X Scroll down for a list of DOs and Don'ts to help with Spelling.
It was the construction of the first dictionaries by Dr.
Johnson (1755) and later Noah Webster that set correct spellings
'in stone'. Before
the 18th century people spelt phonetically, 'by ear'. They
would often spell the same word in different ways in the same
piece of writing and this was considered perfectly correct
(you can see such variable spelling in Shakespeare's original
scripts, for example). If Johnson had standardized the spelling
for phonemes at the same time that he standardized the spelling
for words, and in doing so created a 'transparent' (one spelling
for each sound in the language) English alphabet code, we would
not have the difficulties with English reading and spelling that we do
It has been assumed that spelling follows biologically determined developmental
stages (e.g. Gentry), a typical given sequence: precommunicative->
semiphonetic-> phonetic-> transitional, and, finally,
correct. However, spelling, like reading, is a human invention,
not part of our biological development, and therefore cannot
be properly acquired except through teaching. Whole-language
philosophy expects children to discover how to spell for themselves.This is called invented or emergent spelling. Mistakes are not corrected as the assumption is that children will
learn, naturally, to make closer and closer approximations
to correct spelling (Hempenstall.thesis) Children are unlikely to learn to spell
accurately with this method. Instead, they will practise and
reproduce their spelling errors again and again, and produce
unreadable writing with confidence-sapping results.
Words Their Way literacy programme and the myth of developmental stages for spelling: ''Saying there are developmental stages in spelling is a bit like saying there are developmental stages in learning to cook, fix a car or program a computer''.
Sometimes parents say that their child is a good
reader but a poor speller. This situation comes about because,
as teacher Vicki Martin explains, 'These
children have a strong whole-word visual strategy for recognising
the shape of whole words when they see them, or have other
strategies like guessing from pictures and the sentence and
using partial phonics to make a good guess. This all gives
the impression of good reading. However, they have clearly
not been taught the alphabetic code (the 40+ speech sounds
and their letter combinations) adequately enough to represent
these words in their writing'. Research by Frith supports Martin's contention that 'good readers but poor spellers' have been taught literacy through the 'balanced approach' which focuses strongly on the visual aspects of words with superficial teaching of the alphabet code and phonics skills. As a result, they lack phonemic awareness and advanced code knowledge, which are vital to achieve good spelling. Frith, 'assembled a group of teenage good readers/poor spellers'. Though their reading ages were normal, investigation revealed that 'their word recognition was very 'visual' in nature; they were whole-word readers with poor phonological skills (evidenced by poor nonword reading) (A.Ellis p91)
Look, Say, Cover, Write & Check (LSCWC) is a widely used but unproductive whole language strategy for learning lists of words. ''It is a visuo-motor method, involving eye and hand. It eschews the sounds of words, concentrating on letters, letter names and letter patterns'' (Kerr p135). Maggie Downie, a secondary remedial reading tutor, describes the LSCWC procedure and explains why it doesn't work: ''The child looks at the word, chants out the letters in it, covers the word and tries to remember the letter string, in the order they were written; then they uncover the original word and check that they have the letters in the right order. Can they read it? In many cases, NO. So, they go away and memorise those letter strings for their spelling test. By a great feat of memory they get the spellings all right for the test, fine, but then what happens? Those letter strings have no significance for them, so they forget which order they come in, "I know it's got an 'o' and a 'u' in it, but I can't remember which way round they go...". And they're loaded with more words to 'learn' for the next test, so it gets harder to remember those original letter strings. If they can't read the word, how will they know they've spelled it correctly in the future?''
