An exploration of spelling research to support teachers with effective spelling instruction, from Kat Cauchi and Mark Anderson.

Spelling can be tricky to teach and is something many pupils struggle with. There are various strategies to try and resources to use – but how do you know where to start and what works? Let’s look at some research…

Why does spelling matter?

In a world where spellcheck software exists, you may wonder why being able to spell accurately is important. If you read Liz Bury’s article in our last issue ‘Should we trust technology to help us with our writing?’ you will see we cannot rely on spell check alone as it won’t pick up everything, e.g., where a word is spelt correctly but isn’t the one you wanted to use, those pesky homophone errors and so on. Additionally, having to stop and consider how to spell a word can result in a lack of fluency in writing. Renee Llanes explains, “Students who must dedicate a lot of time to basic skills like handwriting, spelling, and grammar when they’re drafting lose valuable cognitive resources needed for fluent writing. Ultimately, they lose their voice because all too often they get stuck trying to spell a word.”1

Plus, it is not just about pupils’ writing – there is a known link between spelling and reading. In ‘How Spelling Supports Reading,’ Louisa Moats discusses research showing that learning to spell and learning to read are connected. “They draw on similar cognitive practices and on the same knowledge, such as the relationships between letters and sounds.” Therefore, it is probable that children having good spelling skills has a positive impact on reading skills and vice versa. There is also a positive impact on vocabulary, comprehension and understanding of words themselves, “…for older children, it’s likely that learning about meaningful relationships between words will contribute to vocabulary growth and reading comprehension.” 1

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) agrees that teaching spelling is important, and specifically that pupils need extensive opportunities to practise spelling with effective feedback from teachers to understand their own errors.

“Fluent writing supports composition because pupils’ cognitive resources are freed from focusing on handwriting, spelling and sentence construction and can be redirected towards writing composition. Extensive practice, supported by effective feedback, is required to develop fluent transcription skills.” 2

How do children learn to spell?

  • “Phonology – how words sound
  • Visual – how words look
  • Morphology – parts within words that signify meaning, grammar
  • Etymology – the historical, cultural origin of words.”3

This is interesting, as phonology and morphology are key foci on teaching spelling at primary school; however, visual and etymology are not as thoroughly explored. In fact, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) conducted a research project, ‘Understanding spelling,’ and found,

“The effective teaching observed in the project took many forms, from shared writing and editing to word study, and included the analysis of children’s spelling. Word study was the least widely recognised means of teaching spelling at the outset of the project, though it proved one of the most effective teaching approaches.” 4

Word study should have prominence in teaching spelling. If pupils learn about the history and origin of words, this could spark more interest and motivation to learn to spell them. The CLPE explains, “Children’s interest in words, developed through their reading and through their writing, was the best foundation for their development as competent spellers.”  Equally, the etymology can link in nicely with analogies, root words and so on. In fact, “One of the main ways in which children learn to spell is by analogy-making. Making analogies between words they already know and new words develops children’s awareness of spelling as a system.” 4

Exploring how words look can be extremely useful for those ‘on sight’ words that do not follow typical phonetic patterns, e.g., the ‘oo’ in ‘look’ is like ‘two eyes looking at you.’ Making connections between the way a word looks and its meaning can help strengthen spelling knowledge.

Individual pupils will respond to spelling strategies differently and find particular types of words easier to learn than others, so giving them the skills and confidence to use the strategies appropriate to the words being learnt is important.

“Case studies collected by the researchers clearly showed that children take different routes into the spelling system, some favouring phonetic spellings and some visually based spellings. They do not follow a linear stage-based route. All need to integrate different sources of knowledge – phonetic, visual, structural and semantic – to develop effectively as spellers.” 4

Why is phonics significant in the early years of primary school?

Phonics is a huge focus in EYFS and KS1, with regularly timetabled lessons, and of course KS1 Phonics Screening. Wang shares that, “Scientific studies have repeatedly found that explicit systematic phonics instruction is the most effective way to teach children how to read. Without it, some children will end up having serious reading difficulties.” 5 We know this is true, as we see those pupils struggling with phonics struggle with their reading.

But how does phonics support spelling? The skills of stretching and segmenting a word into sounds can help pupils to find all the sounds in a word when they spell, and their knowledge of graphemes helps them select the correct letter-sound correspondence. It goes back to the link between reading and spelling and how phonology and orthography (a language’s spelling system) are used in both. Teaching of systematic phonics is one of the EEF’s recommendations for Improving Literacy in KS1, and the US National Reading Panel (NRP) “reported to Congress that teaching phonemic awareness exerts ‘strong and significant effects’ on children’s reading and spelling skills, with those effects lasting well beyond the end of training.” 6

However, the English language has many words that can’t be deciphered through just the use of phonics. In fact, “It is estimated that by about Year 3, around 75% of words that students encounter in texts are not phonetically regular.”3 This is where a solid understanding of morphemes (root words, suffixes, prefixes) is significant. “Teaching students to spell morphographs and teaching the rules for combining morphographs will allow students to spell a far larger set of words accurately than by teaching individual words through rote memorization of weekly spelling lists;” 6 as well as linking to prior knowledge and looking at how words look. That is why Konza and Ehri recommend that, “Sight words and high frequency words need to be taught explicitly alongside letter sounds when teaching reading and writing in the early years.” 3

What strategies work?

