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

posted in: Categories, Spelling | 2

Look-Cover-Write (or for many students GUESS) is a spelling strategy commonly used to teach spelling and one that continues to be used as the basis for remembering the correct spelling of words even for many phonic-based spelling programs.

However, research recently published by Dymock and Nicholson (2017) showed that students who were taught spelling using a rule-based approach had greater transference to spelling new words compared to students who were taught using look-cover-write-check, and this was true for both proficient and less proficient spellers.

The problem with Look-Cover-Write as a strategy to learn spelling words is that it 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. Another problem with this strategy is that you can only read and spell words that you have previously seen and remembered.

There is a growing body of research showing that students are more effective readers and spellers when they master alphabetic knowledge (which requires good phonological awareness and phonic knowledge) and orthographic knowledge (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.

However, students also need strategies for remembering this alphabetic and orthographic information.  Remembering information requires you to firstly storing the information in your long-term memory so that you are subsequently able to quickly and accurately 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, the information is embedded in pictures and stories, multiple senses are used and there are numerous opportunities for practice and rehearsal (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

The Cracking the ABC Code Multisensory Spelling Programs teach 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.

Dymock, S., & Nicholson, T. (2017). To what extent does children’s spelling improve as a result of learning words with the look, say, cover, write, check, fix strategy compared with phonological spelling strategies? Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 22(2), 171-187.

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

  1. Roger Smith

    “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

      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.