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How to teach English spelling – for parents and teachers by Pat Grayson

Young adult in poverty

According to Robinson, McKenna, & Wedman, (2000) arranging letters in the correct order to form words is a fundamental component of literacy, encompassing reading, writing, spelling, and grammar. While spelling may be more complex than reading, proficiency in spelling, and understanding of phonics can enhance reading comprehension.

  • Reading is recognising formed words as the eye moves from left to right.
  • Spelling however, is memory-reliant, and letter building. Good readers are not always good spellers, but poor spellers are typically poor readers.

In primary and higher schools, teachers are often not specalised in teaching spelling, despite its importance as a fundamental discipline. While there are specialist in various subjects such as math, history, science, French, Latin, geography, PE, and music, spelling is often overlooked. And conceivably, it is most unlikely to see specalists for the most important discipline, spelling. Isn't it interesting? Is this not the reason why students are failing school in greater numbers than fifty years ago? Without spelling, all other subjects are compromised.

It is well documented that teaching spelling to children is one of the most difficult and often frustrating experience for teachers. In fact, it is safe to say that many teachers feel discouraged because of high failure rates. That feeling is even greater with the struggling speller as teachers do not want to see their students fail the subject.
Moreover, international statistics highlight that  a significant number of students leave school without gaining  adequate reading or spelling skills.
At Easy-Spelling, with over forty-five years of successful teaching of spelling behind us, we know what is required, and we offer a framework that will teach spelling and improve reading – as long as the student is willing to learn, and indeed most are.

Another concerning problem is that some teachers are showing less interest in teaching spelling because of the increased use and improvement in IT technology. They think that there is less need to teach spelling as it's taken care of’. This could not be further from the truth.

Spell Checkers and Auto-predictive text algorithms may be helpful, but these applications do not replace the need to be able to spell properly, nor do they teach how to spell. In fact, they have the potential to make some lazy spellers.

Whilst students may have computers and spell checkers at hand, there may still be times when poor speller find themselves vulnerable and on their own. There will be different occasions, for instance, that they may have to do a presentation in front of a group using a marker board, and they must write instructions or ideas and misspell words such as "incredible" as "increadable" or "inkredible". Similarly, they could be on a building site and take lunch orders. When asked for a "cheese and garlic quiche" they may write "chese & garlik kuech", leaving themselves open to  ridicule. Poor spellers may also struggle with games; they will be at a friend’s house on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and someone suggest, “Let’s play Scrabble”. They are likely to say, “I don’t like Scrabble”, or they may want to put into their phone or computer the word "quaker" but type "kwac…" and they may have absolutely no idea how to start the word. As a result , the spell checker keeps producing the wrong word. Furthermore, they may fill out an employment form and talk about title-metatags and they may write; "tital-metataggs" or "title-metertags", so  they are unlikely to get the job. Or if the young saleswoman who in her quotation to a corporate writes; we need to "seperate" fact from fiction … Her quotation is unlikely to be considered seriously. Or the chap playing golf with the score card who asks his partner, “Margaret, how do you spell your name?” The list goes on, for as long as the poor speller lives. Without proper spelling intervention poor spellers may never get the chance to improve their skills.

As Sydney University in Australia, many universities and educational facilities are reverting to traditional methods of assessments and examinations to be completed by hand, using pen and paper. This is because of the large practice of plagiarism by students using AI applications like ChatGPT, which can facilitate the production of assessments without the depth of student understanding behind it. It is important to note that both practices are contrary to the fundamental principle of learning.
Reverting to hand assessments/examinations could result in lower marks for students with poor spelling skills.

 

Furthermore, making anything beyond a few minor spelling errors is equated with ignorance and incompetence (Moats, 2005).


Parents and Teachers are constantly seeking better ways to teach spelling to their kids, and wonder whether there is a perfect way to transform a poor speller to a proficient one? The key is not to just make them functional spellers but to make them ‘Word Detectives’ who love pulling words apart.

English spelling is complex, but less so if an organised and progressive approach is taken as English can be made more predictable. This evidenced-based article explains how to make English spelling predictable (Collins, 1983; Dixon, 1991; Graham, 1999). 

With the Jenny Lamond Method, delivered by Easy-Spelling, all of these organising principles are included.

 

We start this journey of teaching spelling with method, not memory.

It is mostly easy for those with an excellent memory to be able to visually see a word and know what it means. However, it is harder to remember how to spell the word without seeing the word.
Many teachers and educationalists support the teaching of words using ‘visualising-memorisation’ to the detriment of learning to decode, whilst neglecting the importance of phonics. This approach of visual-memorisation relies heavily on weekly word-list texts and mostly disregards the systematic structure of English.

The blog piece, The Science of Reading and the Reading Wars must be read to comprhend another level of complication with teaching of reading and spelling.
 

(Reed, 2012; Schlagal, 2007; Templeton & Morris, 2000) discussed that spelling is not an exclusive process of rote memorisation. Heald-Taylor (1998) points out, ‘Learning to spell is a complex, intricate cognitive and linguistic process rather than one of pure memorization’.

