How to Differentiate Spelling the Easy Way

differentiated spelling lists made easy

By now, we’ve all either read the research or discovered on our own that the traditional method of teaching spelling isn’t effective for the majority of students. Unfortunately, there’s not enough training for teachers on how to differentiate spelling instruction. Creating differentiated spelling lists for each student is time consuming, and requires a TON of work by the teacher, right?

Wrong! This year, I’ve found a way to use what’s already provided for me to quickly and easily differentiate spelling instruction in my class. My students and I love it, and I think you will too! There are so many different ways to differentiate spelling tests and lessons, but this has been the easiest and quickest to implement.


See if any of this sounds like your traditional spelling program… On Monday, students take a spelling pretest on the 20 spelling words provided by some boxed curriculum. Some students get all of the words correct, and now know they can check out for the week. others miss almost every word, and are left feeling like there’s no way they can succeed. Tuesday through Thursday follow with an assortment of worksheets. Then on Friday, the same test is given, this time for a grade.

Other than the naturally good spellers, most students memorize the words for the test and promptly forget them. In addition, since each student is in a different place when it comes to their spelling level, the words in a generic grade level spelling list won’t be appropriate for every student. The solution is differentiating your spelling instruction, just like you’d do with reading or math. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming for you, the teacher, though. You can use what you already have access to, and have students doing most of the work!  

Benefits of Differentiated Spelling Lists and Activities

Differentiating your spelling program is a great way to meet the needs of all of your students, regardless of what different levels they fall into. When you differentiate spelling, each student gets their own spelling list that’s a perfect fit for them, whether they need challenging words or easier ones for that specific spelling pattern. This helps improve their spelling strategies with specific words on their weekly tests that they need to learn instead of words they already know or words that are too hard.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! 

If you have spelling curriculum, use it… parts of it, anyway. Start with what’s provided in your reading program. Even though we now know that the way most of the big publishers approach spelling is far from best practice, the spelling patterns they choose do tend to be age appropriate. Not to mention, they’ve already planned out what order to teach the skills throughout the school year based on different phonics patterns and given you a set of grade-level words for each week’s skill. So don’t toss it out and create more work for yourself. Start with what they give you, and differentiate from there. Here’s how it goes in my upper elementary classroom: 



Our district-adopted reading program provides a spelling skill lesson each week. I use these spelling lessons, and the provided word lists as the base to build our differentiated spelling lists each week. On Monday morning, I write the spelling skill statement on the board, and students copy it into their spelling notebooks. I also make a chart for us to sort our words by their spelling patterns.

Our basal includes a spelling sort each week, so I use these same categories for my chart. I provide one or two words for each spelling pattern and let students help come up with the rest of the words. I simply ask students what other words they know with this sound/spelling pattern. I continue taking various words until there are 25 or so total words on the chart. If students have trouble coming up with different words, I fall back on the provided list in the basal series for examples.

creating differentiated spelling lists

Next, I give students a few “must-do” words for the week, ideally one for each spelling pattern. They then fill in the rest of their own differentiated weekly spelling lists with words from our chart that they don’t already know how to spell. Choosing their own spelling list gives students choice and promotes taking ownership of their learning. We’ve had several conversations about choosing words that will appropriately challenge them, and for the most part, my students do a great job with this. 

Tuesday, Wednesday, & Thursday

Students do a spelling practice activity from my Word Work for Big Kids: Spelling Activities each morning for morning work. These differentiated spelling activities allow students to practice their spelling words on their own level and with activities they enjoy. In the beginning of the year, I introduce one activity a day, and students complete that activity.

Once students have learned how to complete 5-10 of these word work activities, they are free to choose any spelling activity of their choice. On Thursdays, many of my students choose to do a spelling practice test with a partner so that they know which words need more attention.  


Students complete their spelling assessment on Fridays. Since everyone has differentiated spelling lists that are individualized, students take their differentiated spelling test with a partner. I assign spelling partners (they stay the same all year, unless I need to change them). I pair two spellers with similar spelling level, so that they can read each others’ current spelling list. 

Students give their partners a spelling test using their different lists. When both are finished, students correct their partner’s test. Students only mark correct or incorrect, and bring the papers to me for a grade. I always double-check the grading, but it’s quick since they’ve already marked them.  These partner spelling tests have easily become one of my students’ favorite features of our differentiated spelling program!

FREE Guide to Quick & Easy Differentiated Spelling Lists!

This FREE Guide to Quick & Easy Differentiated Spelling Lists includes all the instructions, a complete sample lesson, and the only two printables you’ll need for an entire year of differentiated spelling instruction!

differentiated spelling made easy