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The Right(est) Way Of Teaching Spelling (Part 5)

Updated: Jun 3

If you have not yet read the rest of the parts of this series, click here to catch up:

Spelling: How Should We Teach It?

Once you have exposed yourself to the idea of the fact that there are certain words and kinds of words that need to be in your curriculum (see part 4), it will help to know how you might go about teaching spelling, before you try to map out a curriculum.

To save time, have a quick read of this article by Charlotte MacKechnie, a Sounds-Write trainer, who has written succinctly about how not to teach spelling:

In his 2006 literature review 'Characteristics of Effective Spelling Instruction' in Reading Horizons, Randall R. Wallace, based on the work of Fitzsimmons and Loomer (1978), reports that many teachers used a number of practices that were ineffective. These practices included:

  • writing words several times each to ensure retention

  • encouraging students to depend heavily on phonic rules

  • having students deduct their own methods to study words

  • presenting words in a sentence rather than in a list to introduce the spelling words

With that out of the way, here are several linguistically explicit instruction strategies that might be used, some on their own, and others together, in teaching spelling:

Strategy 1: Break It Down

Many of the above kinds of words or word parts require children to have a good grasp of morphology. Therefore teaching children to break words down to their constituent parts, or to segment them, is crucial. This segmentation is concerned with the phonemes (the sounds in speech that can be heard when saying the word) of which there are just 44 in total.

The main mistakes made when children spell a word incorrectly will be because of their inability to choose the correct grapheme for the phoneme (or speech sound). Prior to this there may also be difficulty around identifying the correct phonemes in a word.

Other mistakes will come as a result of differences in pronunciation compared to the way the word is written. The main reasons for this will be because:

· a word has unpronounced sounds compared to its spelling (sometimes thought of as silent letters)

· a child’s accent or dialect causes them to pronounce a word differently to how it is spelled

· a child’s speech difficulties causes them to pronounce a word differently to how it is spelled

Take a simple word from the year 3 spelling list as an example:


To segment it into the spoken sounds, we would have:

/l/ /ur/ /n/

This is a CVC word.

In some accents, Blackburn Lancastrian, for example, the /r/ sound might be pronounced separately.

In order to spell this simple word correctly, children have to make a decision about how each segment should be spelled. This table outlines their choices:





ur (as in burn)



ir (as in bird)


er (as in fern)


ear (as in heard)


or (as in work)

ar (as in polar – depending on pronunciation)

There are 48 possible combinations of graphemes (2x6x4 – the multiplicative rule) that children could choose when writing this simple word. This illustrates the potential difficulties children might have, as well as the fact that we must use multiple sources of knowledge to help us choose the correct grapheme. This leads us to another strategy.

Strategy 2: Where in the Word?

Take the word ‘learn’ as an example again. We can use knowledge of whereabouts in words particular graphemes usually appear.

Do English words usually start with a double L? No. Some do, but these are usually words or names borrowed from other languages (e.g. Welsh, Spanish). So let’s choose to use the more common single L grapheme for the start of this word. This is an easy choice.

Skip to the final consonant. Do English words usually end in double N? No. Very few do, only one of them is commonly used and has Old English roots (inn). Do we use <kn> at the end of words? Never in English. Do we use <gn> at the end of words? Yes, quite regularly, but only after a long vowel sound, nearly always <i>. Does our word have a long vowel sound? No it is a vowel sound that is influenced by r therefore it is most likely not going to end in <gn> therefore <n> is the logical choice.

So then, how does a child choose between ‘lurn’, ‘lirn’, ‘lern’ (probably the most common misspelling), ‘learn’, ‘lorn’ or ‘larn’? We probably don’t need to worry too much about them choosing the last two, but the first three are all common spellings of the /ur/ sound and the fourth (the actual spelling pattern) doesn’t only represent the /ur/ sound (think of ‘hear’, ‘wear’ and ‘heart’) so might not be the likely choice.

The history of the word, or its etymology, doesn’t give much of a clue at this point either:

Take these other words that use the same grapheme to represent the phoneme /ur/: learn, earn, earl, early, yearn, heard, pearl, search. All but two of these words have Germanic origins and have come into the English language via Old English.

However, if we take some common words which use the spelling <ur>, <ir> or <er> to represent the /ur/ sound of which there are many), some are of Germanic via Old English origin, others are of Latin, or even Greek, origin, whilst others (notably the <ir> spellings) come from Old Norse.

Strategy 3: Sound Partners

In order to help children make choices about how to correctly represent phonemes that have multiple grapheme correspondences, it helps to look at where we find that phoneme in relationship to other phonemes.

Continuing with the word ‘learn’, this time thinking about the /n/ at the end, and think about words that end in an /n/ sound which is also preceded by the /ur/ sound.

There are no English words that contain the spelling <or> preceding <n> where the combination is pronounced /ur/ /n/.

