down for a list of DOs
and Don'ts when Teaching Spelling.
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 advent 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 primary 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 routinely corrected as the assumption is
that children will learn 'naturally' to make closer and
closer approximations to correct spelling
Children are unlikely to learn to spell accurately with
this method. Instead, they will reproduce their spelling
errors again and again, producing poor quality writing
with confidence-sapping results. Poor
spelling is also thought (wrongly) by many to be a sign of
laziness or low intelligence.
''Inventive spelling ensures that students
become great at spelling incorrectly''
How not to teach
spelling - familiarity is not easily distinguished from
''Practice doesn't make perfect,
practice makes permanent''
(italics added.Doug Lemov. Practice Perfect)
The myth of developmental stages for spelling:
Their Way' examined:
''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''. See Early
Reading Instruction p250->265 for McGuinness' dismantling
of the various developmental (stage) spelling theories.
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
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 to achieve good spelling. Frith,
''...assembled a group of teenage good readers/poor spellers''.
Though their reading ages were normal, 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)''
''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''
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'' (Diack p59)
intervention tutor Maggie Downie 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?''
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
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'' (Adoniou)
The brain ''is particularly adept at storing
recurring patterns, and very inefficient at remembering
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
Parents: How to help your child with their weekly
Parents (KS2+) What should you do if your child brings
home illogical or overwhelming spelling lists?
''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
is no compelling evidence at present that it
(morphology) should replace systematic phonics
instruction in the first stages of learning to read,
although it may be beneficial at later points in reading
(Prof. Kathy Rastle)
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)
Spelling and reading are taught
in high-quality phonics
programmes, with an ''equal split between the two
2014) from the outset of instruction, to make
clear the reversibility of the code and to ensure that
pupils' encoding and decoding abilities remain as
closely as possible in synchrony, avoiding the
development of a serious spelling lag.
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''
What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling?
English spellings don’t obey rules. Instead, they are
context dependent and probabilistic. 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) 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.''
Seindenberg's book Language at the Speed of Sight
Ch.5 for comprehensive coverage of the statistical
/ probabilistic nature
of English spelling.
English spelling ''isn't ruled governed, it's
statistical'' (Prof. Mark Seidenberg)
''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)
The English Spelling System - A Primer: unpicking the
conventions of English spelling
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''
(D.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''
(D.McGuinness ERI p59).
- Do give reading and
time and emphasis in every discrete phonics
lesson from the very beginning of instruction.
There should be no need to buy in a separate 'spelling
scheme' to remediate weak spelling in KS2, if the school uses a high quality
synthetic / linguistic phonics programme in KS1 and teaches it with fidelity for reading
and spelling from the start.
- 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
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.
Y1 teacher) 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
- 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
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
''Simultaneously articulating the individual sound
(phoneme) while writing the letter or letters
(grapheme) that corresponds to it is a powerful
- 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.
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.
Multi-syllable 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. try,
Some English words derived from Greek have a
syllable where you can hear a schwa sound
but not see a spelling:
pris*m, rhyth*m, enthusias*m...
- Don't confuse sending
home lists of words to learn for a spelling test with
teaching code knowledge and phonics skills for
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
- 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?
''I don't find "silent letters" a useful way to
describe or explain such spellings. Pretty much
every letter in a word is there for a reason''
- 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.
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>
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
- Don't teach spelling
rules. English spellings don't obey rules but are highly
context dependent and probabilistic. ''That is, it matters
what a particular spelling sits next to in a particular
word'' (D.McGuinness Allographs
manual p2 ) English spelling ''isn't ruled governed,
it's statistical'' (Seidenberg.
p144) 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 and therefore to remember.
- 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
- 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
for <ed> 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
file-size Alphabet Code chart showing the most
common spelling alternatives in the context of 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 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 to
create 'word shapes', pyramid/waterfall words,
bubble/rainbow writing, 3D
spelling with pasta, pipe cleaners or clay, ''silly sentence''
spelling mnemonics, write the letters of a word in a
series of rectangular 'boxes', make 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: 'bag' in cabbage, 'rat' in
Seven Sins of Spelling
- Do encourage 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. Include
morphology and etymology when it will help with
memory and meaning. Avoid toxic morphology e.g ''In
hierarchy, 'arch' is meaningful but in 'searchlight'
it is not'' (Tricia Millar)
- 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)''
- Don't let pupils
read or write mis-spelled, improbable
or illegal English spellings through 1.
poorly written 'alien words' worksheets to practise
for the phonics check. 2. their own
invented spellings. 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 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
- Do provide plenty of
support to help pupils produce correct spellings.
For example, see Charlotte MacKechnie's post on
early years Shared Writing
- Do ensure that mis-spellings
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
The Hydra of Spelling!: John Walker offers advice for helping
young children with spelling
The ill-conceived idea of ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’
Explaining split vowel spellings avoiding silent or magic <e>
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
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''
Focus attention on the target GPCs by getting the
children to underline them in a variety of real words.
''The argument presented in this tutorial is that
reading [and spelling] can be thought of as learning
Arciuli, J. (2018). Reading as statistical learning.
Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools,
'Statistical Learning and Spelling' by Rebecca Treiman
Learning From Our Mistakes: Improvements in Spelling
Lead to Gains in Reading Speed.
and reading speed were strongly related across and
2014. The write way to spell: printing vs. typing
effects on orthographic learning
''(S)pelling practice has been found to result in
superior orthographic learning, relative to print
exposure through reading alone''
2019. The unique role of early spelling in the
prediction of later literacy performance
Spelling performance at the end of kindergarten
significantly predicted reading performance in grades 1,
2, 4, and 9, beyond the effect of other predictors.
Given the information that spelling provides, it should
be considered for inclusion when screening children for
future literacy problems.
**The production effect: reading aloud might boost students' memories
Spelling results achieved through using
a high quality phonics programme:
Sound~Write's longitudinal study of literacy development
from 2003-2009, following 1607 pupils through KS1
By the end of Year Two 91% were within the expected range
for their age or above, and an average spelling age just
over 14 months ahead of chronological age was achieved.
139 of the 7yr.old pupils scored above the spelling
test's ceiling of 11.0 yrs.
The Clackmannanshire longitudinal study: A Seven Year Study
of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading
and Spelling Attainment.
At the end of P1 ''the synthetic-phonics-taught
group were spelling around 8 to 9 months ahead of the other
groups (and were again performing around 7 months ahead
of chronological age)''
''At the end of Primary 7 spelling
was 1 year 9 months ahead''
Jolly Phonics longitudinal study: ''On average,
spelling results for this cohort were 18.1 months above
Spelling results from two primary schools which use the
same advanced linguistic phonics programme
(Sounds-Write). They ignore
developmental spelling theories and teach spelling and reading
in tandem, using phonemes and graphemes,
from the very start of instruction:
2018: ''28 children in Year 1 (their second year of
schooling) sat the Young’s Parallel Spelling Test
in June 2018. The average age of the children was
6.3 years; their average spelling age
was 8.6 years; and, they were then, on
average, 28 months ahead. No child scored below
their chronological age. In fact, no child scored below
13 months ahead of their chronological age. At
the other end, four children scored at more than 40
months ahead of chronological age''
St Thomas Aquinas