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Teaching Spelling

Scroll down for a list of Teaching Spelling DOs and Don’ts

It was the construction of the first major dictionaries by Dr Johnson (1755) and later Noah Webster that set the ‘correct’ spelling of individual words all but in stone. Before the arrival of Johnson’s dictionary, 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 formally allocated a single, unique spelling to each of the English phonemes, instead of fixing the spelling of individual words, thereby creating a transparent English alphabet code, we would not have the difficulties with English reading and spelling that we do today.

”Johnson may have succeeded in standardizing the spelling of words, but he failed to standardize the spelling of phonemes. If he had done that, he would have created a transparent alphabet, and this would have changed everything.” (Diane McGuinness. Sound Reading System. Introduction p2)

Developmental / Invented Spelling:

It’s commonly assumed that learning to spell follows biologically-determined developmental stages e.g. Gentry. However, writing (spelling) is a recent human invention, not part of our biologically-based primary development and therefore cannot be properly acquired except through teaching.

Education isn’t natural – that’s why it’s hard

”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”
(Alison Clarke. Blog post: Words Their Way)

See Early Reading Instruction pp250->265 for McGuinness’ dismantling of the various developmental (stage) spelling theories.

Whole-language philosophy expects children to discover how to spell for themselves. Mistakes are not routinely corrected as the assumption is that children will learn ‘naturally’ to make closer and closer approximations to correct spelling (Hempenstall). Children are unlikely to learn to spell accurately with this method.

”Inventive spelling ensures that students become great at spelling incorrectly” 
(Nora Chahbazi)

How not to teach spelling – familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.

”Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent” 
(italics added. Doug Lemov. Practice Perfect)

Spelling in the Early Years:

Spelling and decoding are taught alongside each other in all high-quality phonics programmes, from the very beginning of instruction, to make clear the reversibility of the code and to ensure that pupils’ encoding and decoding abilities remain as close as possible in synchrony, avoiding the development of a serious spelling lag.

”In the early grades at least, I’m a big fan of combining phonics and spelling instruction. The idea is to teach these skills to the point of automaticity.”
(Shanahan. Blog. How to Teach Writing Fluency)

”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” (McGuinness. ERI p37)

What to do about the boy who hates writing.
”Aside from a tiny percentage (2%?) of children with very special needs, the reason why kids struggle with getting stuff down on paper is that the process of linking sounds to spellings has not been automatised in the early years and that’s the fault of poor pedagogy”

Good Readers But Poor Spellers:

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 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 through the balanced word reading approach, which focuses strongly on the visual aspects of words, with limited teaching of the alphabet code and phonics skills. As a result, they lack phonemic awareness and advanced code knowledge, both of which are vital for achieving good spelling. Frith, ”…assembled a group of teenage good readers/poor spellers”. Though their reading ages were normal, an investigation revealed that ”(T)heir word recognition was very ‘visual’ in nature; they were whole-word readers with poor phonological skills (evidenced by poor nonword reading)” (A.Ellis p91)

”Son is an average reader but absolutely appalling speller. Has been more and more problematic (now Yr 6) as independent and creative writing etc steps up. You can’t write anything if you can’t spell” 
(Parent. Twitter)

Alison Clarke comments on this phenomenon: ”Heaps of kids read connected text fairly well, but haven’t seriously nailed down the identity, order & number of sounds and letters in many words, so spell poorly. Their word-level reading is subpar, which is often clear when they read similar-looking words.”
The similar-looking word test:
”Clients who seem to read well, but spell poorly, are often referred to our service…”

Look, Cover, Write and Check:

Look, Cover, Write and 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” (italics added. Kerr p135).

”Letter names can be hazardous to your spelling…The message is clear: Discourage and eliminate the use of letter names and encourage the teaching of phoneme-grapheme correspondences.” 
(D. McGuinness. ERI p275 ->278.)

