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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.