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  • Writer's pictureSaresha Zentner

How to Set Up Small Group Spelling Instruction

Do your students struggle practicing spelling and truly learning their spelling words? Mine did too. When I first started teaching, my district used a one-size-fits-all spelling list that (to put it bluntly) did not work for most students. Along with that one-size-fits-all spelling list came random activities like crossword puzzles, word searches, and other activities that did not actually help students learn to spell.

Now we are using Words Their Way. To learn more about the program, you can click here.

I have loved it. Students take a Spelling Inventory, which identifies their strengths and weaknesses as a speller. Based on that pretest, they are placed in a spelling group that fits their level. I usually have 3-4 different groups in my classroom. Even though it is a little harder to manage, it is worth it to have students working on spelling skills they need to learn versus a one-size-fits-all spelling list that is too hard or too easy for them.

The hardest thing in the switch to Words Their Way was managing the groups and providing independent, meaningful tasks for students to work on.

The goal of this program and my instruction is for students to learn the patterns and transfer this learning into their daily writing.

Here's what works in my classroom:

  • Students each have their own spelling packet - this is where they record their work throughout the week and their spelling checks too. They paperclip their words to the packet so they don't lose them.

  • Spelling time is worked into our ELA block. One of our reading rotations is Spelling Practice. This is when they work in their packet. If they are not able to finish during the rotation, students will finish it during out WIN (I/E) time.

  • Students have an accountability partners. They show their partner their work at the end of spelling practice each day.

  • I meet with groups 1-2 times a week depending on the level of the group and their list's complexity. I meet with groups on Monday and/or Tuesday for 5-10 minutes. We read all of the words in their list and discuss their meaning. Then we talk about the rule for the week and sort the words. I make a note if any specific students are not grasping the concept so I can confer with them another time. If I have a task I want them to work on for the Activity, I will have them write it in their packet at this time.

  • Spelling tests look very different with multiple groups. I don't always give all of the words for the test. I can usually tell if students understand the pattern/rule once they have written 8-10 words from their list. To give all the tests at one time, I have my students sit by their groups and I say, "Group 1, your first word is 'quite'. Group 2, your first word is 'flash'. Group 3, your first word is 'responsible'."

Daily Schedule


  • Students receive their new word lists.

  • In their packet, they record the date, spelling list number, and spelling pattern.

  • Then, they copy down the words in their packet. They check with their accountability partner to make sure all words are copied correctly.

  • Students cut out their words and put them in a Ziploc baggie. Then, I have them paperclip the bag to their packet.

  • 1-2 groups meet with me during a rotation on Monday.


  • Students sort their words according to the spelling pattern. They check with their accountability partner to make sure everything is sorted correctly.

  • Then, they record the sort in their packet.

  • 1-2 groups meet with me during a rotation on Tuesday.


  • Students sort their words. It is super important that they become fluent at sorting the words. This helps them quickly recognize the spelling patterns.

  • Students choose an activity to practice their words or they complete the specific activity I asked them to do on Monday or Tuesday. They record their practice in their packet. They show their work to their accountability partner.

  • I check in with students who I flagged on Monday and Tuesday.


  • Students sort their words.

  • Students finish up Wednesday's activity if needed or complete the specific activity I asked them to do on Monday or Tuesday. They record their practice in their packet. They show their work to their accountability partner.

  • For this list, I ask students to find homophones and their definitions so they can identify the different spellings.

  • I check in with students who I didn't get to on Wednesday or those who were still not understanding.


  • I sort students into their groups and give them the spelling check. I try not to call it a test. You can read above how I administer a test to multiple groups at a time.

  • After the test, students write a reflection. I think it's important for them to share how they think they did on the test and to think about how they used their spelling practice time during the week.

  • I have them hand in their packets still open to that page so it is really easy for me to grade.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many students are in a group?

It truly depends on the pretest. Some groups have 2 students, while others have 10. The only time it is hard to manage a large group is on Monday/Tuesday when I meet with them. I usually split the small group up for the instruction otherwise it is hard to gauge where each student is at with that week's list.

What do you teach during the small group?

I have a copy of the list already cut out so we can manipulate the cards easily. (One lucky student gets that list, then they don't have to cut out their own!) We read through the words together and I go through definitions as needed. We talk about tricky words right away. I also use the Words Their Way manual to guide my instruction. Then, we sort the list together and talk about the pattern.

Do students study at home?

I do not encourage them to study at home. We have 15 minutes of spelling practice each day, which should be enough for students. If I am supporting them appropriately and they are completing the tasks and still do not understand, then they are not at the correct level.

I love to get parents involved, but I do not want students to just memorize the words and then forget them later. The goal of this program and my instruction is for students to learn the patterns and transfer this learning into their daily writing.

What do you do if students do not master the pattern?

If students do not learn the pattern in the week, we simply continue working on it the next week. Some patterns are difficult and take more than one week to master. This is not a race and the goal is not to complete as many lists as possible. If a week is repeated, the do the same work again and I try to intensify my small group instruction.

Will this work with Distance Learning or a hybrid model?

Yes! If you are doing Distance Learning, this packet is available on Google Drive so you can assign to students in Google Classroom. You can use the packet how you want - if you wanted to delete the slide with the spell check, you could do that since they will be typing. Or, you could set the expectation that a parent watches them type the words while they read them off. You could also video yourself giving the spelling list and have them type the words while parents are holding them accountable. Up to you. Honestly, for me, I am not looking too much at their spelling checks, because I can usually tell if students have grasped the pattern by that point anyways.

If you are doing a hybrid model, this is perfect. Students

can take their packet & words with them and complete these activities independently.

I hope this was really helpful. If you do not do Words Their Way, you can still use this method with any word list!

The spelling packet is available in my Teacher's Pay Teachers store. You can get it here.

Do you want to download FREE sample of my spelling packet? Click here to subscribe to my blog and gain access to my FREE RESOURCES!

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