Spelling irregular words

Irregular words cannot be spelled by relying on writing down the sounds; therefore visual memory needs to be practised and developed.

Mnemonics is a useful strategy for spelling irregular words. Mnemonics are simply devices to help us remember. For students with EAL/D, mnemonics must be carefully explained to be understood and applied.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: rhymes and catch phrases and acronyms

1.The following rhyme helps students remember how to spell words such as receive. Unfortunately this rule does not always apply. One common exception is weird! There are other exceptions which allow you to build on the rhyme:

  • I before E, except after C
  • Or when sounded “A” as in neighbour and weigh
  • And “weird” is just weird!

2.Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move – RHYTHM

3.When two vowels go out walking the first one does the talking:

4.If you Fri your Friend he’ll come to an end – FRIEND

5.CH on the right and CH on the left and UR (you are) in the middle – CHURCH

6.Sally Ann Is Dancing – SAID

7.There’s a rat in SEPARATE

8.Big Elephants Can Always Upset Small Elephants – BECAUSE

Activity 2: have a go sheet

Teachers should encourage students to have a go; to make several attempts to spell the word and identify if it looks right. Then an authoritative source is checked to verify the correct spelling, e.g. dictionary, teacher, word wall. Examples of Have-a-go Sheets:

Activity 3: turn away

Write a word on the board. Choose a student to read it and then ask them to turn away. Rub out a letter. Direct the student to supply the missing letter. Increase the number of letters rubbed out as the student becomes more competent. You can also choose students to lead this activity.

Activity 4: snakes and ladders

Establish a bank of words to be spelt (about 30). Include many that are regular as well as some irregular words that the student does know how to spell. Using the game board for the ordinary game of Snakes and ladders (or a home-grown version), the student rolls the dice, but must correctly spell the top card chosen by the other player before moving. Otherwise, it is the other player’s turn.

Activity 5: the secret word

From a list of words on the blackboard or wall chart the teacher chooses a secret word and writes it down unseen by the students. A student is asked to guess the word by saying the word and spelling the word by letter names while writing each letter as it is said on the blackboard, for example, “Is it friend, f-r-i-e-n-d?” The student can be prompted to spell the word correctly by looking at the word on the blackboard or wall chart.

If the student has guessed the secret word the teacher says, “Yes it is friend, f-r-i-e-n-d”. The student then takes the role of the teacher. If it is not correct another student has a go.

(Programming and Strategies Handbook NSW Department of Education and Communities 1999)

Online resources



Australian curriculum

ACELA1486: Recognise high-frequency sight words.

NSW syllabus

EN2-5A: Uses a range of strategies, including knowledge of letter-sound correspondences and common letter patterns, to spell familiar and some unfamiliar word.

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