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December 2014
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Quick Tip: Individualized Spelling Lists for ELLs
by Alma L. Contreras-Vanegas

Audience: Elementary through secondary, beginner to advanced

Individualized spelling lists greatly help all students, especially English language learners (ELLs). ELLs learn at their own pace and learning level, which in turn builds their vocabulary. Teachers of ELLs have many ways to scaffold their students’ vocabulary learning by prioritizing which spelling words to teach first. It may sound difficult and time consuming, but providing each ELL with an individualized spelling list is more feasible than it sounds.

1. How to Choose Words

Teachers may choose spelling words students misspell in their journals (e.g., math, science, social studies, and language arts). This process can be facilitated by carrying a clipboard to take quick notes on what words students misspell. Another way to choose words for the spelling lists is to use those words they do not know while reading or words that will appear during the week’s reading story. If students misspell words in the previous week’s spelling list, they can use the same words until they master them. At the beginning of the school year, teachers may provide a general spelling list in order to assess their students’ levels.

2. Different Spelling List Options

Not all students need to have 15 to 20 spelling words. Some students will benefit from shorter spelling lists in order to focus on learning both meaning and spelling (Petrón & Contreras-Vanegas, 2014). Some ELLs may need to focus on sight words longer than others. Therefore, some students may need half of their spelling list to be sight words while others may have only a few sight words.

3. When to Assign Spelling Words

Teachers decide when it is best to provide new spelling words to students, whether that be at the beginning or end of the week. Teachers collect words to include on the individual spelling lists throughout the week, but not all need to be given at once. As teachers collect spelling words, they will prioritize which are most relevant or important for the following week.

4. Setting Student Expectations

As all students have individualized spelling lists, it may be difficult for the teacher to provide a spelling test to every student. Therefore, students may quiz each other. Teachers should have clear guidelines regarding how these quizzes should take place.

The teacher can begin by creating an “Honesty Contract.” This may include the teacher talking to the class as to what it is to be honest. Once the Honesty Contract is written and agreed upon, the teacher may move onto modeling how students can quiz each other.

5. Assessment

The teacher will pair up students according to their English proficiency levels. Pairing up ELLs according to their proficiency is important to scaffold them to the next level. For example, a beginner may be paired up with an intermediate student as they may learn from one another. If a beginner is paired up with an advanced ELL, then the beginner will have a difficult time with the pronunciation of his or her partner’s vocabulary words, and this may affect his or her self-esteem. After students are paired up according to their English proficiency levels, they quiz each other. Students may grade the quizzes themselves or the teacher can grade them at a later time.


Petrón, M., & Contreras-Vanegas, A. L. (2014). Let common sense prevail: Differentiating spelling lists for English language learners in the early grades. Advocate: A Journal for Education of and Advocacy for Young Children, 33(1), 26–31. Retrived from


Alma L. Contreras-Vanegas, PhD, is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University teaching in the department of Language, Literacy, and Special Populations. Her research interests include bilingual/dual language education and ELL writing development.


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Table of Contents
TC Homepage
Tech Gems for Writing
Teaching Talk: The Essence of Lesson Prep
Academic Writing: Scaffolding for Beginning ELLs
Quick Tip: Individualized Spelling Lists
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