X Scroll down for a list of DOs and Don'ts to help with Spelling.
It was the construction of the first dictionaries by Dr.
Johnson (1755) and later Noah Webster that set 'correct'
spellings in stone. Before the 18th century 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 standardised the spelling for each of the English phonemes
instead of standardising the spellings
for individual words, creating a 'transparent' English alphabet code, we would
not have the difficulties with English reading and spelling that we do
It's commonly assumed that learning to spell (and to read) follows biologically determined developmental
stages e.g. Gentry. However, writing (spelling) is a recent human invention,
not part of our biological 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 (Hempenstall.thesis)
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.
Practice doesn't make perfect,
practice makes permanent.
The myth of developmental stages for spelling:
''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
''Spelling is a learned skill, not an innate ability, and therefore, it can and should be taught. English spelling is systematic, contrary to popular perception and therefore, it can be taught'' (Misty Adoniou)
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 literacy through the 'balanced 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 which are vital to achieve good spelling. Frith, ''(A)ssembled 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)'' (A.Ellis p91)
Look, Cover, Write & 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'' (Kerr p135).
Reading 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?''
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)
Morphology is fascinating but what is its place in
learning to spell? ''The two parts to the
word “helicopter” are not “heli” and “copter”, but “helico”
meaning spiral, and “pter” meaning one with wings, like
Balakrishnan.Twitter) but when it comes to using
morphology for spelling, Tricia Millar's 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
''There is then a point at which the teaching of
morphology can run in parallel to phonics teaching but it
doesn’t precede phonics teaching and in fact, because of the
complexity of conceptual understanding and the amount of code
knowledge required to be learned, morphology shouldn’t be
taught in tandem with phonics teaching when children are in
the early stages of beginning to read''
Teachers: How to make helpful
homework spelling lists of words.
The brain ''is
particularly adept at storing recurring patterns, and very
inefficient at remembering randomness'' (D.McGuinness.WCCR)
Leveled reading scheme books, ''(M)ake no attempt
to introduce only simple regular words in the early stages;
thus children do not become familiarised with some basic patterns
of English orthography before they encounter the irregularities...The result is that many children fail to understand that spelling
follows patterns and are consequently daunted by what they
see as the need to learn every word separately'' (Chew
''To be effective for spelling as well as for reading, phonics
teaching needs to be thorough and systematic: in reading,
children need to be taught to sound out every letter or letter-group
from beginning to end of a word so that they will be sensitised
to both regularities and irregularities in the letter-sound
correspondences.'' (Chew p13)
''(A) printed word is a
time-chart of sounds'' (Diack p59)
''If children are taught to sound out all letters and letter-groups
in words, some unconventional pronunciations may result,
but these are easily corrected and are, in the meantime, extremely
helpful for spelling The child who first sounds out the 'ch'
in chemist like the 'ch' in chop, or sounds out 'vague' as
two syllables, the second rhyming with 'due', is much more
likely eventually to spell tricky words correctly than the
child who learns to read by memorising words as wholes'' (Chew
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. Diane McGuinness says that, ''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 tandem' in
high-quality UK-style synthetic / linguistic phonics
programmes, 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 heavily
context dependent and probabilistic. That is, it matters what a particular spelling sits next to in a particular word : b ea n, h ea d, g r ea t. Diane McGuinness explains it like this: ''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.''
See Seindenberg's book Language at the speed of sight
Ch5 for comprehensive coverage of the statistical
nature of English spelling.
English spelling ''isn't ruled governed, it's
''Very little active memorization
is necessary when learning is based on exposure to predictable
patterns...our brains do the work for us''
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 patterns with minimum effort is through ''controlled exposure and varied repetition'' (D.McGuinness
Linguistic phonics tutor Alison Clarke illustrates how she
makes the common spelling patterns of the sound /er/ memorable
through ''controlled exposure and varied repetition'' using a
variety of linguistic phonics resources.
X Spelling DOs and Don'ts.
- Do teach reading and
spelling in tandem, in every lesson, from the very
beginning of instruction.There should be no need for a
separate, unrelated spelling scheme if the school uses an
advanced synthetic phonics programme (includes a
comprehensive range of advanced/complex code
spellings for all the vowels and consonant sounds) 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 beginning
readers. 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, impeding instant recall of the sound-letter 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.
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 this point letter names become a harmless
and useful short cut for relaying multi-letter spellings
- Don't ever ask pupils to use
letter names when spelling for themselves as this fails to
model or make explicit what proficient spellers do
themselves when spelling longer and more challenging words
and adds an extra hurdle to the spelling process.