The key focus is to equip pupils with a variety of strategies to help them improve their spelling knowledge and their independence in learning how to spell new words. Research shows that spelling must be explicitly taught, and it is also crucial to regularly review and evaluate pupil spellings. The EEF explains, “Consider the types of spelling error pupils are making to identify appropriate strategies for improving pupils’ spelling. Explicitly teach spellings and provide pupils with extensive opportunities to practice them.” 2 This makes sense, as with any subject, finding and addressing misconceptions supports individual progress and next steps, as do opportunities to practise in different ways.

Delving deeper into reviewing pupils’ spelling, Renee Llanes explains,

“For example, what do students do correctly? What words do they frequently misspell? Are there common errors? The diagnostic possibilities of examining students’ spelling include allowing the teacher to construct small, homogenous groups for word study and to truly understand the relationship between the students’ development and the instructional opportunities.” 1

What else is recommended?

As well as explicit teaching, regular review and extensive practice, what else is recommended?

  • ‘Spellings that are relevant to topic/genre
  • Personalised spelling lists (including using the ‘Add-A-Word programme)
  • Sequenced lessons
  • Distributed practice
  • Systematic error correction’ 7

Additionally, ‘active teaching’ can be an effective way to improve pupil spelling. Beveridge and Lieschke state, “Teacher modelling of spelling strategies through the use of ‘thinkalouds’ when writing, encourages students to incorporate these strategies into their own writing… Many teachers use individual spelling diaries in their classrooms, in which students record new and unfamiliar words that they access when they wish to use them in their writing, fostering writing independence and use of correct forms of words.” 3

To summarise important research-informed strategies for teaching spelling, check out our handy infographic to help you incorporate them into your practice.

"Twenty spelling strategies that work: Enable extensive practice, teach systematic phonics, link spellings to topics, teach words explicitly, give specific feedback, shared reading, give personalised spellings, teach root words, use suffixes and prefixed, plan distributed practice, support retrieval practice, review spellings regularly, support systematic error correction, make analogies, active teaching, shared writing, study words - etymology, examine how words look, promote a love of words, use "think-alouds".

References

  1. Llanes, R (2018) ‘Beyond the Weekly Word List,’ Edutopia, 25 June, Available at: https://www.edutopia.org/article/beyond-weekly-word-list (Accessed: 7 September 2022)
  2. Education Endowment Foundation, (2021) Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/guidance-reports/literacy-ks2 (Accessed: 7 September 2022)
  3. Beveridge, L and Lieschke, J (2019) ‘Research- Let’s Look at Spelling,’ NSW Government, 38, Available at: https://education.nsw.gov.au/content/dam/main-education/teaching-and-learning/professional-learning/media/documents/Scan-Issue-1-2019.pdf (Accessed: 7 September 2022)
  4. Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (2000) Understanding Spelling – Research Summary. Available at: https://clpe.org.uk/system/files/Understanding%20Spelling%20summary%20for%20web%202018.pdf (Accessed: 7 September
    2022)
  5. Wang, H (2017) ‘Explainer: What is phonics and why is it important?,’ The Conversation, 16 January, Available at: https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-phonics-and-why-is-it-important-70522 (Accessed: 7 September 2022)
  6. Simonsen, F and Gunter, L (2001) ‘Best Practices in Spelling Instruction: A Research Summary,’ Eastern Washington University,
    Available at: https://www.nifdi.org/research/journal-of-di/volume-1-no-2-summer-2001/428-best-practices-in-spelling-instruction-a-research-summary/file (Accessed: 23 September 2022)
  7. Education Endowment Foundation, (2021) Improving Literacy in Key Stage 1. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/guidance-reports/literacy-ks-1  (Accessed: 7 September 2022)

Authors

  • Katherine Cauchi

    Kat Cauchi is a WeAreTechWomen #TechWomen100 2023 award winner and a 2022 Nexus Education 'Classroom and Curriculum' improvement award winner. She is the community engagement manager at NetSupport, editor of R.I.S.E. Magazine, and the host of two podcasts. Kat is a member of the Global Equality Collective, a Global EdTech author, InnovateHer ambassador and Technocamps Girls in Stem role model.
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  • Mark Anderson

    Mark is a global speaker, EdTech expert, trainer, blogger, author and key note speaker, known as the ICT Evangelist. He has over 20 years of experience in the classroom. Mark is the head of education at NetSupport, an Independent Thinking associate, an MIE Expert and fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. His latest book can be found at edtechplaybook.com.
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