Maggie Downie explains further, ''To succeed, for the majority of children, spelling has to be directly related to the way the spelling of the word was worked out in the first place. Which was, of course, that the spoken word was broken down into its component sounds and each sound given a written symbol to represent it. There's nothing random about the letters in a word, each one is there for a purpose and if the child doesn't understand the 'purpose' of the letters, they will never have a secure grasp of spelling (unless s/he happens to have one of those exceptional memories which can retain every number in the telephone directory!!). We teach: Listen to the word spoken, break it into its phonemes, spell each phoneme in the order in which it comes in the word, SOUND OUT the word you have written, to check that all the sounds are there. IF the child is a good reader, looking at a word they have written wrongly *may* alert them to the fact that it 'looks wrong', but this is really only something that a skilled reader can do''
'Good spelling requires close attention to the letters in
words and an understanding of the logic which determines their
order. This logic is that the order of written letters or
letter-groups (graphemes) follows the order of the individual
sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.' (Chew
'(A) printed word is a time-chart of sounds' (Diack p59)
Whole language reading books with predictable or repetitive text, 'make no attempt
to introduce only simple regular words in the early stages;
thus children do not become familiarised with some basic patterns
of English orthography before they encounter the irregularities...The result is that many children fail to understand that spelling
follows patterns and are consequently daunted by what they
see as the need to learn every word separately' (Chew
'To be effective for spelling as well as for reading, phonics
teaching needs to be thorough and systematic: in reading,
children need to be taught to sound out every letter or letter-group
from beginning to end of a word so that they will be sensitised
to both regularities and irregularities in the letter-sound
correspondences.' (Chew p13)
'If children are taught to sound out all letters and letter-groups
in words, some unconventional pronunciations may result,
but these are easily corrected and are, in the meantime, extremely
helpful for spelling The child who first sounds out the 'ch'
in chemist like the 'ch' in chop, or sounds out 'vague' as
two syllables, the second rhyming with 'due', is much more
likely eventually to spell tricky words correctly than the
child who learns to read by memorising words as wholes. (Chew
Spelling skill is influenced by IQ (approx. 25% of variance),
sex (girls are usually superior spellers) and reading (decoding
ability). Poor spellers fail 'to pay close attention to internal spelling
patterns in multi-syllable words'
(D.McGuinness ERI p269) They often have the
correct spelling in mind but are unable to recall it accurately
from memory. ''Reading and spelling are reversible processes,
and should be taught in tandem so that this reversibility
is obvious... but they draw on different memory skills. Decoding,
or reading, involves recognition memory, memory with
a prompt. The letters remain visible while they are being
decoded. Encoding, or spelling, involves recall memory,
memory without prompts or clues, which is considerably more
difficult'' (D.McGuinness ERI p37)
English spellings don’t obey any *rules. Instead, they are heavily context dependent. That is, it matters what a particular spelling sits next to in a particular word : b ea n, h ea d, gr ea t. Diane McGuinness explains it like this: ''The pronunciation of a word is often dependent on the vowel being affected by the consonants around it, as in the example above. Thus you must process every sound/spelling in the word to read the word correctly. Furthermore, you cannot assume that every vowel/vowel digraph is read (or written) the same way in every word. This is the most critical problem with our code. The letters ea are not always decoded one way, but many ways. It is not enough just to know that there are "many ways" - but also the context (the surrounding sounds/spellings) which determine how that spelling is pronounced. i.e. you have to know the "probability" of how a particular spelling in a particular word is likely to be decoded. And ditto for spellings being encoded. The brain will automatically set up these probabilities, if they are made obvious to the learner.''
Luckily, for those of us who have to learn this opaque
spelling code, we have fantastic brains. 'Brains are pattern
analyzers...They actively resonate with recurring regularities
in the input, and automatically keep score of the probabilities
of recurring patterns' (D.McGuinness
ERI p47) and the English alphabet spelling code is made up of
hundreds of patterns. Where an opaque alphabet code is concerned,
the best way to help the brain to 'remember' the code's patterns with minimum effort is through 'controlled exposure and varied repetition' (D.McGuinness
ERI p59).'Very little active memorization
is necessary when learning is based on exposure to predictable
patterns...our brains do the work for us' (D.McGuinness
ERI p59) In the Sound Reading System learners are exposed to the common spelling alternatives of a particular phoneme in the context of real words and text at least four times in a lesson using a variety of multi-sensory activities.
If your child suffers from 'Sesquipedalophobia': a fear of
long words, then the following activity devised
by David Lisgo, an EFL teacher in Japan, may help:
'A simple and stress free way to introduce a child to longer
words is an activity which chains vc (vowel /consonant) nonwords
together. First, prepare a number of vc cards, for example
"ed, ol, ix, at, ef, un, eg" and more. Start with
one card and have the child read it, then add a second card
and read them "ed_ix" for example, and a third card
and read them all and so on. If the child is good at it and
then have her or him move or lengthen the consonant (in thought
and speech) to encourage linking, for example "e_dol_lix_(s)a_tef_fun_neg".
