Research School Network: Breaking Down Complex Writing Tasks Part 1: Spelling We unpick the complexities of writing one piece at a time

Breaking Down Complex Writing Tasks Part 1: Spelling

We unpick the complexities of writing one piece at a time

by Bradford Research School
on the

Recommendation 4 of the EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools is Break down complex writing tasks,’ and it acknowledges that even seemingly simple writing tasks can be more complex than we at first imagine. Because writing is central to so many subjects, we must try to understand just what makes writing so hard. The Simple View of Writing, developed by Berninger et al identifies three essential components: Transcription; Executive Function and Composition. Over two blogs, we will explore how to address each of these elements. First up: Transcription.

When pupils are beginning to write, much of the attention is given to transcription skills. They will concentrate on spelling individual words and forming letters. As these processes become more automatic, they will also begin to organise writing into more complex sentences and begin to compose larger texts. However, the ability to compose these texts will largely depend on pupils’ writing fluency, which will be affected if they are paying too much attention to any of these aspects. When trying to support pupils’ writing development, we should consider whether transcription is one of the issues. And one particular problem with transcription is spelling.

When attention is directed to the act of spelling, writing is less fluent. Conversely, if we are expecting weak spellers to write at speed and at length, we may find that spelling suffers even more. 

The spelling process can be seen to work as follows:
Input identification:
we select the word we want to write. This could be from dictation e.g. a spelling test, our own idea generation e.g. writing a story, or even copying from another source.
Central orthographic processes:
here the lexical representation (the meaning) is converted to the graphemic representation (the spelling).
Peripheral orthographic processes:
this is the execution of the physical process of spelling – forming letters.

Both orthographic processes affect writing fluency, but we will look at the physical process of writing in a later post. Here we focus on various approaches to teaching spelling.

Approaches to teaching spelling

A phonemic approach to spelling focuses on regular letter-sound relationships. In general, pupils who understand these common predictable relationships are more successful at spelling, so we should ensure that these are explicitly taught early on. The processes of decoding and encoding can be seen as two sides of the same coin but both need to be considered differently and modelled appropriately. Generally consonant sounds are more predictable for spelling than vowel sounds, so these are a good place to start establishing patterns and building fluency.

A whole-word approach is one which focuses on irregularly spelled words. Memorisation of irregular spellings can work, but is not always the most efficient, particularly if the approach is to memorise for one spelling test. If this is the approach, try to retest spellings e.g. by ensuring a spelling is correct three separate times before moving on. For some subject specific vocabulary, this is often the best approach. Another approach with some promise is to introduce a word in a sentence with predictable letters omitted e.g. thought becomes –ough-.

A morphemic approach looks at units of meaning within a word. Because certain morphemes are usually spelled in the same way across a variety of words, we can improve spelling by focusing on these. Even when morphemes change, they change in predictable and regular ways. This approach has some advantages over whole word approaches because there are far fewer morphemes than words! Teachers should focus on common rootwords, suffixes and prefixes. To build on the example above, after a whole word approach to thought’, we could explore ought, bought, fought, sought etc. There’s a great section on this in the Improving Secondary Science guidance report.

Kent (2012) concludes in Why Teach Spelling’ that the following are the best bets’ for spelling instruction:

  • explicit instruction in phoneme-grapheme correspondences, phonemic patterns in letter sequences or syllables, rules for joining syllables or adding morphemes, elements of morpheme preservation in word formation, and strategies for encoding irregular words;
  • careful selection of spelling words that capitalize on students’ developing knowledge of the underlying structures of words; and 
  • repeated and cumulative practice in coordinating phonemic, orthographic, and morphemic knowledge with immediate error correction.”

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Read Part 2: Breaking Down Complex Writing Tasks Part 2: Sentence Construction

Further reading and references:
You can read all of the EEF’s Literacy guidance reports here:
Breadmore, H.L., Vardy, E.J., Cunningham, A.J., Kwok, R.K.W., & Carroll, J.M. (2019). Literacy Development: Evidence Review. London: Education Endowment Foundation. The report is available from:
Aidan Severs has explored more evidence on spelling in his blog here.
Reed, Deborah. (2012). Why teach spelling?. Center on Instruction.
Simonsen, F., & Gunter, L. (2001, summer). Best practices in spelling instruction: A research summary. Journal of Direct Instruction, 1, 97 – 105.

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