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Spelling – What to do when pupils fall behind

We can’t assume prior spelling teaching has been retained – we must look back to move forward, says Michelle Nicholson...

  • Spelling – What to do when pupils fall behind

Despite a greater focus on spelling, some children are still struggling to demonstrate that they are writing at the expected standard for their age because of gaps in their spelling knowledge.

It seems there are pupils who are unable to retain and apply what has been taught, especially when it comes to the content of the Y5/6 spelling expectations.

I would argue that these children do not have the firm foundations of the previous year groups’ spelling content on which to build. They do not seem to see any analogies between words, or patterns that appear across words. Instead, they view each word as a new and unique entity.

Conversely, we can all think of children who just know how to spell a word after first exposure to it — they even seem able to spell words they have never met before.

One might question whether these children are visual learners with a phenomenal memory for individual words or whether they have actually got a very efficient scheme for sorting, grouping and storing words in their long-term memory.

With thousands of words to assimilate and remember, perhaps all children need to be taught the most efficient way to organise their spelling knowledge, ready for access ‘on demand’.

Gentle reminder

Connections to existing knowledge should be supported by reminding children of what they already know.

For example, if pupils are secure with the Y1 knowledge that the digraph ‘oy’ is found at the end of syllables such as ‘boy’ but that the same phoneme is spelt ‘oi’ when in the middle of a syllable like ‘coin’, they can also spell ‘destroy’ as well as ‘embroiled’.

If a child can articulate this knowledge, there is a good chance that she or he can apply it to unfamiliar words.

It is feasible that children who are confident spellers are creating a schema in their minds: new learning is assimilated and stored within the appropriate section.

If a child is supported to remember the pattern or convention pertaining to a section, they have fewer facts to remember than if they are trying to remember each word individually. However, frequent recall of that pattern is essential to build this into the long-term memory.

Connection building shouldn’t stop with KS1 phonics. At a glance, the Y5/6 spelling list seems to be a random collection of unconnected words, but can they be linked to prior learning in order to add to a child’s internalised spelling schema?

Let’s take the first word on the list: ‘accommodation’.

If you give children this word to learn, they may well remember it for a test on Friday. Teach pupils a mnemonic such as ‘there is room for two c’s and two m’s in accommodation’ then they may well be able to recall the correct spelling when they need it.

But, how often will they need it? Will the mnemonic be forgotten by the time the word is next employed?

You could, however, teach children that a single consonant is generally doubled if it appears immediately after a short vowel sound. Then a pupil will not only know how to spell this word, but over 20 more that use this convention in the Y5/6 list alone, as well as hundreds of others.

Regular revisiting

The ‘doubling after a short vowel’ convention is a handy trick to have up your sleeve.

The words that apply this principle range from two syllable words ending in ‘y’ such as ‘happy’ or ‘le’ such as ‘middle’, to adding suffixes for words such as ‘dropped’ or ‘swimming’, all the way through to multi-syllabic words such as ‘disappeared’.

When questioned, many children are unable to articulate the ‘rule’ of doubling and yet this is something that is taught in Reception, Y1 and then again in Y2.

It stands to reason that regular revisiting of this convention would give children a much firmer foundation on which to add the Y5/6 statutory words that follow.

Clearly, to know whether to double a consonant or not is an essential piece of knowledge and that is why these conventions are introduced in KS1. Many of the early spelling statements are introduced in KS1 because they occur so frequently.

However, many spelling schemes seem to ignore (or at best give scant notice to) the very first statement in each national curriculum spelling appendix, which clearly states that children should revise work done in previous years.

Knowledge gaps

In general, most schemes focus on age-related expectations, assuming prior teaching has been retained for good. However, if you have a child in Y6 who is still spelling ‘hopeful’ with a double ‘l’, then the chances are that he or she has forgotten all about the Y2 programme of study.

Indeed, for some children, the Y2 programme of study may have eluded them altogether. Many of the suffixes such as ‘ment’, ‘less’ or ‘ness’ are requirements for children working at greater depth, so there is a good chance that some pupils may have never really been taught these conventions.

The 2019 GPS paper once again had a heavy focus on words from the Y3/4 programme of study, thus reinforcing the idea that prior learning needs to be revisited. However, if children have gaps in spelling knowledge pertaining to the Y2 programme of study, then even tracking back to Y3/4 may not be enough.

There are few words that rely solely on one KS2 spelling pattern. For example, although the word ‘thoughtful’ was included with reference to the Y5/6 spelling words containing the letter string ‘ough’, children will also need to know the Y2 teaching of adding the suffix ‘ful’.

Similarly, the mark scheme refers to the Y3/4 suffix knowledge ‘ous’ for the word ‘generous’ but children will also need to know about the soft ‘g’ (/d3/) from Y2.

As the Y2 spelling programme of study seems to form the bedrock of spelling in KS2, it is wise to allow time to revisit it as much as possible.

It seems to stand to reason that a systematic shoring up of the foundations of spelling knowledge, aided by strategies to secure retention, will help children with gaps in their spelling. Once these gaps are identified and closed, swift and confident progress should follow.

What to recap

  • Y2
    About to teach the sound spelt ‘ar’ after ‘w’ in words such as ‘war’ or ‘swarm’? Track back to prior teaching surrounding this sound, such as the graphemes or/ore/aw/au (for/more/saw/haunt).
  • Y3/4
    Not many words use the grapheme ‘ou’ making the sound ‘uh’ (‘touch’, ‘young’, ‘double’, ‘trouble’, ‘country’). Before tackling this objective, start with a revision of this short vowel sound spelt ‘u’ in words such as ‘hunter’, ‘thunder’, ‘tumbler’, ‘jumper’, ‘Sunday’ and words where the consonant is doubled after a short vowel, such as ‘buzzer’, ‘hummed’, ‘sunny’ or ‘funny’. Next, revisit the short vowel pronounced ‘uh’ spelt ‘o’ before ‘th’: ‘other’, ‘another’, ‘mother’, ‘brother’, ‘nothing’ and before ‘ve’ and ‘me’: ‘love’, ‘above’, ‘oven’, ‘come’, ‘some’. Practise the commonly used words ‘Monday’ and ‘son’.
  • Y5/6
    Words ending in ‘cial’ and ‘tial’ link beautifully to the prior teaching in Y2 surrounding adjectives ending in ‘al’, such as ‘magical’ or ‘comical’. Before looking at words ending ‘cially’ and ‘tially’, track back to the Y3/4 teaching of adding ‘ly’ to words such as ‘sad’ and ‘secret’. Explore what happens to words like ‘magic’ and ‘comic’ that end in ‘ic’.

Michelle Nicholson is a primary English adviser for Herts for Learning Ltd, supporting schools around the county. Visit hertsforlearning.co.uk for ‘Steps to Spelling’ resources.

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