I will do this in a small class, usually 6-8 pupils, with
each pupil building their own chain, but before tidying the
cards away we will make a large circular chain and I challenge
a pupil to read the long word of about 60 letters, before
long everyone, including myself, is reading this very long
X Spelling DOs and Don'ts.
- Don't teach the alphabet letter names- ay, bee, see, dee..etc. to beginning
readers. Letter name learning is seriously detrimental to
the teaching of early reading and spelling as it forces
children to translate from letter name to sound, impeding instant recall of the sound-letter correspondences. Letter names also focus children's attention on the syllable unit of sound, rather than the phoneme, impeding their understanding of the alphabetic principle.
- Don't ask students to use letter names when spelling for themselves as this fails to model, or make explicit, what most proficient spellers do themselves when spelling longer and more challenging words (D.McGuinness ERI. p117) Instead, ask students to say the individual sounds audibly as they write down the graphemes forming a word- for example, to say / f / i / sh /, not 'eff' 'ie' 'ess' 'aich'. Hearing their
own voice acts as a powerful cue. Older students may prefer to sub-vocalise the sounds.
- Do get students to write down the words that they need
to remember how to spell. The physical act of writing helps
to bind words in memory. '(M)otor activity promotes memory' (D.McGuinness. ERI p114) Experimental studies have shown
that copying words by hand is the best way to learn them...copying
spelling words halves the learning rate compared to using
letter tiles or a computer keyboard (RRF
49 p21, also see link below) 'Writing helps in many ways. First
the physical act of forming the letters forces the child
to look closely at the features that make one letter different
from another...Second, writing letters (left to right) trains
the ability to read left to right. Third, saying each sound
as the letter is written helps anchor the sound-to-letter
connection in the memory.' (D.McGuinness
- Do get students to devise and write their own 'silly sentence' as each grapheme-phoneme correspondence (GPC) is taught, to aid their memory of common spellings in everyday words- for example,'The chirping bird wore a swirly skirt and a dirty shirt' to the girl's third birthday party.
- Do say that all words, without exception, have a vowel spelling and that it can consist of 1- 4 letters consecutively, or 2 vowel letters 'split' around a consonant letter e.g. try, pie, knight, height, slime
- Don't split the letters forming a GPC when 'chunking' a multi-syllable word
for spelling, e.g. pillow splits into pi/llow
or pill/ow, not pil/low, as the <ll> is one sound, ladder splits into ladd/er or la/dder, not lad/der.
- Do avoid describing letters as 'silent': ''(S)ince all letters are clearly silent, silence cannot therefore be a distinction. This has already been implied by the treatment of <ie>,<oa> etc. as single symbols'' (Albrow p.19)
- Do teach the approximately 100 HFWs with unusual spellings directly and systematically (see D.McGuinness.ERI p58) using a phonics all-through-the-word approach, not as sight words to be memorised as whole shapes.
- Don't teach words that are infrequent in print and have unusual spellings such as <sapphire> and <yacht>, until they are encountered in text or are wanted for a piece of writing. At that point teach using a phonics all-through-the-word approach, highlighting the rare spelling.
- Don't teach spelling rules. English spellings don't obey *rules but are highly context dependent, ''That is, it matters what a particular spelling sits next to in a particular word'' (D.McGuinness Allographs manual p2) That is why it is important to teach the GPCs in the context of real words and real text. ''Comparing the spellings in context [of real words and text] increases the brain's ability to analyse and therefore remember'' (Nevola.SRS Handbook p113).
- Do help students to memorise the code's many patterns with minimum effort through ''controlled exposure and varied repetition'' (D.McGuinness
ERI p59). Do this by exposing students to the common spelling alternatives of a particular phoneme multiple times in a lesson in the context of real words, using a variety of multi-sensory activities.
- Do encourage students to notice orthographic patterns. The most probable spelling choice usually depends on a GPC's position in a word e.g <oy> at the ends of words or syllables...boy, decoy, royal, the <a> spelling of /o/ after the sound /w/ wasp, swan, squash..
- Do give guidance on the <ed> verb ending. Explain that although it is spelled <ed>, students will 'hear' /i-d/ or /t/ or /d/... landed, skipped, played, hoped, cared, completed... when they say the whole word.
- Don't expect early readers to use a conventional dictionary as a spelling aid. Instead, to help them spell the word 'steam' for example, either write down the correct /ee/ spelling for them, or tell them another word or two they know well with the same spelling: ''You need the same spelling as the /ee/ in 'leaf' and cream'', or point to the correct spelling on an Alphabet Code chart -see below.
