Spelling: teaching and learning spelling

Colin Harrison and Greg Brooks | View as single page| Feedback/Impact

Age 7-11

Learning to 'sound out'

How do children learn to be able to spell a word that they have never written down before?

The answer is that they 'sound it out'.

But learning to 'sound it out' isn't easy- young learners especially need to be given some strategies and practice in learning to sound out words.

These are the stages in sounding out that children need to learn, as suggested by Richard Gentry:

  • Say it slowly. Stretch the word out so that it's easy to hear the sounds. Beginning and ending sounds are easiest to hear but vowel sounds are the easiest to stretch out (and, if pronounced appropriately, any sound that is not stopped (like /m/, /n/, /s/, or any of the five traditional vowel sounds) is very easy to stretch out.
  • Hold the sound. Starting with the first sound, hold it and stop. Holding this sound, and sometimes repeating it, helps kids lock it in.
  • Find the letter. Think about the letter whose sound matches the sound identified in the word. Introducing kids to all 26 lowercase letters all at once in simple 1-to-1 matching exercises with their most likely sound takes very little time to learn for most students.
  • Write it down. Write that letter down immediately. Don't wait until the entire word has been sounded out to write all the letters down. Write a letter for each sound as soon as the sound is identified.

Make spelling tests (and doing spelling corrections) worthwhile

Adapted from Mark Pennington's approach: http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/category/spelling_vocabulary/

How to make spelling tests and doing spelling corrections worthwhile (age 7-11):

  • 1. Administer a weekly test. Let's call this the 'pretest'.
  • 2. After completing this diagnostic pretest, display the spelling words and get students to self-correct their spelling errors by circling and then discussing misspelled parts of words. This is an essential part of the learning.
  • 3. Have students create their own Personal Spelling List to take home, and have a parent sign the list. Students prioritise their Personal Spelling List in this order:
    • Pretest Errors: include words that were spelled incorrectly on the pretest.
    • Posttest Errors: include words that were spelled incorrectly on last week's posttest.
    • Writing Errors: Add teacher-corrected spelling errors found in their own writing.
    • Supplemental Spelling Lists: Students add on unknown words from non-phonetic outlaw words, commonly confused homonyms, spelling demons, and high frequency lists.
  • 4. On the next class day briefly explain the spelling pattern focus of the pretest. Focus on groups of words with a similar spelling pattern. Help students to see similarities with a preliminary word-grouping task.
  • 5. Avoid useless crossword puzzles, word searches, and 'writing each word ten times' approaches. Please.
  • 6. Students study their Personal Spelling List(s) for the spelling formative posttest. Many teachers elect to give the spelling posttest at the end of the week; others choose to combine two spelling patterns lessons and include these as part of the bi-weekly unit test. I give a bi-weekly test of two Personal Spelling Lists to save class time. There is no law saying that you have to test each Friday.
  • 7. To administer the weekly or bi-weekly posttest, direct students to take out a piece of paper, find a partner, and exchange dictation of their Personal Spelling List(s) words (10-20 Minutes weekly or bi-weekly). Students then turn in their posttests for the teacher to mark. I know... you think they'll cheat. In my experience, very few do. Also... this works with second graders (I've done it) on up (to eighth grade).

New National Curriculum Key Stage 2 spelling requirements- these apply to England only

The UK government has published in September 2013 a new National Curriculum, most of which will be statutory from September 2013. For English, there is a separate 25-page Spelling Appendix that lays out in detail precisely what sounds and word lists pupils must be taught. The introduction states 'Some of the listed words may be thought of as quite challenging, but the 100 words in each list can easily be taught within the four years of key stage 2 alongside other words that teachers consider appropriate.'

These word lists include 'accidentally', 'knowledge', 'occasionally', 'purpose' and 'possession' for Years 3 and 4, and 'accommodate', 'achieve', 'appreciate', 'conscience', 'exaggerate', 'harass', 'leisure', 'opportunity' and 'pronunciation' for Years 5 and 6. University teachers will be particularly pleased to know that children will soon know how to spell all these words before they get to secondary school- in fact, they all occur on a list of spellings that postgraduate teacher trainees regularly misspell, that I compiled some years ago.

The good news is that- whatever you think of the government's spelling lists- the teaching methods suggested for this spelling work are helpful, and would be regarded by most experts as sound. Although the Spelling Appendix does not give lesson plans, there is actually quite a lot of guidance that would set an experienced teacher well on the way with planning. At least the requirements can't be accused of failing to offer detail that would support a teacher who wanted to deliver regular lessons on spelling.

First, the KS1 teacher had a rather daunting list of objectives, so it might be wise to know what these are, just in case a little revision is necessary!

Year 2 / age 6-7 (more detail on these can be found in pages 7-10 of the Spelling Appendix)

  • teaching harder phonemes/blends (eg the final sound in 'bridge'/'badge', or 'measure'/'treasure')
  • the silent 'k'
  • more spelling rules
  • more common homophones
  • harder exception words

For Key Stage 2, the following is an outline of your curriculum

  • Years 3 and 4 / ages 7-9 (see pages 11-17 of the Spelling Appendix)
  • suffixes and prefixes
  • morpheme prefixes (with a fixed meaning, such as 'dis-', 'mis-', 'sub-')
  • more homophones
  • the dreaded Y3-4 Word List is on page 16

Years 5 and 6 / ages 9-11 (see pages 18-22 of the Spelling Appendix)

  • much of this work is also developing vocabulary
  • more work on roots and suffixes (particularly ones that have loads of rule exceptions)
  • the ending '-ough', which can be pronounced 5 ways!
  • the -ce/-se words ('practise'/'practice')
  • tricky homophones ('led'/'lead')