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Chunk Spelling

Chunk Spelling - Differentiated Spelling Instruction

Spelling is one of those things that EVERYONE has an opinion about and very few people agree on.

I think that the best way to learn how to spell is to spend extensive time reading and writing.

I also believe that a weekly word list has very little carryover into written work.

That being said, spelling lists are expected.  So I should make the spelling words as meaningful as possible, right?

Chunk Spelling

With an ideal spelling program, children would:

  • learn strategies that will help them spell or read any word
  • make connections among words in many ways
  • internalize basic spelling patterns
  • be engaged in the process and have an opportunity to exercise choice
  • be challenged at their individual levels
  • master words and spelling patterns that can be generalized to other words.
  • quickly and efficiently transfer spelling words to their writing

But is such an ideal program possible?

Chunk Spelling

I’m not sure if an ideal spelling program is possible, but I think we’ve got something that’s pretty close.

We call it our “chunk” spelling.  I can’t take credit for it–I learned about it at a district workshop 9 or 10 years ago.  (I don’t think the workshop presenters invented this either, but in my research for this post I can’t figure out where it originated.)

When I started teaching, I used the word lists from the basal (each student had the same words with some extra words for the high kids).  After that my team tried variations on Words Their Way spelling lists,  but once we learned about “chunk spelling” we didn’t look back.

The basis for “chunk spelling,” as you might imagine, is the “chunk.”  This is the rime (word family) that we focus on all week.

Students are given a small strip of paper with the week’s rime.  They use a sound board that contains beginning consonants and blends/digraphs.  They place the rime next to each onset on the board and say the word aloud.  If it’s a real word (cop, not dop), they write the word in their notebook.

Chunk Spelling

After listing all the words they can make with the onsets, the students set the sound board and chunk strip aside.  Then they are challenged to think of any “big words” that have the week’s rime.

The “big words” are where the magic happens.

2nd graders are supposed to work with compound words, prefixes, and suffixes.  Chunk spelling gives them a real-life reason to do so.  For -ake we might list baker, bakery, snowflake, mistake, retake, taken, etc.  And when someone suggests “bakeing,” we can have a quick little lesson right then about the e-drop rule.

At this point (after a few weeks of training) they’re working independently.  I don’t correct any errors.  You’ll notice that she has “hab” written as a word (she’s thinking of it as related to habitat) and she’s misspelled laboratory.

After everyone has made some headway with their word lists (the high kids are usually discussing big words, the strugglers are still working through the onsets), I post a large chart paper on the board and we create a class list. The small words (single consonant onset + rime) go in the left column.  The medium words (blend/digraph + rime) goes in the middle.  The last column is for big words.

(My awesome mother makes up a year’s worth of charts for me during the summer.  They all follow this same format.)

As we’re making our class list,  I address misconceptions (like hab) and misspellings (soak can’t go with oke).

I push everybody to think of at least 3 big words, but sometimes they can’t (or won’t) get that far (or everybody thinks of the same 3!).  When that happens, I have a list of word suggestions I can refer to my words if we need to flesh out the list a bit.  Also, if a student suggests a word that isn’t on my list I add it so I’ll have it for next year!

Once our list is in tip-top shape, the kids choose their own spelling words for the week.

They choose 10 words and write it in their spelling notebook (to leave at school).

Then they must show me!

After I’ve checked that the 10 words are spelled correctly, I give them this week’s spelling homework menu and they write the spelling list there.  I check it a 2nd time and then it goes in the homework folder. The last thing you want is a spelling list going home with misspelled words.

I love that the kids get to choose their own words.  In a 2nd grade class you have some kids who will be struggling to spell cat.  And you have some kids who are ready for the challenge of caterpillar.  I would rather challenge kids with a few difficult words than working on a large number of easy words.

The students love the choice, too!  They’re much more willing to attempt big words if it’s something they suggested.  After I get to know which kids are strong spellers, or as the year progresses, I may make the rule that Tommy has to pick only big words or Jill has to have at least 3 big words.  It depends on the child.  It also depends on the class-wide abilities.  A few years, when I’ve had high classes, about mid-year I’ve made the rule that no one can choose from the small word column.  Last year was NOT a year like that, but you know how it goes…!

The kids practice their spelling words in their morning work.  They practice them during Daily 5.  And they work on them for homework.

On Friday, we have spelling tests.  For the first few weeks, regardless of the student’s individual list, I give a class-wide test on the 10 easiest words.  Starting about October, I start to train them how to test each other.

