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Spelling strategies – How not to teach spelling

Modelling invented words? Teaching spelling ‘rules’? Saying that letters are ‘silent’? No, no, no, says Charlotte MacKechnie...

  • Spelling strategies – How not to teach spelling

If you allow a child to spell ‘he’ as ‘hee’ or ‘they’ as ‘thay’, they’re going to practise misspelling these words.

They’ll become so familiar with their invented spellings that they may struggle to unlearn the inaccurate sound-spelling correspondences. I use ‘invented spelling’ because the notion of ‘phonetically plausible’ spelling is flawed. All spellings are phonetic. If a word wasn’t ‘phonetic’, you wouldn’t be able to say it.

Anything that is spoken can be represented with various combinations of the 26 letters in the English alphabet. Spelling has been standardised since the 1700s, yet pronunciation is constantly evolving. While many words are certainly complex to spell, they are not phonetically irregular.

Unfortunately, it appears to be common practice for EYFS and KS1 teachers to model ‘phonetically plausible’ (ie invented) spelling. The rationale? Depending on where you are within your systematic teaching sequence, there will be parts of code that you haven’t taught yet.

The misconception that teachers should model invented spelling likely comes from the Early Learning Goals for writing in EYFS which state that:

“Children use their phonic knowledge to write words in ways which match their spoken sounds. [...] Some words are spelt correctly and others are phonetically plausible.”

The key word here is ‘children’. Pupils use their phonic knowledge for spelling; sometimes they misspell words, but their attempts are phonetically plausible. This doesn’t suggest that teachers should model invented spelling. Instead, we should provide the parts of the code that haven’t been taught yet.

Here are some more ‘dos and don’ts’ for teaching spelling:

Don’ts

1 | Don’t introduce only one spelling of a vowel sound
It’s particularly important not to encourage children to use this one spelling whenever they write that sound. You’ll be reinforcing illogical positioning of alternative spellings. For example, the ‘ay’ spelling is rarely used before the sound ‘l’ (there’s no ‘snayl’, ‘tayl’ or ‘whayl’, for example).

2 | Don’t replace phonics with spelling rules at the end of Y1
Phonics is reading and spelling. It takes a minimum of three years to teach the alternatives of the English alphabet code, and phonics should continue to underpin spelling beyond KS1. Here are some alternative spellings to work on in Y5 and 6, for example:

  • ‘ie’ sound – island
  • ‘ee’ sound – deceive
  • ‘t’ sound – doubt
  • ‘m’ sound – climb

3 | Don’t teach spelling ‘rules’ such as ‘i before e except after c’
English spelling doesn’t obey rules. If you take this approach you’ll probably spend more time teaching the exceptions (‘seize’, ‘feisty’, ‘foreign’...).

4 | Don’t use ‘look, cover, write, check’
This whole-word memorisation ignores the fundamental construct of the alphabet and the research into eye movements in the context of how we read. Similarly, don’t encourage children to look at ‘word shapes’ or to ‘look and say’.

5 | Don’t refer to letters as ‘silent’
Take a moment to listen carefully to the letters in this sentence – every letter is silent. Letters do not make sounds – we do. Why do we accept ‘k’ as silent in ‘know’, but we don’t question the ‘w’?  Teach ‘kn’ as a spelling of the sound ‘n’ much like you would teach the spelling ‘funny’ or ‘gone‘: it’s as simple as that.

Dos

1 | Do approach the complex code (one sound: different spellings) in a systematic way
Introduce the frequent and consistent spellings first, then introduce the less frequently encountered spellings in successive cycles. For example:

  • EYFS: play, rain
  • Y1: cake, they, great
  • Y2: vein, eight, straight
  • KS2: gauge, ballet

2 | Do insist that children say the sounds when they are writing the words
The integration of sensory input (auditory and visual) and the motor output (writing the spellings) helps embed sound-spelling correspondences and reinforces the link between sound and spelling.

3 | Do have realistic expectations
If you’re teaching the basic code, is it realistic to expect students to attempt to write words with complex spellings, or polysyllabic words? Are students ready to write independently, or would it be more beneficial to lead a shared writing session?

4 | Do teach students to spell high-frequency words by drawing attention to the spellings which are exceptions
Remember, an exception word is simply a word with sound-spelling correspondences that are beyond the systematic teaching sequence. Find the first 100 and next 200 high-frequency words organised by sound here.


Charlotte MacKechnie is a Sounds-Write trainer and reading development lead for STEP Ahead Teaching School Alliance. Read her blog here. Follow her on Twitter at @c_mackechnie.

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