- Do provide each student with an file-size Alphabet Code chart showing the main spelling alternatives used in real words (several programmes provide suitable free charts), and make sure that they always have it to hand at school.
- Do have a large Alphabet Code chart on display in every classroom. Ensure that it is positioned so that students and teachers can easily see and touch it.
- Do use the technique of 'perfect pronunciation'
as a spelling strategy: e.g. <Wednesday> sound out Wed-nes-day, <February> sound out Feb-roo-a-ry,
and over-emphasize the correct sound for spelling when learning words
with a schwa e.g. doc'tuh' sound out doctOR,
'uh'bout sound out 'A' bout, ca'rrut' sound out carrOt...
- Do continue to teach spelling in KS2, building on previously taught code and skills.
- Do say that the common Latin suffix /shun/ is usually spelled -tion, but if the word is for a person or occupation -cian is more likely. Also, ''-tian spellings indicate the place from which the person or thing derives (Martian, Alsatian, Croatian, Egyptian, etc.); -cean spellings are related to the sea (ocean, crustacean, cetacean)'' (John Walker)
- Don't let students view mis-spelled words through doing
'invented spelling', 'spot the deliberate spelling mistakes' quizzes and exercises, or making lists of whole words to try out different
spellings e.g. child writes gait, gate, gayt, geat, geight...
to see which one 'looks right'. '(L)ooking at mis-spelled
words increases spelling errors over the short
and long terms...The visual system of the brain automatically
codes what it sees. It doesn't adjudicate between
'right' and 'wrong' (D.McGuinness
GRB p260) (D.McGuinness ERI p117-121)
- Do provide plenty of support to help students produce correct spellings; when testing students on words containing a particular phoneme, before the test write, or get the student to write, all the previously taught spelling alternatives across the top of the paper or board. e.g. when testing words containing the phoneme /ee/ such as sheep, clean, sunny, merry, these, he, bean, feet, eve, me; write <ea> <ee> <e> <y> <e-e>. Do the same before starting any writing exercise focusing on a particular phoneme.
* There are transformations for adding suffixes that come close to being 'rules'.
Jenny Chew says, 'I only ever taught
my students 3 rules, which I called 'drop, swop and double'.
They are all related to what happens when suffixes are added
to base words'. She adds, 'These rules are for the spelling-beyond-the-beginner
stage, not about beginning-reading or beginning-spelling'.
Drop a silent 'e' before adding a suffix
beginning with a vowel, including 'y' (unless the 'e' is
needed to keep a 'c' or 'g' soft). So we get 'hoping', 'smiled'
(the 'e' is not the original silent 'e' but part of the
suffix), 'operator', 'smoky' etc., but 'outrageous' and
'serviceable' (the 'e' stays in to keep the 'g' and 'c'
soft). Even if the students didn't master the soft 'c' and
'g' bit, just knowing the other bit helped them to spell
dozens of words correctly which they might otherwise have
misspelt. I taught 'wholly', 'duly', 'truly', 'awful' and
'argument' as exceptions.
Swop the 'y' at the end of a base word
for an 'i' before adding any suffix at all unless there
is a vowel before the 'y' or the suffix itself begins
with 'i'. Hence 'marriage', 'carried', 'reliable' etc.
but 'conveyor', 'displayed', 'enjoyment' (vowel before
the 'y') and 'carrying', copyist' (suffix begins with
Double a single consonant after a single
short stressed vowel before adding a suffix beginning
with a vowel. Hence 'hopping', 'beginner', 'stepped',
'forgotten', 'referral' etc.
'The process of putting pen to paper and reading from a book seems to imprint knowledge in the brain in a better way than using a keyboard and computer screen'.
Survey highlights Britain's poor spelling
Explaining split vowel spellings.
Are spelling rules useful?
Debbie Hepplewhite: How to teach spelling
How words cast their spell: Spelling Is an Integral Part of Learning the Language, Not a Matter of Memorization
How spelling supports reading: And Why It Is More Regular and Predictable Than You May Think
Don't use 'spot the deliberate spelling mistakes' activities
Tom Burkard: Invented spellings
A Critique of Invented Spell
Simplified Spelling advocate, Valerie Yule's book, free to download: The Book of Spells and Misspells.
For spelling resources go here