How to Teach Spelling

Why is spelling such a complex skill to master and how can we teach students to be effective spellers?

A common misconception is that if you can read a word then you can spell it. However, there are many ways a phoneme (sound) can be represented in written form.

Take the phoneme /k/. It can be represented by the graphemes ‘c’, ‘k’, ‘ck’ or ‘ch’. Therefore, there are a multitude of possible ways to spell words which contain /k/. So, ‘cake’ could quite easily be spelt ‘chache’ or ‘kache’. It could also be spelt ‘kake’ or ‘chace’. Confusing, right?

Fortunately, reading researcher Louisa Moats explains that 84% of English spellings are predictable once you have a grasp of spelling patterns.

“An effective speller draws upon the entire rich linguistic tapestry of a word to spell it correctly. The threads of this tapestry can be identified as phonological knowledge (including phonemic awareness), orthographic knowledge,morphological knowledge (which includes semantic knowledge), etymological knowledge and visual knowledge.”

(Apel et al., 2004a, b; Henry, 1989; Masterson and Apel, 2010). Adoniou (2014, p. 145)
Linguistic knowledge diagram

Spelling Shed combines the elements Adoniou discusses to create a scheme which equips learners with the skills they need to become effective spellers.

Phonological Knowledge

This is simply knowing the phonemes (sounds) and understanding how to represent them as graphemes (letters). Therefore, students will systematically be taught the different graphemes for each phoneme.

Syllable and Phoneme Maps

Orthographic Knowledge

‘Ortho’ means ‘correct’ and ‘graph’ means ‘to do with writing’. So, orthographic knowledge allows learners to understand which letter sequences are possible.

For example, at a glance we can tell that ‘ighdea’ is probably an incorrect way to spell ‘idea’. We know this because most words which contain the grapheme ‘igh’ end in the letter ‘t’. It is also unusual for the grapheme ‘igh’ to be at the beginning of a word.

Spot the correct spelling of the trigraph 'igh'

Morphological and Etymological Knowledge

Morphology is the study of the form of words. Etymology focuses on the origins of the word. Once you know, for instance, that ‘tri’ means three, you can deduce that a triangle has three sides and that a tricycle has three wheels.

“Visual memory is dramatically better when meaning can be attached to the to-be-remembered pattern”

Bowers & Bowers (2017, p.132) 
Morphology Matrix

Etymology explains why a word is spelt a certain way. Take ‘photograph’ as an example. Photograph contains the phonemes /f/, /oa/, /t/, /oa/, /g/, /r/, /a/ and /f/. ‘Photo’ is the Greek root meaning light. ‘Graph’ is the Greek root meaning writing and ‘ph’ is a Greek spelling of the phoneme /f/. Together, a photograph is an image ‘written’ with light onto the paper.

Person looking through camera lens

Memorised Words

“In order to spell well, children need to learn how to strategically use knowledge about phonology, orthography, morphology and etymology. It is also a visual activity that involves the laying down and retrieval of visual representations of words and word parts in the memory.”

Oakley & Fellowes (2016, p.1) 

As spellers, we build up a mental lexicon. This is a bank of words we have committed to our visual memory and can spell almost automatically. Visual memory uses the other strands to support words being memorised.

Spelling Shed

The National Curriculum requires spelling patterns to be taught. There is also a list of statutory words for years 3/4 and 5/6. Spelling Shed gives ten example words that follow the pattern being taught. The focus is on the pattern, not the set words. Teaching learners spelling patterns rather than a list of words enables them to be effective spellers as they can apply this knowledge to new words or situations.

Free Resources

Free access to our spelling skills poster which serves as a fantastic tool for staff training.

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