There are no common English words that contain the spelling <ir> preceding <n> where the combination is pronounced /ur/ /n/.

There are a few common English words that contain the spelling <er> preceding <n> where the combination is pronounced /ur/ /n/.

There are also a few common English words that contain the spelling <ear> preceding <n> where the combination is pronounced /ur/ /n/.

There are also a few common English words that contain the spelling <ur> preceding <n> where the combination is pronounced /ur/ /n/.

A good way to present this information to children might be in a table such as this:

Words containing <or> and <n> together

Words containing <ir> and <n> together

Words containing <er> and <n> together

Words containing <ear> and <n> together

Words containing <ur> and <n> together












For this table I have chosen words that children in year 3 might know; there are more words which would fit. I have excluded inflections of the words. I have also excluded words where the relevant spelling pattern is not pronounced /ur/ /n/, for example, words which are pronounced with a schwa vowel instead. I have also only focused on words which end with the /ur/ /n/ sounds.

Completing the Sound Partners strategy for ‘learn’ helps to narrow down further which spelling pattern should be chosen. For some words, this strategy might bring you to a conclusion as to which graphemes to use.

Strategy 4: Which Word Class?

Looking at a word’s class can help sometimes to decide on a spelling pattern. For this, we will look at whether the word is a noun, verb, adverb or adjective (the 4 major word classes) or whether it is a pronoun, determiner, preposition, conjunction or interjection. These word classes are sometimes known as ‘parts of speech’.

If we continue with ‘learn’ as our example, and, taking findings from other strategies into account, we might notice that fern, stern and concern are all nouns but that learn, turn, earn, burn, yearn and churn are all verbs. From this, we might surmise that <er> would be less of an obvious choice as a spelling pattern than <ur> and <ear>, based on the idea that perhaps verbs (such as ‘learn’) which have the /er/ sound followed by the /n/ sound aren’t spelling with <er> whereas nouns with the same sounds might be more likely to feature that spelling pattern.

Using the strategies I’ve set out already, there is little left to do with the word ‘learn’. We must now make a choice between ‘lurn’ and ‘learn’.

Strategy 5: Word Historians

Although earlier on in the sequence of thinking about the word ‘learn’ I mentioned that etymology (a word’s history) wasn’t useful, at this point, it might be, especially if we dig down deep beyond the place of origin and into the actual origin words themselves.

Taking the verbs with either the <ur> or the <ear> spelling of the /ur/ sound, we can look at their origins:

Learn – from Old English leornian meaning ‘learn’

Yearn – from Old English giernan, from a Germanic base meaning ‘eager’

Earn – from Old English earnian, of West Germanic origin, from a base shared by Old English esne meaning ‘labourer’

Turn – from Old English tyrnan, turnian (verb), from Latin tornare, from tornus meaning ‘lathe’, from Greek tornos meaning ‘lathe, circular movement’

Burn – from Old English birnan‘ meaning ‘be on fire’ and bærnan meaning ‘consume by fire’, both from the same Germanic base; related to German brennen.

Looking at the above etymological roots of the words, we might be able to deduce that at some point during the modernisation and standardisation of English, perhaps with the event of the printing press, that words with a spelling <eor>, <ier> or <ear> were given the same spelling of <ear>.

In the case of ‘learn’ what we are actually doing here is learning something that is almost word-specific. However, having gone into such depth with a word, it is much more likely then that children will remember that ‘learn’ is spelled with the <ear> spelling, and that ‘earn’ and ‘yearn’ are too, than if they had just been given a spelling list and expected to remember the spelling without the linguistically explicit instruction.

Activities To Support The Strategies

In order to carry out the above strategies and to help children examine spelling patterns, there are certain activities you can use.

Word sorts

Word sorts can be used in many ways, and can be a staple, go-to way of allowing children to explore and discover spelling patterns.

Prepare a set of cards with one word printed on each. Ask children to sort the cards based on the sound rather than the spelling - have an adult saying the word aloud and then placing cards face down in separate piles. Once the cards are sorted by sound, ask children to look at the spellings and to see if they notice a pattern.

For example, provide words which have the following patterns: double consonant/short vowel and single consonant/long vowel e.g. Super, Supper, Diner, Dinner, Later, Latter, Bated, Batted. Before doing this activity, explicitly teach about what a consonant is and what short and long vowel sounds sound like (short sound like lowercase letter names a e i o u, long sound like upper case letter names A E I O U). Once they have sorted the cards based on whether they have a short or long vowel sound, they can study the spellings and notice that the words with a short vowel sound usually have a double consonant - this is sometimes known as the Rabbit Rule (although Rabbit Generalisation is better, because it isn't always true).

