Sick of your students making the same spelling mistakes year after year? It’s easy to create fun spelling activities, but making the learning stick can be a challenge.
It’s time to go back to the basics to see how children learn to spell. Then review the way you’re currently teaching spelling in your class and across your school. We’ve got nine practical tips to help you improve spelling ability, tackle those common problems, and teach your students how to become better at spelling.
- The Elements of Spelling
- 1: Teach Phonics and Sight Words
- 2: Look for Rules and Patterns
- 3: Ditch the Spelling Tests
- 4: Increase Reading Time
- 5: Teach Etymology
- 6: Keep Your Classroom Walls Useful
- 7: Shift the Responsibility
- 8: Give Spelling Quality Time in Your Curriculum
- 9: Support Students with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia
The Elements of Spelling
Learning to spell contains four key elements. Students combine these to write familiar words and make plausible guesses at unfamiliar spellings.
From Greek, phono means sound and logy means study. We use phonology (also known as phonics) to teach young children the smallest units of sounds. Each sound (phoneme) is represented by a letter (grapheme) or group of letters. As they grow older, children learn how to break words down into sounds (segmenting) and put them together (blending) to spell.
From Greek, orthos means correct and graphia means writing. Students use orthography to apply common spelling rules and patterns used in English. Students with strong orthography can more easily spot misspelt words and make plausible guesses at new spellings.
From Greek, morpho means shape. Students learn to spot the smallest units of meaning (morphemes) within longer words. This includes understanding prefixes, suffixes, and compound words. Through morphology, students can learn about different tenses and spot known words within larger ones.
From Greek, etumos means true. Etymology is the study of the origin of words (their "true" meanings). The English language is complicated and often difficult to spell because so many words don’t follow common phonemic patterns. This reflects its long history of conquest and invasion. Learning the meaning behind words can help students remember to spell other words with the same etymology.
1: Teach Phonics and Sight Words
Learning phonics is the essential starting point for our youngest students learning to write their first words. This should be a fun, fast-paced, and multi-sensory experience. Young children can learn phonemes by tracing them, making them from dough, writing with different materials, and cutting and sticking activities. They need plenty of repetition to remember the phoneme (sound) and grapheme (letter shape), so the more fun the better.
Alongside phonics, children need to see and spell "sight words." These are words we use all the time (high frequency) and non-decodable words, like was. We expect children to know these on sight, without needing to decode. These will be the vast majority of words that our young students write, and they can make phonemically plausible guesses at the rest.
2: Look for Rules and Patterns
Often as teachers, we break longer words down into syllables to chunk them for spelling, but that can awkwardly break them and lose the root words hidden within. Instead, try splitting words into morphemes, the smallest unit of meaning, to find words within words. Teach children to spot patterns and rules.
This is useful for learning prefixes and suffixes and naturally leads on to a deeper understanding of tenses. Children can then learn the words which break these spelling patterns.
3: Ditch the Spelling Tests
Yes, you read that right. For far too long spelling has been removed from the process of writing, taught discretely with children learning (often random) long lists of words for weekly tests. Teachers become frustrated when children score 10/10 for a test, then continue to mis-spell these words when writing.
Instead of keeping spelling separate, put it right back into the writing process. Allow children that vital free writing time, where they’re encouraged to be creative and adventurous with their word choices. Then build in time for self-correction, teaching of morphology, and the fascinating etymology of the English language.
4: Increase Reading Time
Students often avoid writing words they don’t know how to spell, but they’ll never use words they’ve not encountered before. Children need to hear stories read aloud regularly, daily, wherever possible. Reading high-quality texts is essential to develop the broad vocabulary you want your children to use when writing.
For example, a child is more likely to spell the word submarine if they are familiar with other sub- words like submerge and substandard. They learn through morphology that this prefix means below and they’ll recognise the word marine as something to do with water. With this wider cultural knowledge, the spelling of submarine becomes the easier process of adding two known morphemes together.
5: Teach Etymology
It’s not enough to teach phonics and expect children to learn to spell accurately. The English language is fascinating, rich, and varied. It tells the story of invasion and expansion. And, it often doesn’t play by the rules you’ve taught students to follow.
When introducing new vocabulary, pull words apart to show how older meanings have changed over time to form new words. A quick Google search will help you discover the ancient origins of our language.
6: Keep Your Classroom Walls Useful
Too much visual clutter and children just stop seeing the spelling resources around them. Make your classroom walls more useful and less pretty. If it’s difficult to put up, remove, and add to your spelling displays, you’re unlikely to find the time to do it.
Model to students how they can use classroom resources to check common spellings they need or remember a particular pattern you’ve been learning about. Many teachers use large whiteboards they can write onto and wipe off as needed.
7: Shift the Responsibility
How often do you correct the same spelling mistakes? You flick through books and see students have continually corrected spellings you’ve pointed out, but have then made the same mistakes again. It’s very frustrating for teachers!
Change the norm by putting the emphasis on students correcting their own spellings. Train them to use dictionaries and dedicate time to finding and correcting spellings after writing. Get them to keep their own dictionary of words they often get wrong so they can quickly self-correct.
Older students will enjoy using software like ProWritingAid to improve their spellings along with their grammar and overall writing ability. Unlike the wiggly red line in Microsoft Word, ProWritingAid helps them learn about mistakes so they don’t make them again.
8: Give Spelling Quality Time in Your Curriculum
Teaching spelling is vital. Children won’t just pick it up. Make sure your school has a systematic approach to teaching phonics, common spelling patterns, prefixes, suffixes, and irregular words. Make activities fun and practical—just don’t make them so enjoyable that students don’t remember the learning.
Too often, spelling is banished to one day of the week or homework activities instead of being an integral part of the curriculum. Children rely on short-term memorising for a weekly test. It’s only with regular practice and application that they’ll learn accurate spellings. Think systematically and long-term. No one can transform a student’s spelling over night.
9: Support Students with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia
Students with dysgraphia and dyslexia often find spelling more difficult than other students. They may struggle to remember which graphemes represent phonemes, irregular spellings, and forget the letters used in common sight words. This difficulty often continues throughout adult life.
There are plenty of excellent resources on the market to help these students in the classroom, but you can also add in simple supports to help make the learning process easier.
- Teach mnemonics, e.g. big elephants can add up sums easily to spell because
- Use different colors to write morphemes so that students can see root words, prefixes, and suffixes
- Encourage students to highlight the part of the word they find tricky
- Use flashcards to practise sight words
- Revise spelling patterns and rules to apply
Dyslexic and dysgraphic students may find it hard to use a traditional dictionary to find and correct spellings independently. Instead, train them to use special versions like the excellent Ace Spelling Dictionary which relies on initial sounds.
For students to become good, confident spellers, they need every element of spelling taught systematically. Early spellers often rely on phonological knowledge, but this soon becomes insufficient with the huge range of words that simply can’t be phonemically decoded. We have to plan how to move students on from relying solely on phonics.
If you’re finding students are constantly making the same mistakes, stop and re-evaluate how you are teaching spelling as a school. It’s time to put spelling right at the heart of the writing process.