Repetition is not enough to learn to spell accurately!

To help a learner (child or older) remember the spelling of a word, or the way a character is written (especially with complex Chinese characters – hanji / kanji), we generally focus on the repetition aspect of memorisation.

Yes, the more your child encounters and writes a word, the more likely they are to remember how to spell/write them.

However, to ensure effective learning, three other aspects need to be taken into account.

  • The cognitive effort i.e. how much intentional effort is put in the task.

  • The cognitive load i.e. how much information is thrown at the brain.

  • The emotional involvement of the child.

Of course, writing accurately is not just about accurate spelling. Grammatical rules and conjugation need to be mastered too, and they will be discussed in a future post. In the meantime, I invite you to check my previous post and YouTube video on various ways to make dictation fun.

Let’s see what research says about these different points.

Why is repetition not enough?

In their 2014 study, Zachariah M. Reagh and Michael A. Yassa show that although repetition can strengthen the memorisation, details are lost.

When it comes to literacy, it means that when reading, your child will remember overall what the word / character looks like, but won’t remember the details. It is a bit as if you could recognise my face among dozens of others. But if I asked you to draw my face from memory, you would only be able to pick up on the more memorable details.

In a nutshell, the more our children are exposed to a word, the more they will recognise it. And the more they write it, the more they will remember the details. BUT, this is not all you need to create effective retention of the spelling of words. And contrary to the majority language (or school language) a child is typically less exposed to their home language(s). Memorisation therefore has to be made more effective.

Cognitive load

In their 2017 article titled The more total cognitive load is reduced by cues, the better retention and transfer of multimedia learning: A meta-analysis and two meta-regression analyses , Heping Xie et al. show how the overload of information can reduce retention, and how creating cues reduces the cognitive load. In other words, if you give your child a way to remember how to spell a word, retention will be a lot easier.

Let’s have a look at an example. Try to remember this series of random numbers: 1407178924121000314153945. This is really difficult.

Now, how would you find the task with the following #cues:

  • 14/07/1789 = Bastille Day (probably easier to remember for French people)

  • 24/12 = Christmas eve.

  • 1000 = a round number that is easy to remember

  • 3.1415 =

  • ’39 – ’45 = years the second world war started and ended.

Now, instead of 25 individual numbers arranged in a random order, you only need to remember 5 cues. This cue simplifies the task, give some order in what might look like chaos, and relates to previous knowledge that is better known.

This also means that we cannot ask your child to remember the spelling of a word without context. The context creates several cues they can refer to, to help them remember the word and its spelling.

The meaning is the most obvious context there is. Here, it is important to note that when we follow a curriculum made for children living in the country where our home language is the majority language, there might be words our children do not know. It then becomes important to adapt the task, and to make sure the meaning of the words are taught before expecting them to remember how to write them.

Lists of words or characters (hanji/kanji) therefore cannot be given to revise for spelling tests without the meaning being clear. Although our children can memorise them for the test, they won’t be able to use them and write them afterwards. Let’s keep in mind that we are teaching them to expand and use their vocabulary in real life, and not simply for tests. The words/characters can be explained, but it is important to relate them to a bigger context. In other words, if the word is seen and learnt while reading a story, it will be a lot more memorable.

Children living in another country than the one where their home language is (one of) the majority language(s) (or the school language) will inevitably know less words than if they were surrounded by it. If you would like to know more about The Benefits of reading Comic books for multilingual children make sure to check back later for my future blog post on this topic.

Reducing the cognitive load to help memorisation:


The aim is to help your child find again the piece of information they need without having to remember it.

The cue can be a spelling rule. For example in French, the silent letter that is at the end of a word is not random. It is linked to the spelling of words from the same family. The word “vent” (wind) has a silent “t” at the end. This “t” is pronounced in words such as “ventilateur” (an electric fan) or “éventail” (a fan).

The reason rules are effective is that this one cue can be used to spell many other words.

Mnemonics: They work in a similar way to rules but are made up! E.g.: In Spanish, the only letters that can be doubled are c, r, l, and n. An tip I often use when teaching this to my English speaking learners is that only the consonants of the name CaRoLiNa can be doubled.

