Confidently support your child's academic and emotional growth
Support your child's academic and emotional growth with confidence
A mom no longer wondering what is best-guess spelling and now happily helping her son with homework.

What is Best-Guess Spelling? {Reduce Homework Drama!}

A parent once painted this picture for me about a daily scene in their household. 

She lamented, “Everything’s fine and my son is doing his homework. I notice one word is spelled odd so I point it out, and not even in a mean way. The next thing I know – boom! – the entire paper is wadded up, the pencil has been thrown across the room and my son is on the ground in tears! And this happens way more often than I’d like to admit… Like almost every day…” 

I’d guess I’ve heard the same thing from over 100 parents over my teaching career. 


In my job as a teacher, I hear from parents over and over and over again about variations on the following problems: 

  • My child gets very easily discouraged when I tell her something isn’t spelled right. 
  • My child wants to throw away whatever he wrote when I correct him. 
  • I don’t know how much I should be correcting my child’s spelling!  
  • It’s to the point that my child won’t write anything without my help with spelling.  
  • My child doesn’t want to try spelling words even though I know she could.
  • My child hates being wrong.
  • Homework is an incredibly stressful time every day.
  • Helping my child with writing causes so much drama and tension in our household!

When I hear families are facing these familiar daily concerns, my answer is always the same: “Let’s talk about best-guess spelling.” It can literally support your child’s growth mindset, dramatically decrease the amount of frustration in your daily life and bring positivity back to your relationship with your child. 


In a nutshell, best-guess spelling (which can also be called approximated spelling) is listening to the sounds in a word and writing down letters that make those sounds. The letters written down for each sound need to be one of the many ways to make that sound in the English language. 

There are multiple ways to write most sounds in English. For instance, “c”, “k” and “ck” are all ways to write the sound /c/, so “pic”, “pik” and “pick” would all be examples of best-guess spelling for the word “pick”. I would be super happy with any of those great guesses because the child is listening to the sounds in the word and applying what they know about phonics and sounds to do the best spelling they can. 

Students who correctly listen to sounds in a word and then write one of the ways to make that sound, regardless of whether it is the “correct” or “dictionary” spelling, are doing best-guess spelling. 

I love best-guess spelling both in my first-grade classroom and at home with my own children. This type of spelling is highly valuable and is well within expectations for preschoolers through second graders. 

And guess what? We even do best-guess spelling as adults when we write a word two ways as we are trying to decide, for example, if the word is written with ee or ea. 

As adults, however, we have the benefit of years and years of reading and exposure to words. Once we write it both ways, we are able to think “oh, yes, I’ve seen the word before and that looks right.” 

Beginning readers and writers don’t have that exposure to words, so they need to be able to use best-guess spelling. 

If a child is deciding between the ee and the ea in the example above, they should be allowed to spell the word with ee or with ea, since both make the long e sound and the child hasn’t had enough visual exposure to the word to know which actually looks right. How are you to know what the exact spelling is if you’ve legitimately never seen the word before or have only seen it a couple times? 


So what does best-guess spelling really look like in a child’s writing? Let’s look at a few examples. 

A child may spell the word “phone” as fon, fone, foan, or phoan and every single one of those would mean the child is listening to the sounds in the word. 

Similarly, it would be wonderful to see a child spell the word teacher in any of the following ways: ter, tejr, techr, teejr, teajr, teechr, teecher, etc.


When parents hear about best-guess spelling, they often assume that it means they need to allow their child to spell words in any random way they want. And this usually makes them question if best-guess spelling is really the right path to take for their child’s academic growth. 

Let me assure you, that is absolutely NOT the case. If a child wrote “pslun” when attempting to write “teacher”, for example, I would know that they are not listening to the sounds in the word. I would hold them accountable for checking that word again and listening to the sounds. 

Best-guess spelling is not a free pass to ignore spelling. It is actually a freedom pass for your child to do the opposite – to pay attention to spelling and listen to the sounds in words instead of thinking that they need to have perfect dictionary spelling. (And thus asking how to spell every word instead of listening to sounds and building spelling independence). 

