The Problem with Look-Cover-Write as a Spelling Strategy

Look CoverLook-Cover-Write (or for many students GUESS) is a spelling strategy commonly used to teach spelling.  However, this strategy relies solely on short-term visual memory and is based on the premise of learning words as single units.  Logically, if this is the strategy used to teach students to spell then every word in the English language would need to be learned individually.  This would be fine if everyone had a photographic memory.  You could look at a word once and it would be forever imprinted in your memory.  Although we all have this skill to varying degrees, few people have this ability to such as extent that it is an effective strategy for learning to spell the 750,000 words in the English language.

In addition, Look-Cover-Write is based on the most basic level of Frith’s (as cited in Heath, Hogben & Tan, 2008) literacy acquisition model.  In this model, it is advocated that you first learn to read and spell based on logographic strategies whereby you focus on the appearance of words and learn words as single entities.  The problem with this as a long-term strategy is that you can only read and spell words that you have previously seen and remembered.

The research clearly shows that students are more effective readers and spellers when they master the next two phases in Frith’s literacy acquisition model:  The alphabetic phase (which requires good phonological awareness and phonic knowledge) and the orthographic phase (which requires a good understanding of rules – and the exceptions, prefixes, suffixes, root words and syllabification).  See for example Al Otaiba, et al.’s (2010) and Holmes and Quinn’s (2009) research in this area.

In addition, students need strategies for remembering this information.  This requires firstly storing this information in long-term memory and then being able to quickly retrieve this information on demand.  The memory research shows information is more likely to be stored in long-term memory when new knowledge is linked to existing knowledge, when all components of a program are interlinked, multiple senses are used and there are numerous opportunities for practice and rehearsal (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

The Cracking the ABC Code multisensory spelling program teaches students to understand the code underlying the spelling of words and uses strategies which helps them remember that code.


Al Otaiba, S., Puranik, C., Rouby, D., Greulich, L., Sidler, J., et al. (2010). Predicting kindergarteners’ end-of-year spelling ability based on their reading, alphabetic, vocabulary, and phonological awareness skills, as well as prior literacy experiences.  Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(3), 171-183.

Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2010). Educational psychology: Windows on classrooms (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Ltd.

Heath, S., Hogben, J., & Tan. V. (2008).  Assisting students struggling with spelling. Dyslexia-SPELD Bulletin. 40, 5-7.

Holmes, V., &  Quinn, l. (2009) Unexpectedly Poor Spelling and Phonological-Processing Skill. Scientific Studies of Reading.13, 295-310.

2 Responses to The Problem with Look-Cover-Write as a Spelling Strategy

  1. Roger Smith August 10, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    “Look-Cover-Write” leaves out the vital stage “Think” which should appear between “Look” and “Cover”. At this stage the learner should be thinking about the syllables used to construct the word and particular parts which might cause problems – double letters for instance, or a vowel that isn’t pronounced as you would expect.

    • Lillian August 10, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

      Yes, adding in ‘think’ is certainly one step better. However, there is still a reliance on visual memory and the thinking section needs to make specific links to phonic and orthographic information.

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