How to Teach Spelling Patterns: I before E except after C

Spelling Patterns – to test or not to test?

This has been an ongoing question posed by educators after realising that words learned for a spelling ‘test’ or ‘quiz’ are commonly forgotten shortly after said quiz. Spelling can be a challenge for many children and indeed teachers who are trying to find the best method to support their learners with spelling. Teaching spelling patterns is one effective way to do this.

The EEF Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2 Guidance Report states:

“There is limited high-quality evidence about how to teach spelling, but it is clear that spelling should be actively taught rather than simply tested.”

EEF Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2 Guidance Report

Why Teach Spelling Patterns?

English spelling can appear nonsensical. Take ‘cough’, ‘through’, ‘thought’ and ‘drought’. Four words, each containing ‘ough’, each pronounced entirely differently. It’s no wonder approaching spelling can seem a daunting task.

Teaching spelling patterns is one proven way to embed and retain both familiar and unfamiliar words.

“Studying words and the patterns they follow is [the most]… effective [method to retain familiar and unfamiliar words].”

Treiman, R. (2018), Teaching and Learning Spelling. Child Dev Perspect, 12: 235-239.

As children get older and their vocabulary expands, they will be called upon to write words they have heard but not seen. Knowing common spelling patterns provides a scaffold to allow an educated guess as to the correct spelling of the unfamiliar word.

“Children’s spelling of words improves when they read words in texts. However, the gains are modest, as anyone who has read a word like necessary many times but has trouble spelling it can attest. As a result, children who receive systematic spelling instruction generally spell more successfully than those who do not.”

Treiman, R. (2018), Teaching and Learning Spelling. Child Dev Perspect, 12: 235-239.

Spelling Shed’s approach

Spelling Shed’s approach to spelling involves the relationship between sounds and written symbols. It also uses morphology to help spell through meaning.

The carefully selected word lists and engaging activities provide opportunities to incorporate phonics and meaning to strengthen spelling skills and therefore build vocabulary acquisition.

In the introduction to each lesson, children will be acquainted with the words of the week. Following this there will be an explanation of how the words are linked. The lists are organised by spelling patterns, sounds or affixes. This section is designed to take approximately 10 minutes.

Spelling Patterns – examples of list titles:

  • Words with the prefix inter-
  • The /r/ sound spelled wr
  • Words ending in -ible or -able
  • The /j/ sound spelled as a g

There are a number of different activities that may be included in the introduction that also feature in the Main Teaching Input.

stage 5 word list example

Spelling Pattern Examples:

Adding ‘-s’ or ‘-es’ to make plurals (Year 1 pattern)

Spelling pattern example

Words with the prefix ‘in-‘ meaning ‘not’ (Year 4 pattern)

Spelling pattern example
Example of Spelling patterns found in Spelling Shed powerpoint

View our full set of word lists here.

Challenge Words

Spelling Shed also has several challenge weeks. Challenge weeks are lists of words made up from the statutory word lists found in the National Curriculum English Programme of Study Spelling Appendix 2.

Stage 2’s Challenge Words are the CEW words on page 10 of the appendix document. Stages 3 and 4’s Challenge Words can be found on page 23 and for Stages 5 and 6 they can be found on page 23 of the National Curriculum’s spelling appendix document.

These lists appear throughout the scheme every 6 weeks. (Except in Stage 6 as per the note above.) Challenge Weeks offer an opportunity for children to put their learning into practice on words which may have unfamiliar or unusual spelling patterns. In the 2017 scheme, these lessons were made up by the teacher choosing a range of activities to use with the words; however, in the 2022 scheme, each of these lessons is fully planned and resourced.

How does Spelling Shed align with Science of Reading?

The Spelling Shed lessons were developed by applying Science of Reading research and follow a systematic progression of phonics and word study skills typically addressed in each grade level.

At the beginning of each grade level, there is an intentional spiral review of skills expected to have been acquired in the previous year, but they also include words of increasing difficulty. Throughout the progression, new and more advanced concepts/skills are delicately intertwined within the review. This aids in linking past learning to the new concept/skill and reinforces and solidifies learning.

If students are struggling with a particular skill, educators can use previous grade level lists, which will have a more in-depth focus to match students’ needs. The majority of the words selected for each list contain only the phoneme-grapheme correspondences that have been previously reviewed, to avoid cognitive overload, help ensure focus, and attain mastery of the skill at hand.

The Programme of Study spelling appendix can be found here.