Spelling Rules and Generalizations

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

Even though the English spelling system (orthography) is alphabetic with letters representing spoken sounds in many words, English can be challenging because English spelling is not purely phonetic. Many words cannot be spelled phonetically, although teaching the most common sound-spelling relationships is still very useful, given that approximately 84% of English words are phonetically regular (Hanna et al., 1966). A systematic, explicit approach to teaching phonics concepts supports word decoding as well as spelling. See a post I wrote in 2020 that includes a systematic phonics scope and sequence.

Another area that should be included in spelling instruction for multisyllabic words is the schwa vowel sound. The schwa sound is the most common vowel sound in the English language, accounting for 20% of all vowel sounds (Yule, 1996), and it often is the cause of spelling mistakes. Schwa replaces a vowel sound in the unaccented syllables of multi-syllable words. It is sometimes called the “lazy” vowel. The schwa sound often sounds like a muffled version of the short u sound, although it can sometimes sound more like a muffled short i sound. It can be spelled with any vowel. See the post I wrote in 2021 with suggestions for teaching schwa.

The focus of this post is on explicit instruction, with examples, of spelling rules and generalizations. There are basic generalizations shown in the chart below with examples.

There are also spelling rules for adding suffixes, as shown in the chart below with examples.

When teaching spelling rules and generalizations, it is best to introduce one at a time and share multiple examples. Have students read and then spell these examples. At first, students benefit from hearing and stating a spelling rule, but the goal should be to quickly move to internalizing the concept so students automatically apply the principle or rule when spelling.

Related Resources:


Hanna, P.R., Hodges, P.R., Hanna, J.L & Rudolph, E.H. (1966). Phoneme-grapheme correspondences as cues to spelling improvement. Washington, DC: U.W. Office of Education.

Yule, G. (1996). The study of language (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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