 

Phonics and sounds
The teaching of spelling is teaching of phonics, especially in the early years. There is a direct correlation between spelling, phonics, decoding, and encoding.
 

Although the English alphabet has only 26 letters, there are 40 phonemes, more than 250 graphemes, and a vast number of ways to combine these graphemes (Moats, 2006).


Spelling of words is made possible when students understand that words are made up of speech sounds, and letters represent these sounds. Research consistently supports that there should be a full grounding in phonic progression, including blends and digraphs. Therefore, students need to learn to listen for each sound and to understand the letter combination that makes that sound. This skill, is also a major factor in mastering reading in the early years.
 

In a meta-analysis that reviewed 1,962 research articles on phonemic awareness, the 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 (National Reading Panel, 2000). Many words in the English language have regular phonemic patterns. Predictable patterns for regular words allow students to spell these words solely based on their letter-sound…


The Jenny Lamond Sound Dictionary ©, has over 3000 words categorised by sound group. This is arguably the largest Sound Dictionary in existence (a wonderful resource for teachers).
Morphemic (the base or root of a word) and morphographs, in conjunction with phonics is an important component in building students' predictability of a word. Understanding the base or root (stripped of prefixes, suffixes, compounds, plural) teach students to spell the base, rather than the whole word. Understanding morphemic structure move learners from guessing to understanding.
 

Again, research has shown that good spellers have a stronger grasp of the principles for combining morphographs than poor spellers. Bruck and Waters (1990)

 

Organisation is as important as all the other spelling considerations
A consistent and structured approach is crucial for poor spellers to improve. Immediate support in this regard by parents and teachers will set these students on the right way. If they cannot read or understand their notes, they will struggle.

Within Easy-Spelling, we encourage our students to use a ‘Decoding Book’, where we advise on its layout. Generally, a student may have a spelling book, for say, year 6, which is usually left behind at the end of that year. When the student leaves school, all these books are forgotten and ultimately thrown out. However, the ‘Decoding Book’ will be a life-long spelling almanac, where all principles and learning are contained. This continues as encouragement for the now-older-student, to become a spelling detective as a game of decoding and mastering.


Word/Sound Patterns
If we can see a pattern in various words, we learn to spell them faster. Our brains look for patterns to make connections (Deheane, 2009; Wolf, 2007). Words should be introduced in ways that have similar patterns, such as ough (though, through) or (hill, still, mill) words. These patterned words should be given collectively because if a student remembers spelling of ‘though’, he or she is likely to remember ‘through’ as they belong in the same group. Often these sound groups are syllables within the word so they can be easily navigated, such as tall, small, ball, and fall.
 

Further, Waters, Bruck, and Malus-Abramowitz (1988) found that in general, children have less difficulty spelling words that are based on predictable letter-sound relationships.

 

Spelling follows the rules, until it doesn’t!
Most spelling is covered by a rule. But there needs to be a framework to understand how these rules are given. However, as many spelling rules have exceptions, we rather call them 'guidelines', not 'rules'.

Guideline-based spelling is important, such as for abbreviations, prefixes suffixes, and plurals. But exception-guidelines must also be taught, such as for the exception of; 'i before e except after c' guideline.

Some teachers discuss the wisdom of teaching of rules-based instruction because of the exceptions. However, it is teaching of the guidelines, and the exceptions that allows students to navigate spelling. They would first apply the guideline (i before e but not after c) to see how it fits. Then, they learn the exceptions.
Guideline-based learning, such as those for 'y or i at the end of a word' such as for navy or fly can solve spelling of hundreds of words.
 

Research into spelling gave that English spelling was a predictable, logical, and rule based. Hanna et. al. (1966) found that 84% of English words are predictable. They are just as predictable today as they were in 1966.
(Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, & Rudorf, 1966)

 

Teach high frequency words
Students have to learn too many words per year. We suggest sticking to the highest frequency words.
Many common words are phonic and can be sounded out, and they often contain letter combinations that are found in other words. This means that phonics instruction helps with the learning of high-frequency words, making them easier to understand and use correctly.

 

Developing strategies for harder words
After students are comfortable with phonemics, morphemic structure, and have a good understanding of guide-based spelling, an organised approach should be had for more difficult words. Take a look at these following two words:

 

Word: RESPIRATION

respiration is pronounced
reh-spuh-ray-shn (to breathe)

Number of letters: 11
Number of sounds: 9

1st Catch: ir
Sound group: er
Sound group: 17 (go and check the
Sound Dictionary 17)

2nd Catch: ti
Sound group: sh
Sound group: 29 (go and check the
Sound Dictionary 29)

Word: MEAGRE

meagre is pronounced
mee-guh (means small or little
amount)

Number of letters: 6
Number of sounds: 4

1st Catch: ea
Sound group: e
Sound group: 4
1st Clue: eat

2nd Catch: re
Sound group: er
Sound group: 17
2nd Clue: fire

 

According to the whole word method memory is not the most reliable way to spell irregular words.
A teaching method where there is a heavy reliance on memorisation strategies will let many students down (Dixon, 1993).
In order to simplify the process of spelling, it is important to use a variety of techniques for  decoding, like multi-decoding-methods including words within words, recognised letter combinations, stripping back to the base word by removing suffixes or prefixes, and so on.
Additionally, understanding complex spelling rules, like homonyms with different meanings, and different spelling, but  the same sound (such as rain, rein and reign), suffixes and prefixes, and compound words (like somehow), can also help new spellers. Other spelling factors to consider consists of plurals, abbreviations, and differences in spelling between USA and UK English.

