Learning to Write and Spell
| Writing | Handwriting | Spelling |

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 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 (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 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 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)

The brain ''is particularly adept at storing recurring patterns, and very inefficient at remembering randomness'' (D.McGuinness.WCCR)

Teachers: How to make helpful homework spelling lists of words.

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 memory''

''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 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 and  probabilistic nature of English spelling.

English spelling ''isn't ruled governed, it's statistical'' (Mark Seidenberg)

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).

''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)

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 to pupils.

  • 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 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 GRB p239).

  • Don't 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, 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 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 p.19)

  • 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.
    See http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/spelling_resources.htm

  • 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. 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 aloud.
  • 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'' (Tricia Millar)

  • 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)'' (John Walker)

  • 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 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. 
  • 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

Silent letters?

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


'Statistical Learning and Spelling' by Rebecca Treiman

''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

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 chronological age''

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 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