Learning to Spell
| Writing | Handwriting | Spelling |

X Scroll 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 (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. 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'' (Nora Chahbazi)

How not to teach spelling - familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.

''Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent'' (italics added.Doug Lemov. Practice Perfect)

The myth of developmental stages for spelling:
+ 'Words 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.

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 through 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)'' (A.Ellis p91)

''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'' (Parent. Twitter)

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)

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?''

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 Taught? 1967) 

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 randomness'' (D.McGuinness.WCCR)

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 words.

Parents: How to help your child with their weekly spelling list

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 memory''

"(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)

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 tandem in high-quality phonics programmes, with an ''equal split between the two activities'' (Johnston&Watson 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.''
See 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)

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).

''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)

X Spelling DOs and Don'ts.

  • Do give reading and spelling equal 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 sound-spelling 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 (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 to pupils.

  • 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 (Tricia Millar). ''Simultaneously articulating the individual sound (phoneme) while writing the letter or letters (grapheme) that corresponds to it is a powerful practice" https://www.phonicbooks.com/2020/10/08/little-things-can-make-a-big-difference/

  • 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.

  • Don't 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, pie, knight, height, slime. 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 spelling. They 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 into a-cco-mmo-date...

  • 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? http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2013/02/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'' (Alison Clarke.Spelfabet)

  • 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.
    See http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/spelling_resources.htm 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> 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 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 resources. http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2013/06/spelling-collection/#more-9424

  • 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 http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/spelling_resources.htm 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 separate...
    Seven Sins of Spelling http://jweducation.co.uk/2020/03/14/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)'' (John Walker)

  • 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 ERI p117-121)

  • Do provide plenty of support to help pupils produce correct spellings. For example, see Charlotte MacKechnie's post on early years Shared Writing https://linguisticphonics.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/phonetically-im-plausible/
  • 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’ spelling

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 statistical regularities''
Arciuli, J. (2018). Reading as statistical learning. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 49(3S), 634–643.https://doi.org/10.1044/2018_LSHSS-STLT1-17-0135


'Statistical Learning and Spelling' by Rebecca Treiman

Learning From Our Mistakes: Improvements in Spelling Lead to Gains in Reading Speed.
''Spelling accuracy and reading speed were strongly related across and within participants''

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 chronological age''

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:

St George's
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