 

Mnemonics
Theses are fun memory aids.
We have literally hundreds of mnemonics that help students remember letter combinations.
Besides, another method is to colour in words, such as for friend 'friend', before using a mnemonic, like i end with a friend.

    you only get one piece of pie
    what = wonky hats always topple
    believe = never believe a lie
    said = it has an a and an i but who knows why?
    you hear with your ear my dear
    because = big elephants can’t always use small entrances

 

Systematic Error correction
Once again, recent research highlights benefits gained to students when there is a systematic error correction method. It is crucial for tutors to identity when a spelling error is made – otherwise they become ingrained if left uncorrected.
Where there is no tutor to help guide, there needs to be self-evaluating exercises.
 

(Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, and Willingham, 2013) showed that self-testing is an important learning component.

 

Sight words
Sight words as a tool are used to help recognise words with increasing speeds. That means students will recognise the word but not decode it. As shown above, many poor spellers have poor word-memory-recall so sight words are not likely to help improve spelling. They are only recognition when being read.
Proof of this is where difficult words are placed on the classroom wall. When included in a spelling test, poor spellers may still be unlikely to remember spelling of that word even though it may have been displayed on the wall, in colour, for weeks or months.

We do not offer printable word lists (sight or otherwise) as many do. Instead, students should be able to decode words, so they can spell any word from any school word list. ‘Sight’ words have their place, as one component, but learning to decode words is far more effective.

Further, it is well-recognised that the more a student copies out a word (whilst being cognisant of the traps within the word), the more likely they will be able quickly decode it, until it does become an important part of the word-memory.

We have an audible voice pronouncing the word whilst the student types it ( e-Dictation © ) into our spelling application. This means students can listen to the word as often as required without feeling pressured by their peers or themselves.

As with all words that we want students to learn to read automatically, students will need many opportunities to see, read and write words accurately and with supervision before they can retain them. As words are learned, exercises to build fluency, such as word and sentence dictations, are helpful. Having students keep a list of their own particular "spelling demons" for reference supports the development of proofreading ability and aids mastery of the spelling of those challenging words.’
The International Dyslexia Association. Factsheet Spelling
The ‘Decoding Book’ is that life-long receptacle of those ‘spelling demons’.

 

Multiple methods
Research informs that multiple methods of teaching spelling is far more effective than relying on one method only. These methods may include such as auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic {drawing and copying – trace, copy recall}. With a multi-faceted approach, different areas of the brain are engaged, and deeper connections are made, so retention is improved.
A good online spelling course requires:
   â—  Audio instruction
   â—  Video (audio and visual instruction)
   â—  Text instruction
   â—  Kinesics instruction (numerous methods)
   â—  Reading application for practice.
   â—  Self spell-testing application
   â—  Interactive questions
   â—  Assessments
   â—  Dictation
   â—  Self-testing
And unlike a classroom, all can be repeated by students as often as required.

 

Reading practice
The link between spelling and reading was given above. The Easy-Spelling Online e-Reader © application is the first of its kind, where students read to the computer in a non-threatening way, without the embarrassment of peers listening.
Student can rerun e-Reader as often as required.
Also the e-Dictation application works in a similar manner.

 

Short sessions, more often
Use the proven technique of ‘Distributed Practice’, where lessons are shorter (fifteen minutes duration) but with more regular sessions per day or week. This is especially designed for younger learners or the those with special needs.
Online learning is ideal for it allows a student to revise as often as they require.

 

Not only in Australia are the results poor. Here is what the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, David Banks said at a presentation on the subject of poor literacy results in that state. (April 2023), The face that 60% of children in New York are not reading at grade level. He continues, When the child can't read or spell, the fourth grade teacher blames the third grade teacher, and so on.
Further to this, he has thrown out methods that have lead to this situation and embraced The Science of Reading.

 

Non-English Speakers
Refer to the blog piece Non-English-Speaking students.

 

 

References
https://www.nifdi.org/research/journal-of-di/volume-1-no-2-summer-2001/428-best-practices-i n-spelling-instruction-a-research-summary/file
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26173288

Robinson, McKenna, & Wedman, 2000

Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction
Cunningham, P. M. (2004). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing (4 th ed.) Dreyer, L., Luke, S., & Melican, E. (1995) Children’s acquisition and retention of word spellings.

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