”A printed word is a time-chart of sounds” 
(H. Diack. p59)

Parents and Teachers: Rather than LCWC, these free, downloadable KS1 templates use a Read, Sound, Write, Check approach. This method helps children learn to spell by using sounds and syllables to spell words https://www.phonicbooks.co.uk/advice-and-resources/free-teaching-resources/learning-to-spell-with-phonics/

Teachers: How to make helpful homework spelling lists of words.

What should parents do when the school sends home lists of HFWs for their child to learn?

Parents: How to help your child with their weekly spelling list.

KS2. Parents and Teachers: Read, Sound, Write, Check- a better way to teach spelling lists, avoiding LCWC.

KS2. Parents: What should you do if your child brings home illogical or overwhelming spelling lists?

English Spelling is Context-Sensitive and Statistical:

English spellings don’t obey rules. Instead, they are context-sensitive and statistical. Prof. McGuinness explains: ”It matters what a particular spelling sits next to in a particular word: b ea n, h ea d, g r ea t. 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 in many ways. It is not enough just to know that there are “many ways” – but also the context (the surrounding sounds/spellings) that 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.”

Because English spelling is statistical ”children need to be taught with real words…Teaching nonsense words (a feature of some programs) is, at best, a waste of time.”
(McGuinness. Allographs).

”Very little active memorization is necessary when learning is based on exposure to predictable patterns…our brains do the work for us” 
(McGuinness. ERI p59)

English spelling ”isn’t ruled governed, it’s statistical” 
(Prof. Mark Seidenberg)

Luckily, for those of us who have to learn the opaque English spelling code, we have extraordinary brains. ”Brains are pattern analyzers…They actively resonate with recurring regularities in the input, and automatically keep score of the probabilities of recurring patterns” (McGuinness. ERI p47). Where an opaque alphabet code is concerned, the best way to help the brain to remember the code’s statistical spelling patterns with minimum effort is through ”controlled exposure and varied repetition” (McGuinness. ERI p59).

See Seidenberg’s book Language at the Speed of Sight Ch.5 for comprehensive coverage of the statistical/probabilistic nature of English spelling:
”(C)hapter [5] introduces the idea that language exhibits statistical patterns that are crucial to our ability to learn and use it. “Statistical” means that patterns differ in frequency (how often they occur) and probability (given one pattern, how likely is it to occur with another one?). “Patterns” occur across units such as letters, phonemes, and other building-blocks of written and spoken language.”
(Prof. M. Seidenberg. Language at the Speed of Sight. Study Guide. p40

Teaching Multisyllable words:

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – scaffolding the teaching of multisyllabic words. https://www.phonicbooks.com/2022/04/26/supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-scaffolding-the-teaching-of-multisyllabic-words/

How to build decoding skills to read multisyllabic words.

Reading Longer Words: Insights Into Multisyllabic Word Reading:

Morphology and Etymology:

“Phonic knowledge should continue to underpin spelling after key stage 1; teachers should still draw pupils’ attention to GPCs that do and do not fit in with what has been taught so far. Increasingly, however, pupils also need to understand the role of morphology and etymology.”
(DfE. NC. English)

”The two parts to the word “helicopter” are not “heli” and “copter”, but “helico” meaning spiral, and “pter” meaning one with wings, like pterodactyl” (Karthick Balakrishnan. Twitter). But is morphology helpful for spelling? Tricia Millar advises ”Starting with syllables and sounds for spelling makes more sense than starting with morphology – no matter how fascinating that morphology is. I wouldn’t nudge hel/i/cop/ter into hel/i/co/pter just because it’s morphologically correct. Use morphology for spelling only when it supports memory.”

