hands-on spelling with unifix cubes, toys, or other manipulatives, learn with emily dot com

Hands-On Spelling with Unifix Cubes

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In reading, children can learn phonetic rules and sound out words or they can learn through whole-word methods. Similarly, there are two paths in learning to spell. Spelling skills can be taught through the phonetic rules for encoding words or though memorizing the sequence of letters for an entire word. Traditional spelling activities require copying and writing the letters to form words. A hands-on spelling approach is an adaptation that may appeal to children who like to use manipulatives or who resist or tire of activities that require handwriting.

Prerequisite skills for spelling

Phonetic spelling

In order to spell using phonemic awareness, a child will need to be able to discriminate (or hear) the different sounds within each word. A child will also need to know the letter sounds and the corresponding printed letter(s) to go with each sound.

Whole word spelling

A child will need to know the letter names and be able to memorize the sequence of letters for words.

Which method should I use?

A phonetic-based spelling approach is preferable for many children. Learning phonetic rules and how to apply these rules to spelling will provide the child with the skills he needs to spell most words accurately. However, not all children have the necessary prerequisite skills for learning to spell using phonetic rules. Children who have difficultly with auditory processing and/or hearing the different sounds within words will need a whole-word spelling approach.

My philosophy is to use the method that works best for each child. A child who starts learning to spell with whole-word memorization methods can later be taught to spell using a phonetic approach as phonemic awareness and/or auditory processing skills improve.

Adapting for hands-on Spelling Activities

I am preparing to teach two more of my children beginning spelling skills. These children do well with kinesthetic learning activities. The more hands-on the better. We will be using a variety of objects with printed letters as we practice.

I will be using All About Spelling level 1 (CLICK HERE to read my full review of this program) as a base for one child. Level 1 starts with teaching letter sounds, breaking words in to sound segments, and hearing the different sounds within words. All About Spelling has a set of magnetic letter tiles to use with their activities. With my oldest child, I made my own set of magnetic letter tiles, but those have since been destroyed by a younger sibling.

Unifix Cubes

I would rather have something that is easy for hands to put together and a little more destruction/sibling proof. So, in comes unifix cubes. I have a huge set that we have used for math and visual discrimination activities. Unifix cubes are also great for sorting colors and counting.


One of my other children is not quite ready for a full phonetic spelling approach, but he is very interested in learning to spell words. For his spelling activities, we will use a whole-word approach and work on words he can already read fluently.

I made my spelling unifix cubes with a fine point sharpie. I picked blue for vowels and white for consonants.

Spelling Unifix Cubes

If you don’t want to make your own spelling unifx cubes, Amazon has some with letters already printed on them. I did end up purchasing the small group set of cubes and the blend cubes set after this post originally published. The letters may eventually rub off, as reviewers mentioned on Amazon, but I am still happy with the purchase. These cubes with printed letters saved me a lot of prep time and work well with the All About Spelling curriculum. The blends set does not have a “qu” block, so you will need to make your own if you are using All About Spelling.




Types of Hands-On Spelling Activities


For a whole-word spelling approach, matching the letters to a model is one way to practice. The child can match the letters to the target word printed* on a paper or index card. Then they can put the letters together to build the word.

*Learning to match hand written letters to printed words helps a child generalize the different forms of letters. For example, matching fonts and handwritten letters and words will help a child recognize these variations with ease in the environment.


Encoding words (or spelling using phonetic rules) is the inverse of decoding. If a child can decode fluently, he may still not be able to encode fluently. These are two separate skills and typically require their own instruction and practice. 






Unifix spelling cubes can be used in encoding practice. All About Spelling Level 1 provides detailed instructions about how to help a child develop this skill.

Other Hands-on or Kinesthetic Spelling Materials or Methods

Similar to my unifix spelling cubes, other toys or manipulative can be used for spelling activities. A flat surface and a sharpie can turn any building type of toy into a spelling manipulative. Here are some ideas:

  • Duplo blocks
  • Mega blocks
  • Many alphabet toys can be used for spelling activities. CLICK HERE to read my top 6 alphabet toys for learning letter names or sounds, most of which can also be used for hands-on spelling activities.

Another option for kinesthetic learners is to learn the alphabet in American Sign Language (ASL). Fingerspelling words (spelling the words with the ASL hand shape that corresponds with each letter) can help a child remember how to spell words accurately while writing.

Summary of Hands-on Spelling

Many children benefit from kinesthetic learning activities. Toys or other manipulatives can be turned into hands-on spelling tools by putting letters on them. This adaptation can be used with any spelling program and any spelling approach. An adaptation that minimizing the handwriting required may be particularly beneficial for children who otherwise resist  or easily tire from handwriting activities.

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