Instead, teach pupils to say the
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 (Tricia
Hearing their own
voice acts as a powerful cue. The memory benefit of hearing
oneself is achieved through the production effect.
- 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.
''(M)otor 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
stop teaching phonics for reading and spelling
once the Y1 phonic check week has passed. It takes at
least three years of direct and systematic phonics to
teach the English alphabet code. Much of the
advanced/complex code, which contains essential knowledge
of the spelling alternatives, remains to be taught in Y2
and beyond. Multi-syllable word spelling needs extensive
practice through the primary years.
- Do ensure that children in 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 words, without exception, have a vowel spelling and that it can consist of 1- 4 letters consecutively, or 2 vowel letters 'split' around a consonant spelling e.g. try, pie, knight, height, slime
- Don't confuse sending home lists of words to learn for a spelling test with
teaching spelling knowledge and skills. They are
not the same thing.
- Don't separate double
consonants forming a digraph when dividing a multi-syllable word for
spelling. Instead, 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,
as <bb> represents one sound, puzzle
divides into puzz-le or pu-zzle,
- Don't describe any letters
forming a GPC 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''
- Do teach the most common HFWs words which have
unusual or unique
spellings directly and systematically using a phonics all-through-the-word approach,
not as sight words to be memorised as whole shapes.
- Don't include words that are
infrequent in print and have rare 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 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
Language at the Speed of Sight p144) That is why it is important to teach the GPCs in the context of real words and to practise them in real text. ''Comparing the spellings in context [of real words] increases the brain's ability to analyse and therefore remember''
(Nevola.SRS Handbook p113).
- Do help pupils to
memorise the code's predictable patterns with minimum effort through ''controlled exposure and varied repetition''
ERI p59). Do this by exposing them to the common spelling alternatives of a particular phoneme multiple times in a lesson in the context of
real words, using a variety of multi-sensory activities.
- Do encourage pupils to notice orthographic
patterns. 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,
- 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.
- Don't expect beginning readers to use a conventional dictionary as a spelling aid. Instead, to help them spell the word 'steam' for example, either write down the correct /ee/ spelling for them or tell them another word or two they know well 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 main spelling alternatives used in real words (several programmes provide suitable
free charts), and make sure that they always have it to hand at school.
- Do have an Alphabet Code chart on display in every
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.
This is especially useful for incidental phonics teaching.
- Don't ask pupils to use
the following strategies to remember words for spelling:
look-cover-write-check, drawing lines around words to create
shapes, pyramid/waterfall words, bubble writing, finding
little words in longer words, rainbow letters, using
multiple mnemonics, writing letters in box shapes, sight word searches, sight word labels
around the classroom, spelling words backwards...
- Do use a 'spelling voice'
for schwas and elisions: e.g. Wednesday sound out Wed-nez-dae, February sound out Feb-roo-a-ree,
and over-emphasise the sound when
learning words with a schwa e.g. dok'tuh' sound out dok-tOR,
'uh'bowt sound out A-bowt, ca'rut' sound out ca-rOt...
- Do continue to teach
spelling in KS2, secondary school and beyond when
introducing new vocabulary, revising and building on
previously taught phonics code, along with incidental
morphology and etymology when it will help with memory and meaning.
Avoid 'toxic morphology'- ''In hierarchy, 'arch' is
meaningful but in 'searchlight' it is not''
- Do say that the common Latin suffix /shun/ is usually spelled -tion, but if the word is for a person or occupation -cian is more likely. 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 see or
mis-spelled, inappropriate or illegal English spellings through poorly written phonics
worksheets or reading scheme books; their own invented spellings; 'spot the
deliberate spelling mistake' quizzes or 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'. ''(L)ooking 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
'right' and 'wrong'' (D.McGuinness
GRB p260) (D.McGuinness ERI p117-121)
- Do provide plenty of
support to help pupils produce correct spellings. For
example, when testing pupils on words containing a
particular phoneme, before the test help the pupils write all the previously taught spelling alternatives
across the top of the paper or board.
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 Hydra of Spelling!: John Walker offers advice for helping young children with spelling
Explaining split vowel spellings avoiding 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
Focus attention on the target GPCs by getting the children to underline them in a variety of real words.
For spelling resources go here
Research: spelling results achieved through using a
synthetic / linguistic 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
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: p5 ''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. They ignore
developmental spelling theories and teach spelling and reading
in tandem using phonemes and graphemes from the very
start of instruction.
St Thomas Aquinas