In this podcast, John Walker talks about the teaching of morphology and etymology for spelling:
Apple: apple.co/3q74NCV Spotify: spoti.fi/3qUovkw SoundCloud: bit.ly/3q6qLpR

Teaching Spelling DOs and Don’ts:

  • DO teach decoding and spelling ”in tandem” in every discrete phonics lesson from the very beginning of instruction, to ensure that the common (initial and advanced) phonics code knowledge is securely in place by the end of KS1. Move to regular, discrete vocabulary and spelling lessons in KS2, teaching additional phonics code knowledge along with morphology and etymology in multisyllable words.
    How to teach spelling… the story continues:
  • Don’t teach the alphabet letter names- ay, bee, see, dee…etc. to pre-schoolers or beginning readers and spellers. 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. This adds to their cognitive load, hindering instant recall of the sound-spelling 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 (Treiman & Tincoff). ”We don’t use letter names until well into Y1 after 1.5+ yrs of Phonics” (C. MacKechnie) See D. McGuinness. Early Reading Instruction p275 ->278
  • DO introduce letter names once the links from phoneme to grapheme for all the common simple/initial code spellings have become completely automatic. At that point, letter names become a harmless and useful shortcut for relaying multi-letter spellings to pupils.
    When and how to use letter names:
  • Don’t teach pupils to use simultaneous oral spelling (S.O.S) using letter names when spelling for themselves. Instead, teach pupils to say the corresponding phonemes (sub)audibly as they write down the graphemes left to right all-through-the-word. For example:<Fish> say / f / i / sh/, not letter names eff – ie – ess – aich or ”toxic phonics” fuh – i – suh – huh (Tricia Millar). ”Simultaneously articulating the individual sound (phoneme) while writing the letter or letters (grapheme) that corresponds to it is a powerful practice” 
  • DO get pupils to write down the words that they need to remember how to spell. The physical act of writing helps to bind words in memory: ”Motor 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 newsletter 49. p21). ”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” (McGuinness. GRB. p239). Hearing their own voice acts as a powerful cue – see the production effect**
  • Don’t stop teaching phonics for decoding and spelling once the Y1 phonic checks have taken place. Teaching the opaque English alphabet code takes around three years of direct and systematic phonics. Much of the advanced code, which contains essential knowledge of common spelling alternatives, remains to be taught in Y2 and beyond. Multisyllable word spelling benefits from continuing focus throughout the primary years.
  • DO ensure that children in Reception and KS1 routinely write simple dictated sentences that consist of words with the spellings taught so far. ”Carefully chosen dictation activities enable pupils to practise and apply their spelling knowledge and segmenting skill to use the content they have been taught and to do so without having their working memories overloaded by composing sentences.” (Ofsted Research Review Series. English. 2022)
  • Don’t confuse sending home lists of words to learn for a spelling test with teaching code knowledge and phonics skills for spelling. They are not the same thing.
  • Don’t ask children to learn lists of words that belong to the same visual-spelling family but ignore the sounds. For example, <ough> family: cough, though, plough, ought, tough…<ea> family: bread, cream, bear, steak, plateau, area, ocean…<ove> family: stove, glove, prove…
  • Don’t separate any letters forming a single grapheme-phoneme correspondence when dividing a multi-syllable word for spelling purposes. Show pupils how to divide words using the syllables they hear in natural speech. e.g. <rabbit> divides into ra-bbit or rabb-it, not rab-bit; <pickle> divides into pick-le or pi-ckle, not pic-kle; <spaghetti> into spa-ghe-tti, <accommodate> into a-cco-mmo-date… https://thatspellingthing.com/syllables-and-spelling/
  • Don’t describe any letters in a word 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) 
    Silent letters? http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2013/02/silent-letters/
  • DO teach the high-frequency words which have unusual or unique spellings (common exception words) directly and systematically, using a phonics all-through-the-word approach, not as sight words to be memorised as whole shapes. See Spelling Resources for a high-frequency word chart to use in phonics teaching.
  • Don’t include words that are infrequent in print and have rare or unique 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.
