Research School Network: Teaching spelling well and why it really matters Teaching spelling well and why it really matter


Teaching spelling well and why it really matters

Teaching spelling well and why it really matter

by St. Matthew's Research School
on the

Spelling is a transcriptional skill, which all children need to get to grips with. As a school that has consistently focused in on how to teach spelling well, some of our children will still only check their piece of writing for spelling mistakes, once a teacher has pointed out an error. Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2 Guidance Report states 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’.


Why is it that children sometimes struggle to spell key curriculum words correctly, even when we place that word on the board or a sheet in front of them? Why do some children struggle to spell words that they are exposed to, over and over and over again? What is it that we can do as teachers, to support their development of spelling strategies? 

Recommendation 5 states 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’. See the recommendations here


Let’s start with a very brief summary of our writing system[1]

Our writing system is relatively new. Humans had been trading and as land became fertile due to irrigation systems and innovations in agriculture, the amount they traded increased. 5,000 years ago, they realised that in order to record trade, they could represent their language with symbols, arbitrary squiggles or lines. These represented the sounds of their language. So, whilst humans have been speaking for more than 100,000 years, we have only had a writing system for a relatively short amount of time. Encoding, spelling and decoding these arbitrary symbols, is something that we have to be explicitly taught – it is what Geary (2008), refers to as biologically secondary’ knowledge. Phonics programmes, which have been designed as sound to print’, enable children to tune into something that we as humans are genetically primed to do: hear a sound and know it can be represented with a symbol. The sound /​m/​can be represented with

Strategies for spelling

So, what should the job of our spelling curriculum be? As was the case 5, 000 years ago, it is still to tune children into the sounds of the language – the words – what Geary (2008) refers to as biologically primary’ knowledge, what we, as humans are primed to do. It should also be to explicitly teach them rules of the English language – with its many exceptions!

So, how do we develop our spellers at St Matthew’s?
Here are three strategies we use:

1. Tune them into the sounds and syllables
2. When helpful for memory, tune them into the etymology of the word
3. Teach them where schwas are: letters which represent the uh’ sound

Tune them into the sounds and syllables 

We also encourage our children to use their grapheme, phoneme charts, from Reception to Year 6. If a Year 3 child writes piramid, we will encourage them to seek out other /​i/​spellings , , . If a year 5 child writes prefrence, we will encourage then to tune into the syllables of the word pre | fe | rence.

Tune them into the etymology of the word

provides children with a deeper understanding of a word, it’s spelling pattern’ and any other words link to it. When teaching the word deceive’, children can be taught how the latin root, decipere, means to catch, ensnare, or cheat. When they know this, it unlocks the understanding of perceive – per meaning thoroughly, ceive meaning catch. So, when you perceive something, you understand it. This unlocks the meaning of conceive’con meaning together, ceive meaning catch - to come together and create a plan.

Teaching children what a schwa’ is

A schwa is the most common vowel sound – uh
. In the following words, I have emboldened the schwa: cinema, doctor, translucent. It can be difficult for spellers to locate the schwa, because they are in the unstressed syllable. If a Year 5 child writes metamorphsis’, they have missed the schwa: me | ta | mor | pho | sis. Teaching children how to recognise the schwa, will open up the often-confusing missing’ parts of a word. This can be a game changer for some spellers. They will love it and become schwa spotters’.

The statutory spelling list and beyond

Through deepening their understanding how words are formed, children potentially helps them become more fluent in saying words, reading words and writing words.
It also helps develop their understanding of the word and any concepts that link. If I understand democracy, the etymology demos = people, cracy = power, I can gain a nuanced understandings of, for instance, a democratic government of the ancient Greeks. I can also begin to grasp how that differs from a Senate in the Roman Empire and an autocratic regime.

To mastery and beyond.

When children can master strategies for spelling, their working memory can then begin to focus in on compositional features of the writing process. This in turn will support their authorial voice flourish and children’s ability to craft their writing for propose and pleasure.


Further reading:

1. As part of the EEF Innovation Strand, St Matthew’s has created and is currently piloting (with six pilot schools, in Birmingham), a new spelling and vocabulary programme, called Orthographia.


2. 1. This report offers seven practical, evidence-based recommendations that are relevant to all pupils, and particularly to those struggling with their literacy. Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2, The second edition of the guidance report presents the same recommendations as the first but also offers additional examples, explanations, and resources to support educators to put the recommendations into practice. The report is one of a series of four guidance reports that the EEF has produced on the theme of language and literacy. It focuses on pedagogy and approaches to support the literacy development of pupils between the ages of seven and eleven in Key Stage 2.

McGuiness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read: And what we can do about it. Penguin Group. (Original work published 1997)

Geary, D. C. (2008). An evolutionary informed science. Educational Psychologist, 43(4), 179 – 195.

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