Using my Words Their Way data, I pair students of similar abilities (because they’ve likely chosen words at a similar level of difficulty) for buddy spelling tests.  We’ve already learned how to number our papers to 10.  Now they have to get a clipboard (or book) and choose a place to work.  Partners switch spelling notebooks.  They’re taught that one student is the giver one is the test taker.  After one test is complete it’s turned in to me.  Roles are switched and the second test is given.  As pairs finish, they come get a new chunk strip and start to work on next week’s words.

It takes at least a half-hour (longer at the beginning) to complete the testing, make new individual lists, and make a class list.  It also takes another 15-20 minutes for students to make their own take-home spelling lists.

This takes up a big chunk of our class time on Fridays!  (We don’t do Daily 5 on Fridays for this reason.)

So why do I think this is worth so much class time?  To answer that let me redirect you to that list from the beginning of this post.

With an ideal spelling program, children would:

  • learn strategies that will help them spell or read any word
  • make connections among words in many ways
  • internalize basic spelling patterns
  • be engaged in the process and have an opportunity to exercise choice
  • be challenged at their individual levels
  • master words and spelling patterns that can be generalized to other words.
  • quickly and efficiently transfer spelling words to their writing

All of these goals can be addressed by teaching spelling by analogy with chunk spelling.

Here’s a little video we made quickly for Instagram that shows you how chunk spelling works.

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Chunk Spelling

Why don’t I use Words Their Way for spelling? I get this question often.

In fact, I have an entire blog post about why I love Words Their Way and why I love Chunk Spelling, and why I wouldn’t go without one or the other.

Read Why I Don’t Use Words Their Way for Spelling.



Choose your chunks.

For 2nd grade, my team and I picked 35 rimes that we thought were important for 2nd graders to practice.  We started with the simplest, 2-letter chunks (at, op, etc.).  We progressed through 3-letter short vowel, long vowel (silent e), other long vowel patterns (aw, ight), but we ended with some simple ones that provide opportunities for big words (see more info about this in the tips section).

For 1st grade or struggling readers, you would probably want to add more short vowel chunks.  

For 3rd grade, you can use trickier chunks with fewer “small” and “medium” words, but a large number of the “big” words.  For example, the word dream would be on the list for 3rd grade.  But then remember that you can make most nouns plural with an s or es (dreams), verbs will have different tenses (dreaming, dreamed), and adjectives can often be comparatives (dreamy, dreamier, dreamiest).  And then there are all the compound words (daydream, dreamtime, etc.)  It’s important for kids to see how knowing a small word can build into many big words.

Make chunk strips.

We provide chunk strips for 86 different chunks in our Chunk Spelling Bundle, but you can make your own.

Set up a table in a word document with 3 columns and 10 rows.  I like to leave the lines on so I know where to cut. Make sure everything is aligned to the left (so the chunk will line up with the onset on the soundboard).  Leave some space on the right so the chunk can be held, but still read.

I printed the chunk strips on different colors of cardstock and stored them in baseball card sleeves in a 3-ring binder.  Slap a label on each pocket and rubber band each set of strips together (the little ponytail rubber bands work perfectly for a set of chunk strips)…you’re set for a few years until you’ve lost too many and need to make a fresh set.


I used large paper clips to kind of keep each card pocket shut.  It wasn’t perfect, but it did a pretty good job of keeping the cards from sliding out.

Print your soundboards.

I like them in color, but you can print black and white on colored cardstock. Print them double sided with single consonant onsets on one side, and digraphs/blends on the other. 

Decide if you want students to build words individually or as a class.

The way I’ve always done this is to have students make their initial lists individually, as described in this post. But when you run into a chunk that might lead to some explosive words, or if your students don’t seem ready to do this activity on their own, you can do it together as a class.

To build words together as a class, you’ll need to make an onset deck.  Use some index cards.  Write a beginning consonant, blend, or digraph on each card. Remove any offending onsets (ones that will lead to bad words!) and distribute the rest of the cards.  Don’t use the sound boards and work on the list as a whole-class. (“Does anybody have a letter they can put with -ell to make a word?”)

This might also be a good way to do this program with 1st graders who might not be ready to make lists independently. In our Chunk Spelling Bundle we provide all the resources you need to do the activity this way. (Onset deck pictured below. We recently switched this so the picture will be covered up once the chunk is added, just to avoid any confusion.)

Decide how you want to handle word selection.

You can do Chunk Spelling any way you want. Your class can help make the chart every week and then you can choose together the 10 words that the whole class will work on. You can assign 5 specific words and let them choose 5 of their own.