  • Don’t teach spelling rules. English spellings don’t obey rules but are context-sensitive and probabilistic. ”That is, it matters what a particular spelling sits next to in a particular word” (D. McGuinness. Allographs). Teach the GPCs in the context of real words. Comparing the alternative spellings in the context of real words increases the brain’s ability to analyse the spelling probabilities, aiding memory.
  • DO help pupils to memorise the code’s statistical patterns with minimum effort through ”controlled exposure and varied repetition” (D. McGuinness ERI p59). Tutor and speech therapist Alison Clarke illustrates how she makes the common spelling patterns of the lesson’s focus sound /er/ memorable by using a variety of linguistic phonics resources: 
  • DO encourage pupils to notice orthographic patterns, not rules. 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, what, swan, squash…
  • DO give guidance on the <ed> verb ending. Explain that although it is spelt <ed>, students will ‘hear’ /i-d/ or /t/ or /d/… landed, skipped, played, hoped, cared, completed…when they say the whole word. See Spelling Resources.
  • Don’t relay letter names when asked for help with an individual spelling before the basic/initial code sound-spelling mappings have become completely automatic. For example: to help with the vowel spelling in the word ‘steam’ – either write down the correct /ee/ spelling for them (keep a dry-wipe board to hand) or tell them another common word or two 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 primary (and secondary catch-up) pupil with a file-sized, programme-linked Alphabet Code chart showing the most common spelling alternatives in the context of real words. Some programmes provide suitable free charts.
  • DO have a large, programme-linked alphabet code chart on display in every EY / KS1 classroom. The GPCs on the chart should be shown in the context of real words and the chart should be positioned so pupils and their teacher can easily see and touch it. Code charts are especially useful for incidental phonics teaching.
  • Don’t use the following as spelling aids: Look-Cover-Write-Check; draw lines around words or write the letters of a word in a series of rectangular boxes to create ‘word shapes’; pyramid/waterfall words; bubble/rainbow writing; 3D spelling with pasta, Play-Doh or clay; ”silly sentence” spelling mnemonics; an alphabet-first-letter word wall: Ape, Apple, Arm, Airport, Australia..; onset-rime family lists: b/ow, sh/ow, cr/ow, thr/ow..; find little words in longer words: aka ”toxic morphology”, for example ”In hierarchy, ‘arch’ is meaningful but in ‘searchlight’ it is not” (Tricia Millar) 
    Seven Sins of Spelling https://jwed.co.uk/2020/03/14/seven-sins-of-spelling/
  • DO teach pupils about the schwa. ”The schwa sound is the most common vowel sound in the English language, accounting for 20% of all vowel sounds (Yule, 1996), and it often is the cause of spelling mistakes” https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/teaching-the-schwa-sound-in-unaccented-syllables/
    Demonstrate the use of a ‘spelling voice’ for schwas and elisions.
  • DO say that the common Latin suffix /shun/ is usually spelt -tion, but if the word is for a person’s occupation -cian is more likely (musician, electrician, technician, loctician…) 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 expose pupils to misspelled, statistically improbable or illegal English spellings using 1. ‘alien words’ worksheets to practise for the phonics check. 2. their own inventive spellings in free writing. 3. ‘spot the deliberate spelling mistakes’ exercises and games. 4. lists of words to try out different spellings e.g. pupil writes gait, gate, gayt, geat, geight…to see which one ‘looks right’. ”Looking at misspelled 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 / ERI p117-121)
  • DO ensure that misspellings are always erased and corrected as quickly as possible.

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

The Dos and Don’ts of Teaching Spelling.

English spelling! Do I really have to teach it?

The ill-conceived idea of ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ spelling

Are spelling rules useful?

Don’t use ‘spot the deliberate spelling mistakes’ activities

Mnemonics: ”A silly sentence might successfully get a student to spell a word, but the process obscures characteristics of the word that would enable a student to spell a great deal more”

Dot Dot Dash – or Dash Dash Dash?

*Frith. 1978. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234593401_From_Print_to_Meaning_and_from_Print_to_Sound_or_How_to_Read_without_Knowing_How_to_Spell

**The production effect: reading aloud might boost students’ memories