In French, when I learnt the homophones “emprunte” and “empreinte” in French (respectively the verb “borrow”, and the noun “a mark / imprint/ fingerprint”) I focused on the differences and associated the meaning to the cue. In “emprunte” the U is the same shape as your two hands put together to receive something. And the “ein” in “empreinte” is round and wavy like your fingerprints.

Now, let us talk about the aspect of memorisation that I enjoy the most thinking about: How to involve children emotionally in their learning.

Emotional involvement:

You have probably experienced it yourself. You are listening or reading something that you find extremely boring. After a short while, you realise that you cannot remember anything. Your boredom took your attention away from what you were listening/reading. As emotionally, you were not involved, your brain did not deem it important enough to remember.

In their enlightening book Make it Stick, the authors and psychologists Brown, Roediger and McDaniel explain that "On your first reading of something, you extract a lot of understanding. But when you do the second reading, you read with a sense of ‘I know this, I know this,’ […] So basically, you’re not processing it deeply, or picking more out of it. […] this gives you the illusion that you know the material very well, when in fact there are gaps."

In other words, when trying to memorise the spelling of a word (or all the strokes of a Chinese character) a conscious effort needs to be made to remember the details.

Here are different other ways to create the emotional connection with the spelling details:


Of course, my favourite one! When our children play games, they are excited, it is playful, and if they can win by noticing the details, they will definitely remember them (Not at once of course, but the strong emotion helps!)

Hangman/crosswords/unjumble the word: These three games all play on the fact that there are a limited number of letters. Each letter discovered helps figure out the others, and where they go. By paying attention to the number of letters and/or those available, your child consolidates their knowledge of the spelling of these words. It can be especially helpful to remember double letters or silent letters.

Here is an example of how I have helped my son remember the spelling of some words by unjumbling the words in a playful way. In this video, I also refer to the “power” of mistakes when it comes to helping your child remember certain details.

Spot what's changed: Although the three previous games cannot really apply to Chinese characters (hanji/kanji), as they are not spelt, this one would be more appropriate.

For this game, you need a double-sided whiteboard (or two separate sheets of paper).

On one side, you write one word/character or a short sentence. For example, a typical sentence I could give my son who is schooled in England and learning French with me, would be : “Le garçon est très curieux” (= The boy is very curious). On the other side, I could write “Le garcon est tres curioux”. Can you spot the three differences?

The “ç” is replaced by a “c”, the accent on “très” is missing, and the “e” in “curieux” is a “o”. These differences highlight details, such as the cédille and accents, that get lost as they don’t exist in English. The French “curieux” also has a very similar spelling to the English “curious”. By replacing the “o” by a “e”, you can help your child reinforce the knowledge of different graphemes. “eu” is pronounce [ø], and “ou”, is [u].

For more ideas to work on reading and writing in your home language(s), please check on The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children.

Using colours: Here is a little additional tip. If you notice a mistake that your child is making, you can write it using different colours. The word is in one colour and the point that you want your child to remember can be written with a different colour. Even better, you ask your child to choose a colour and write the detail THEMSELF. By involving your child in making the details / corrections of mistakes more visible (i.e. memorable), your child will remember them better.

Key points:

- Repetition is important to help our children remember how to spell a word or write a character.

- Providing cues help your child memorise for effectively.

- We need to help our children focus on the important details, so that they can remember them.

- By involving our children emotionally, they are more likely to remember everything.

Useful resources.

For French:

Block of games Je suis en CP specifically created to help children work on their spelling through games.

For Chinese:

Check this blog post (in English) by Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett (Miss Panda) where she introduces a very useful book to learn Chinese characters using images.

For Japanese:

Here is a similar book in Japanese on Kanji and a card game.

If you read Japanese, I also invite you to check this very informative blog written by Kaori Horike, a teacher who is raising her children bilingually. It is full of tips regarding teaching your child to read and write in Japanese (especially kanji).

If you are aware of any other useful resources to help foster reading and writing in other languages, please let me know in the comments below.

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