To illustrate the fact that there is a pattern but not a rule, you could also introduce some exceptions. In the above example, such words as Cabin, Robin, Lemon and Camel could be added into the activity. At this point you can get into some etymology. The Rabbit Generalisation works mostly for those Anglo Saxon Germanic words we mentioned earlier. Cabin has Latin origins; Robin is a pet form of the name Robert which does come from old German (Hruodperht) but via the Normans; Camel has Semitic roots and Lemon comes from Arabic languages.

Another example of a word sort could focus around whether to choose 'ke', 'ck' or 'k'. Use words such as Bank, Park, Task, Seek, Pink, Back, Pickle to generate a generalisation that, based on the sound, we use 'k' after either a consonant or two vowels, we use 'ck' after a short vowel sound and 'ke' after a long vowel sound.

Word Games

Games, according to Bear and Templeton, are a good way to help children to discover and examine patterns and generalisations.

What’s the mistake?

Provide children with misspelled words – children should identify the incorrect spelling choices and provide the correct example, explaining the choices they make for their re-spelled version. If theirs is wrong, the next person should attempt to correct it. Once correct, a new word should be chosen. This can be played with words from within a spelling pattern, or within a speech sound, or with homophones etc.

Missing grapheme

Give children a word with a grapheme missing. Pronounce the word for them and ask the children to choose the correct grapheme. To make it a competition, give children a point for the correct grapheme, and an additional point if they can explain their choice well (think of the various strategies discussed in this article).

Be the teacher

Create a short piece of text containing target words, some of which are spelled incorrectly. Give children pens/highlighters and ask them to identify the mistakes. Ask children to share whether they think the writer has made a mistake or has a misconception (see part 3). Encourage children to think about what feedback they would give to the writer and how they would help them to learn the correct spelling.

Bounce the spelling

Tell the children the target word – a word from the list of a particular speech sound you are currently studying. Ask the first child to spell the first phoneme (not the first letter). Then ‘bounce’ the spelling on to the next child who will provide the second phoneme, and so on. If a mistake is made, the children can ‘phone a friend’ within the group to ask for help. Children should be encouraged to discuss the reasons for their choices throughout (see the above strategies for suggestions of the kind of discussion).

Words of a kind

Children pick a card, on which is written a word with a common root word. Each child in the group has to think of a word that contains the same root (the card could also include some examples of these). Children can be given a point for thinking of a word, then an additional point if they can correctly spell the word.

Board game adaptation

Any board game that requires the answering of a question in order to progress round a board can be adapted to include spelling-based questions. For example, questions could be about using two homophones correctly e.g. Say 2 sentences, one using ‘their’ and one using ‘there’ or spelling common exception words. This supports word-specific learning and retrieval. If you want a more linguistically explicit approach, questions could focus, for example, on multiple choice questions where children have to provide the correct grapheme to match the phoneme in a word given with a missing grapheme.

Etymology match

Prepare cards with both English words and their corresponding etymological root word. Children can simply match the pairs, or, once familiar with the matches, could play a game of pairs, turning over two cards at a time and trying to memorise locations. Third and fourth cards could be introduced with the meaning of the English word and the meaning of the etymological root words given on them.

Word Builder

Provide children with a set of cards containing both root words and affixes. Challenge children to create certain kinds of words: a verb with an <ed> suffix, a noun with an <ist> suffix. These can be appropriate to age and stage and based on the NC word lists and any other curriculum you have in place. As you build words, discuss how the affixes are changing the word, perhaps even giving points for children who can, for example, explain that the <ed> suffix creates a past tense verb. Where letters need to be removed to add an affix, children should layer their cards to cover the letters that aren’t needed. Where letters need to be added e.g. hop -> hopping, have to hand some spare cards/scraps of paper that can be written on (they could be laminated for re-use) or work on a wipe clean surface and use whiteboard markers to write extra letters directly onto the surface.

Making Your Own Games

These are just some examples of the kinds of games that can be played – many do require adults to lead them, however, if children are leading them they can be provided the necessary resources to perform spelling checks during the games.

If you are creating your own games, ensure that they contain an element that allows children to exercise one or more of the strategies that were outlined in part 4, ensuring that children use the knowledge of one or more of the following as they play:

· The sounds that make up the word (phonology)

· Spelling patterns, including how often that pattern occurs, where it might be found in a word and how it works with other phonemes/graphemes in the word (orthography)

· The parts of the word (morphology)

· The history of the word (etymology)

· How the word is used (word class)

· Specific words - word-specific knowledge, usually when we know that a word does not follow spelling patterns.

With the exception of the last point, games should not simply encourage children to try to recall spellings for whole words, and should focus on exercising phonology, orthography, morphology, etymology, and so on.

Also, make sure that the games you design truly allow children to practise the words that you are currently studying. Some of the above suggestions might not work for all types of words.

Other resources

John Walker, creator of Sounds-Write, has a brilliant blog, on which there are several articles which I’d recommend to everyone:

If you are looking for a spelling scheme, then the Scheme Support website has collated them all. I cannot vouch for the efficacy of any of them:

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