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 used in individual words, 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
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
Practice doesn't make perfect,
practice makes permanent.
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 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 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)''
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''
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)
The brain ''is particularly adept at storing
recurring patterns, and very inefficient at remembering
Teachers: How to make helpful homework spelling lists of
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 pterodactyl'' (Karthik
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''
"(T)here 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 acquisition"
(Prof. Kathy Rastle)
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 p12)
''(A) printed word is a time-chart
of sounds'' (Diack p59)
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
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.''
Seindenberg's book Language at the speed of sight
Ch5 for comprehensive coverage of the statistical
and probabilistic nature
of English spelling.
English spelling ''isn't ruled governed, it's
statistical'' (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)
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 ERI p59).
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.
- 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 corresponding
phonemes 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 Millar). Hearing
their own voice acts as a powerful cue. The memory benefit
of hearing oneself is achieved through the production
- 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 throughout 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,
- 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 any consonant
letters forming a GPC 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 (a digraph), little
divides into litt-le or li-ttle, not lit-tle..
- Don't describe any letters
forming a grapheme 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
- 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 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.
Language at the Speed of Sight p144) That is
why it is important to teach the GPCs in the context
of real words. ''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 statistical patterns with minimum effort
through ''controlled exposure and varied repetition''
(D.McGuinness 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
combination of multi-sensory activities including
the pupil reading lesson-linked decodable text
- 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, what, 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.
- 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 primary 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. 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, draw lines around
individual words to create shapes, pyramid/waterfall
words, bubble/rainbow writing, find little words in
longer words, use multiple mnemonics, write letters
in word boxes, sight word searches, look-say labels
around the classroom, spell 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 practise writing mis-spelled, inappropriate
or illegal English spellings through 1. poorly written
phonics worksheets or reading scheme books 2. their own
invented spellings 3. 'spot the incorrect spelling'
quizzes or 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'.
''(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 between
'right' and 'wrong'' (D.McGuinness
GRB p260) (D.McGuinness
- 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.
- 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 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
'Statistical Learning and Spelling' by Rebecca Treiman
''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,
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 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: 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.
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