to choose a learning game. Avoid cutthroat competition by setting up a situation in which every team can win the reward. Team success must depends on each member’s score, so that one low score can drag down the team average.  To succeed with individual accountability, team members must help one another learn spellings. On Tuesday, students within teams pair up to study the words. They work on the words that are other examples of patterns introduced the day before–not the key words introduced by the teacher.  Where feasible, each partner takes turns being the leader, following through the steps for word study. After the student pairs have practiced each of the words, the group takes a practice test, with one member giving the words to the team. The study pairs then break up to study each word either partner has missed on the practice test. For each missed word, the partners go through the steps again. Remind students that some words will be on the test that are not on the list. It will take spelling power to get these words right. Memorization will not help.
  4. Review and exercise knowledge of words with whole-class work Wednesday and part of Thursday. Include games, every-pupil-response activities, and selected work from the spelling text.  Groups should also meet Thursday to work through any difficult words, using the nine steps of wordmapping.
  5. Spelling test Friday. With a selection of unit words, include a sample of untaught words of the learned pattern. For example, if students have studied pain, ask them to spell gain, and remind them that it has the same spelling pattern as pain. After the test, average team scores and reward the winners. You might have a special reward (e.g., extra computer time) if every team is successful.

Footnotes on counting phonemes in irregular and multisyllable words

With r-controlled vowels, only count the vowel-r chunk as a single phoneme if r alters the vowel sound (er, ir, ur, ar). When r does not change the vowel, e.g., their, separate the vowel from r (their).

With final –le syllables, treat the semivowel /l/ as a single phoneme, e.g., for turtle,              t ur / t le. If possible, put a caret under the silent e.

Research on Wordmapping

Murray, B.A., & Steinen, N. (2011). W or d / m a p / p i ng: How understanding spellings improves spelling power. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46(5), 299-304.

In a quasi-experimental study, ninth graders in a remedial English class were assigned to an experimental wordmapping group or to a vocabulary group studying the same words. Students in the wordmapping group not only learned to spell lesson words better, but also significantly outscored the control group on a standardized test of spelling.

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Last modified: February 19, 2021