I personally like having them choose their own words for the week, but do what works for you. You can also do as many words as you think is appropriate, but I’ve found 10 to be the right amount for my students.

Also consider if you want to have certain rules like choosing at least 2 big words, or telling certain students to only choose words from the last two columns.

Decide where the students will write their lists.

We make little spelling notebooks where they write their words. They pull them out any time they’re doing an activity in their morning work or Daily 5 that requires them to practice their spelling words for the week.

Decide if you want to send homework.

We created tri-fold spelling menus as part of our Chunk Spelling Bundle. Each week has a bunch of activities to choose from, most of which do not require any help from an adult. We only ask that they do two activities a week, which really should be plenty. We don’t want to drill and kill here. 

Decide if you want to make a chart every week or use a pocket chart.

Personally, I like the anchor charts. They’re easy to make up in advance (remember, my awesome mom does this for me in the summer). But you can use a pocket chart too! Our Chunk Spelling Bundle includes everything you need to do the activity on a pocket chart. 

Easy chunks aren’t just for CVC words.

When you’re choosing chunks, consider simple ones, even if your class doesn’t need practice with im, ob, ab, or et word families. There are some fabulous “big words” you can make with those chunks (absolutely, observation, impossible, supermarket). These might be great chunks to do at the end of the year!

Begin with modeling.

Consider starting the year (or whenever you are beginning chunk spelling) with a sample week. I complete the first chart before school starts.  On the first day I discuss the completed chart with the students and they choose their spelling words for the week.  At the end of the first week they help me make the next week’s list.  We do the sound board/list making as a whole class for the first few weeks or until I feel they understand my expectations.

Be thoughtful about the chunks you choose.

And be sure the suggested words are appropriate for your class.  If someone just lost a family member to a drowning, then maybe drown isn’t going to be a word you include on your class’s list this week.

Get your mind IN the gutter.

Think of controversial words ahead of time and decide on a way to handle it or prevent it.  If you’re doing the -orn chunk, I can guarantee some kid will suggest “p-rn.”  And you know -est is almost certain to lead to the word “bre-st.” I had one kid proudly offer the word “v-gina” for -ine .  I just said, “That’s not spelled with an -ine” and quickly went on!  When it comes to prepping for this activity, think dirty because the kids will! If you use the lesson plans in our Chunk Spelling Bundle, we include onsets to watch out for with each chunk. 

Establish ground rules for which words you will allow to go on your chart.

Here are the rules that I used:

  • The word must contain the week’s chunk in the sound that we’re focusing on.  For example, hopeful has op in the middle, however it doesn’t make the short o sound so it can’t be added.
  • The chunk must be in its entirety.  So baking doesn’t make the list even though the root word is bake.
  • No names.  At some point in the year a student will suggest a Pokemon or other character. I don’t know these characters.  I don’t know if they’re appropriate for school.  I also don’t add names of students’ friends and family.  No brothers named “Jayson” for the -ay chunk.  I think it just muddies the water too much.  I do make exceptions for widely known characters like Cinderella.
  • If someone suggests a word no one can define, I don’t add it to the list either.  I’ve found that my 5 second definition isn’t enough for them to internalize it and I have a bunch of low readers adding nab and slab to their lists and not really knowing anything about these words.

Consider using real-life photos to help students build their vocabulary.

Students are bound to generate some words they’ve heard of, but don’t really know the meaning of. If you plan in advance, you can have some photos available to help your students build their vocabulary with these new words. In our Chunk Spelling Bundle we include 4 photos for each chunk.

Consider saving yourself a ton of time with our The Chunk Spelling System, where we have done all the work for you!

It includes:

  • A teacher’s guide to Chunk Spelling
  • 86 spelling chunks to choose from
  • weekly lesson plan
  • all the materials needed for individual or whole-class word building
  • Double-sided tri-fold menu style spelling homework that ties directly to the weekly chunk
  • photo support of less-common words (4 pictures per week) for vocabulary building and ELL students

Check out the The Chunk Spelling System!

If you like chunk spelling and word sorting, you may be interested in our Word Play Phonics program. We incorporate differentiated word sorting, chunk spelling, word family poetry, phonics games, and weekly whole class lessons into one cohesive program. Click here to get one free week of Word Play Phonics.

Wow, that’s a ton of information! But we hope it will help you make chunk spelling a meaningful part of your phonics and word study routine. Hit us in the comments if you have questions that we haven’t answered.

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After a combined 14 years in 2nd grade, sisters Heidi & Emily are passionate about helping simplify life for other teachers!

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