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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 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.

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.

Inventive / Emergent Spelling:

Whole-language philosophy expects children to discover how to spell for themselves. This is called developmental, invented or emergent spelling. 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)

Invented Spellings. ”I take serious exception to the idea that teachers should ‘Tolerate invented spelling’ at first…As a matter of policy, early years teachers should never make free writing the norm…children who are taught to spell before they are made to do free writing will be able to express themselves effectively in writing far sooner than those who are encouraged to use invented spellings.”

Spelling in the Early Years:

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” (McGuinness. ERI p37)

Spelling and reading are taught in tandem in high-quality phonics programmes, with an ”equal split between the two activities” (Johnston&Watson 2014) 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)

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/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)

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).

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

Spelling using letter names ”involves an unnecessarily complicated sequence of events…He is using two distinct codes…and one does not immediately evoke the other” 
(ML. Peters. Spelling: Caught or Taught? 1967) 

Prof. 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”

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

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

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

Parents (KS2+) What should you do if your child brings home illogical or overwhelming spelling lists?

KS2 Teachers: Teeching speling yousing fonix in Kee Stayj Too.

English Spelling: Context-Dependent and Statistical

English spellings don’t obey rules. Instead, they are context-dependent 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 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.”

”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)

The brain ”is particularly adept at storing recurring patterns, and very inefficient at remembering randomness”
(McGuinness. WCCR)

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.

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 that ”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.”

See https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/resources-and-further-reading-cpd-videos-ppt/ for a podcast where John Walker talks about the teaching of morphology and etymology.

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 all the common phonics code knowledge is securely in place by the end of KS1. This should enable a trouble-free move to regular, discrete spelling lessons in KS2, using phonics, morphology and etymology.
    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/basic code spellings have become completely automatic. At that point letter names become a harmless and useful short cut for relaying multi-letter spellings to pupils.
  • 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 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” (D. 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. It takes around three years of direct and systematic phonics to teach the opaque English alphabet code. Much of the advanced/complex code, which contains essential knowledge of common spelling alternatives, remains to be taught in Y2 and beyond. Polysyllable 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. This ”gives pupils opportunities to apply and practise their spelling” (NC 2014 KS1)
  • Do say that all syllables have a vowel sound. It can be spelled with 1- 4 letters consecutively, or 2 vowel letters ‘split’ around a consonant spelling e.g. shy, tie, knight, sleight, quite.
  • 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 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, 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…
  • 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 HFW 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 dependent and probabilistic. ”That is, it matters what a particular spelling sits next to in a particular word” (D. McGuinness. Allographs). That is why it is important to 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: http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2013/06/spelling-collection/
  • 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 spelled <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 a spelling before the basic/simple 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 programme-linked Alphabet Code chart showing the most common spelling alternatives in the context of real words. Several programmes provide suitable free charts.
  • Do have a 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. Ensure that it is positioned so that pupils and teachers can easily see and touch it. Code charts are especially useful for incidental phonics teaching.
  • Don’t teach the following spelling strategies: 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, pipe cleaners or clay; ”silly sentence” spelling mnemonics; alphabet-letter word lists: Ape, Apple, Arm, Airport, Australia.., onset-rime family lists: b/ow, sh/ow, cr/ow, thr/ow.., visual-spelling family lists: dough, fought, through, rough, bough..; 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 http://jweducation.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 continue to teach spelling in KS2 and KS3 when introducing new vocabulary throughout the curriculum, revising and building on previously taught phonics code. Morphology and etymology will help with memory and meaning.
    See Spelling Resources.
  • Do say that the common Latin suffix /shun/ is usually spelled -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 let pupils read or write misspelled, improbable or illegal English spellings through 1. ‘alien words’ worksheets to practise for the phonics check. 2. their own invented spellings in free writing. 3. ‘spot the incorrect spelling’ worksheets. 4. making lists of whole 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 pp117-121)
  • Do provide plenty of support to help pupils produce correct spellings. For example, see Charlotte MacKechnie’s post on early years Shared Writing https://linguisticphonics.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/phonetically-im-plausible/
  • 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 English Spelling System – A Primer: unpicking the conventions of English spelling

The Dos and Don’ts of Teaching Spelling

What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling?

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”

*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