Learning to Write and Spell
| Writing | Handwriting | Spelling |

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 today.

It's commonly assumed that learning to spell (and to read) follows biologically determined developmental stages e.g. Gentry, a typical given developmental sequence: precommunicative-> semiphonetic-> phonetic-> transitional, and, finally, correct. However, writing (spelling) is a recent 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, producing poor quality writing with confidence-sapping results.

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''.

Australian educationalist Misty Adoniou affirms, ''Spelling is a learned skill, not an innate ability, and therefore, it can and should be taught. English spelling is systematic, contrary to popular perception and therefore, it can be taught'' (Adoniou)

Sometimes parents say that their child is a good reader but a poor speller. This situation comes about because, as primary 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, Cover, Write & Check (LCWC) 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 school reading intervention tutor, describes the LCWC procedure and explains why it's ineffective: ''The child looks at the word, chants out the letter names, 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 uses synthetic phonics to help her tutees with spelling: ''In the UK synthetic phonics programmes we teach spelling as the 'reverse' of reading. In reading children are taught to recognise phoneme/grapheme (sound/letter) correspondences and use their knowledge to decode words into their component phonemes and blend them, in order, to produce the target word.  Conversely, for spelling children are taught to break the spoken word into its component phonemes and spell each phoneme, in sequence, in order to produce the written word. I appreciate that, given the opaque nature of English orthography, learning to spell is not as straightforward as it might sound from this description (e.g. one phoneme may have several different 'spellings') but the principle of translating phonemes into graphemes makes spelling more meaningful for pupils than just memorising a letter string. Spelling the 'sounds' in order will always produce a recognisable word, even if it is spelled phonetically rather than correctly, whereas learning a letter string gives no understanding of the purpose of the letters (i.e that they are encoding 'sounds') and gives no guarantee that the letters in the string will be written in the correct order.  Further, an understanding that the letters spell 'sounds' enables pupils to generalise this knowledge to other words and attempt to spell them independently, rather than be reliant on learning every word as a discrete item or on being 'told' the spelling''

''For teaching spelling I would use as a starting point the breakdown of the spoken word into its component phonemes and writing a spelling for each phoneme (saying each 'sound' as it is written to reinforce kinaesthetic memory of each 'sound spelling') .  Once the word has been written it should be sounded out and blended to check that it 'says' what it is meant to say.  Of course there is an element of discrete word learning in this as children have to learn which spelling of a particular phoneme will be needed in a particular word; this is usually done by practising a number of words together which contain the same phoneme spelling or by sorting words containing the same sound but different spellings of it. But, there is frequently only one ''tricky' sound spelling in a word (usually the vowel sound) so the fact that only one part of the word has to be learned also reduces the load on memory. Once mastery of individual words is achieved one can move on to adding prefixes and suffixes''

Maggie goes on to say, ''I would never encourage the use of letter names for pupils who find spelling difficult.  I think that they need to be kept aware of the intimate connection between the sounds in words and the letters which spell the sounds. Using letter names introduces another layer of learning for children who are already finding learning difficult.  I also appreciate that as skilled adult spellers we tend to use letter names when telling someone a spelling, but that can come at a much later stage (and really isn't ever particularly necessary, though it's convenient)''

Misty Adoniou points out that, ''(S)trategies such as 'look cover write check' and activities where words are written repeatedly in different fonts or in different colours reflect a belief that spelling is predominantly a visual skill and that English spelling is somewhat chaotic and illogical...and can only be learned through memorisation. This position allows teachers to abandon a notion of teaching spelling and essentially leave the task of learning to spell up to parents and children through the distribution of take home spelling lists'' (Adoniou)

X Teachers: How to make helpful homework spelling lists.

'(A) printed word is a time-chart of sounds' (Diack p59)

Whole language banded books, ''(M)ake 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 p12)

''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 p13)

Spelling skill is influenced by IQ (approx. 25% of variance), sex (girls are usually superior spellers) and decoding ability. Poor spellers 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 *rules. Instead, they are heavily context dependent and probabilistic. That is, it matters what a particular spelling sits next to in a particular word : b ea n, h ea d, g r 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 fabulous 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.

Linguistic phonics tutor, Alison Clarke, illustrates how she makes the main spelling patterns of the sound /er/ memorable through 'controlled exposure and varied repetition' using a variety of linguistic phonics resources.

Focus attention on the target GPCs by getting the children to underline them in a variety of real words.

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 proficient spellers do themselves when spelling longer and more challenging words and adds an extra hurdle to the spelling process -see above (Hepplewhite/D.McGuinness ERI. p117) Instead, ask students to say the individual phonemes 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 whisper 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 handwriting links) '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 GRB p239).
  • Do help students to devise, write and illustrate 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 thirsty bird wore a swirly skirt and a dirty shirt' to the girl's third birthday party.
  • Do focus attention on the target GPCs by getting the student to underline them in a variety of real words.
  • Do ensure that children in KS1 routinely write simple dictated sentences that consist of words with the spellings taught so far. This ''gives pupils opportunities to apply and practise their spelling'' (NC 2014 KS1)
  • 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 spelling e.g. try, pie, knight, height, slime
  • Don't confuse sending home lists of words to learn for a spelling test with teaching spelling skills. They are not the same thing. See the link below for John Walker's advice to parents on how to teach the lists of HFWs sent home from school.
  • 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 include words that are infrequent in print and have unusual spellings such as <sapphire> and <soldier> on homework spelling lists. Wait 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 in some way to make it memorable. Discuss the word's etymology with older pupils.
  • 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 to practise them in real text. ''Comparing the spellings in context [of real words] 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 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 (primary and secondary) 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 phonics code along with morphology and etymology.
  • 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)
  • Do give a tick above each correct grapheme in a word when marking spelling tests, rather than a tick or a cross for the whole word.  
  • Don't let students view mis-spelled (this includes 'illegal' English spellings) 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) Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent.
  • 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. 
  • Do ensure that misspelt words are always erased and corrected as quickly as possible.
    * 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 'i').

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'.

X English spelling explained -for kids, but a clear and concise guide for puzzled adults too.

X Illegal English spellings, nonsense words and early independent writing.

X The Hydra of Spelling!: John Walker offers advice for helping young children with spelling

X John Walker's advice to parents on how to teach the lists of HFWs sent home from school.

How to correct common spelling errors

Spelling Latin endings.

'Have a go' spelling - warning about viewing misspelt words.

Silent letters?

Explaining split vowel spellings.

Are spelling rules useful?

Spelfabet's advice on spelling plurals.

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

Simplified Spelling advocate, Valerie Yule's book, free to download: The Book of Spells and Misspells.

For spelling resources go here