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The Right(est) Way To Teach Spelling (part 4)

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

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

When teaching children to spell, our ultimate goal is probably to get them to the point where they can spell words automatically.

But how do we get to this point? What do children need to do in order to spell age-appropriate words correctly without too much thought?

It helps to know how good spellers get to this point.

How Do We Spell?

When we spell a word, we use multiple sources of knowledge to help us to choose the correct sequence of letters. We use knowledge about:

  1. The sounds that make up the word (phonology)

  2. 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)

  3. The parts of the word (morphology)

  4. The history of the word (etymology)

  5. How the word is used (word class)

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

In her article ‘How Spelling Supports Reading’, Louisa C. Moats writes (bracketed additions are mine):

The spelling of almost any [English] word can be explained if one or more of the following five principles of English spelling is taken into account:

1) Words’ language of origin and history of use can explain their spelling (Etymology)

2) Words’ meaning and part of speech can determine their spelling (Morphology/Word Class)

3) Speech sounds are spelled with single letters and/or combinations of up to four letters (Orthography)

4) The spelling of a given sound can vary according to its position within a word. (Orthography)

5) The spellings of some sounds are governed by established conventions of letter sequences and patterns (Phonology/Orthography)

So, to get children to the point where they can spell accurately, and without too much thought, we need to teach them to use the above sources of knowledge. The use of these sources of knowledge can be employed as strategies when spelling a word. Most children will not remember whole words although this may happen eventually after repeated application of the above strategies for working out a word’s spelling.

And to be clear: this requires explicit teaching.

It may be the case that some children spell very well without instruction, and this may correlate with them being children who are well-read. This can happen because one way that humans learn is by identifying patterns. The more a spelling pattern or a morphological pattern is noticed, after seeing words in a range of places, the more a person will learn about their use (this is called statistical learning). We cannot however expect all children to learn in this way as not all have the same exposure to texts, and perhaps not all identify these patterns as easily.

Spelling: A Process

When we want to spell a word, we first of all have to think of the sounds involved in that word. We then must think of which letters represent those sounds – this is called phoneme-grapheme correspondence (PGC) and is the reason why good spelling teaching needs to be preceded by good phonics teaching. It is important to remember that not all graphemes are 1 letter-long; some phonemes are represented by multiple letters i.e. graphemes that are 2, 3 or even 4 letters long. This part all happens in our brains, before we put pen to paper. Then, we have a go at writing down what we’ve worked out in our heads – this happens letter by letter, or grapheme by grapheme.

After this process has been repeated many times, we may begin to remember a spelling as a whole word, however this won’t be the case for all words, and for children, it may not happen quickly. Some people, with some words, can write a correctly-spelled word based just on a memory of how that whole word is spelled, without thinking of the phoneme-grapheme correspondences, or without using the 6 strategies above.

What Should We Teach?

But before we think how to teach spelling, it is important to think about what we will teach as this will determine our pedagogical choices. I suggest that a good starting point when thinking about how to teach the 6 strategies, we must really think about the different kinds of words that we will apply the strategies to. Essentially the what is a curriculum that must be developed.

Here are a few of the main kinds of words, or word parts, that we should prioritise when designing a spelling curriculum (this is not an exhaustive list):

1. Vowel phoneme spelling (short vowel sounds, the schwa vowel sound, then long vowel sounds)

2. Consonant phoneme spelling (single consonants, double consonants, digraphs, consonant digraphs, x = /ks/)

3. High Frequency words that don’t easily fit into a pattern (see word-specific knowledge above, often known as common exception words or sometimes as tricky words)

4. Affixes which don’t change meaning or word class (Inflectional affixes, suffixes, pluralisation, verb tense)

5. Affix patterns, and how they change meaning and/or word class (prefixes and suffixes)

6. Homophones /homographs

7. Common Latin and Greek root words

Many spelling lists are available, and at this point I’d suggest you read Sophie Bartlett and Rebecca Buckland’s post ‘Teeching speling yousing fonix in Kee Stayj Too’ in which they offer a spreadsheet which organises words by phoneme and grapheme for KS2 and is linked to the NC statutory word list and rules. This is both a fantastic starting point for the creation of a curriculum and a resource for developing individual lessons. This spreadsheet will help you cover points 1 and 2 above (learning vowel and consonant phoneme spelling) although in the creation of a full curriculum you will need to include additional categories of spellings based on the other points in the above list.

Other useful resources for curriculum creation and lesson preparation are as follows:

'English Spellings A Lexicon' by Dave Philpot, John Walker & Susan Case, which can be downloaded from the Sounds-Write website (which is an absolutely brilliant place to go for your spelling needs):

Neil Almond’s ‘Spelling List With Morphology’ lists the root words of the words from the KS2 spelling list and gives morphology and some aspects of the etymology of each word, as well as a selection of other words which have the same morphology:

Jason Wade, creator of Sounds & Syllables, has some excellent blog posts and resources which everyone should know about. Here are a few that are relevant to the content of this blog post:

‘Dot Dot Dash’, a blog post all about how to break words down into phonemes, and how to annotate this in your teaching:

‘KS2 Statutory Spelling Lists: Parts 1 & 2’, two blog posts and free downloads that break down every key stage 2 statutory spelling into syllables and speech sounds. It contains almost 1400 slides which builds up each word in steps by identifying the number of syllables, then building up each syllable in turn: &

‘Sounds & Syllables Teaching Sequence’, a blog post which does what it says on the tin:

‘The Base Bank’, a collection of brilliant root word resources which look at etymology, morphology and give lots of examples of words that match that root:

Charlotte MacKechnie, Specialist Leader of Education for English, phonics and leadership of CPD and Sounds-Write Trainer, has provided documents that group the KS2 word lists into sounds, break them down into speech sounds as well as exemplify particular kinds of words such as affixes and homphones:

Year 5/6 new code knowledge (alternative spellings and alternative pronunciations), homophones (and near homophones), inflectional affixes, derivational affixes and final stable syllables:

Year 3/4 new code knowledge (alternative spellings and alternative pronunciations), homophones (and near homophones), inflectional affixes, derivational affixes and final stable syllables:

In coming to the end of part 4 of this series, I realise I have continued in my avoidance of getting down to brass tacks by not mentioning much about how we should teach spelling. However, we are getting ever closer to that and I think everything that has been written so far is a necessary foundation to beginning to look at what we do in the classroom to help children to learn spelling.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing spelling at your school, please use the contact details below or complete the contact form by clicking on the 'contact' link above.

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