ESL Spelling Development

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

In this lesson, teachers will learn strategies for helping English as a Second Language (ESL) students develop spelling skills. These strategies can be adapted for a variety of age and grade levels.

Teaching Spelling to ESL Students

Consider typical classroom spelling instruction. The teacher provides students with a list of words to memorize on Monday. On Friday, students take a spelling test. As the teacher reads each word aloud, students write the correct spelling down on their paper. For most students, this method of spelling instruction may be sufficient, but how effective is it for students with limited English proficiency?

Many teachers wonder how to approach spelling instruction with their ESL students. When these students are struggling with reading comprehension, oral language development, and basic English literacy, teachers may wonder if spelling development should even be a priority.

The reality is that spelling development and other language acquisition skills go hand-in-hand. Reading comprehension and writing skills are significantly affected by poor spelling awareness.

Let's take a look at some strategies that you can use with your ESL students to help them with spelling development.

Word Sorts

With a word sort activity, students are provided with words that they sort into categories. The teacher can provide the categories, which is often referred to as a closed word sort, or students can complete an open word sort by creating their own categories.

For a closed sort, the teacher can give students a graphic organizer with labeled columns. Students can either write the words in the appropriate column, or they can use small note cards with the words written on them. This will allow them to physically place the word in the appropriate column.

For example, let's say a student has five spelling words, each one written on a separate note card. The words are orange, brown, red, blue, and yellow. The teacher provides the student with a graphic organizer containing a chart that is divided into two columns. The first column is labeled 'words with one syllable,' and the second column is labeled 'words with two syllables.' The student would place the note cards that read 'brown,' 'red,' and 'blue' in the first column. The other cards would be placed in the second column.

For an open sort, the same methods apply, except the headings on the graphic organizer are blank, and students fill them in independently.

Here are some examples of categories that can be used for word sorts:

  • Words with two syllables
  • Compound words
  • Words with silent letters
  • Words that end in '-ed'
  • Words that end in '-ing'
  • Plural words
  • Adjectives
  • Nouns
  • Pronouns
  • Verbs
  • Words with double consonants
  • Words with double vowels
  • Words with a long 'a' sound

Word Hunts

Using the same concept as sorts, word hunts give students practice in searching for words that fit into their categories. Students can look through newspapers and magazines for words that they can add to their word sorts.


Another strategy for building spelling skills is to use the same word lists and cards that were used in the sorts and have students alphabetize them. Putting words in alphabetical order requires students to study the vocabulary words and pay close attention to spelling patterns.

A fun way to alphabetize is to break students up into small groups and give them a set amount of time to alphabetize the words. Whichever group puts all the words into the correct alphabetical order the fastest is the winner.


Make sure your students are aware of cognates, which are words in two different languages with similar meanings, spellings, and pronunciations. For example, consider the similarities between the following words in English and Spanish:

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