When you tell your child the dictionary spelling of a word, you are not allowing them to build the essential skill of taking apart a word and writing down each part they hear — let alone the skills of independence, self-confidence, willingness to try, appropriate academic risk-taking, and more! 

Feeling pushed toward dictionary spelling forces children away from taking academic risks and thinking for themselves and toward outside crutches such as asking a parent or teacher repeatedly for spelling help. 


I always recommend that parents embrace the best-guess spelling philosophy. 

The main reason is because being excessively hung up on having exact dictionary spelling for words, when students are just starting to read and are developmentally still learning their phonics skills, causes a lot of problems. The main problems I hear about repeatedly are: 

  • Children freeze up and only write very simple words that they know they can spell with exact dictionary spelling. 
  • Children refuse to spell anything on their own and incessantly ask others for spelling help.
  • Children don’t feel free to try out being a writer and instead are fixated on perfection.
  • Children lose their growth mindset and constantly think in “I can’t” mode.
  • Children hate writing and develop negative associations with writing time.

At this stage in spelling and phonics development, it is much more desirable for students to be taking on the identity of “a writer” and to feel comfortable and enjoy writing.

Children who are constantly corrected or told the dictionary spelling for each word can become slow, frustrated and reluctant writers who can barely get their ideas on paper because they are so caught up with “correct” spelling at a stage when this is unnecessary.


I always like to share this true story that I heard at a teaching conference years ago about a young girl and her writing, as it is such a good example of the positive power of embracing best-guess spelling versus the negative power of valuing dictionary spelling above all else.

One day during her writing time a little girl wrote an incredibly imaginative, detailed story about a girl named Jan who was actually a gorgeous princess. But, the girl writes, Jan was bored and she wanted to find adventure. Jan decided to head out to space and find adventure by floating up onto the clouds and bouncing around among them. Adventure finds her…

She had descriptive language, high-level vocabulary and strong voice, among other wonderful writing skills. It also had a lot of best-guess spelling that did correlate well with sounds she knew but wasn’t dictionary spelling.

However, the next day, after someone had looked over her writing and circled the words that were written with best-guess spelling, that same little girl wrote “I like my cat. I like my mom.” and was done for the day.

Why would she go from such being such an amazing, rich writer, to producing something so basic? It’s straightforward, really: When she got her writing back, she realized that the people who want her to write value dictionary spelling very highly. So she tried to do the right thing and wrote what she could using dictionary spelling. 

When you limit a young child to dictionary spelling you severely restrict the type of writing they can do because they are working with a very limited palette of words. 

A child who is pushed to be a strong overall writer with rich vocabulary, details, lots of sentences, and more but is also told (directly or indirectly) that they need to use dictionary spelling is inevitably going to be stuck in quite a conundrum. 

Thus, to bridge that gap in the only way they can, the child will naturally either ask for help spelling every word or they will break down into a tantrum every time they are asked to write.

You have the power to change that, by showing your young learner that you value their attempts to listen to sounds and write letters that match as they work toward becoming strong independent spellers.

Your Turn

Give it a try and see for yourself the dramatic effects of embracing best-guess spelling over dictionary spelling. It is totally doable and a huge game-changer!


PS If you haven’t yet, read 3 Parent Misconceptions About Best-Guess Spelling to debunk some common parent myths about best-guess spelling and How to Help Your Child With Best-Guess Spelling at Home  to see how to actually put this into practice in your everyday homework experience!

I'm Allison Blair, and I’m so honored you are here. I am a teacher at heart who can never pass up an opportunity to share information with someone. Luckily, that teaching compulsion comes in handy — I am a first-grade teacher of over 15 years, a teaching/parenting blogger and (most importantly!) a mom of two little ones. I have especially strong passions for: • early literacy learning and classroom and home libraries • creating a love of learning and reading in children • behavior management and child development • building classroom communities and family closeness • using purposeful teacher and parent word choice with children You've already got the love. Now here's the background knowledge you need to support your child's academic and emotional growth and create a strong family connection. I'm here to ease your mind and help you confidently raise your children in the way you've always wished you could. Welcome!

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