Well, how do you teach spelling? And, what do you do when the DfE gives you an apparently random list of statutory spellings for you to teach? Well, you teach them, I guess! What else are you supposed to do?
But how exactly do you go about teaching your students to spell words like ‘height’, ‘different’ and ‘imagine’ (included in Years 3 to 4 list)? Do you ask your students to write out each one ten times? Do you break words into their separate syllables? Are you even sure how to split words into syllables yourself? The evidence from our courses seems to be that a good number of teachers are very insecure when it comes to knowing what to do about spelling, especially in KS2 and KS3.
Let’s analyse these three words, although what I really want is to drive home the fact that the difficulties students have with the spellings are merely the tip of the iceberg and the problem goes very much deeper.
- ‘height’ is actually a CVC word, though you might not think so to look at it. The spellings of /h/ and /t/ are straightforward but the sound /ie/ is a four-letter spelling, and not a frequent spelling of /ie/. Okay. How are you going to teach it so that your students remember it? There are lots of crazy things some would have you do, such as drawing a line around it and trying to remember its shape. Good luck with that, by the way! Write it ten times but without connecting it to the sound-spelling correspondences? I would suggest that the best way to teach it is to place it under the category sound /ie/, where it can sit alongside other words containing the sound /ie/ but spelt differently: ‘try’, ‘mild’, ‘bright’, ‘tie’, etc., adding it to their schema. If you’ll forgive the pun, ‘height’ does stand out because it’s the only four-letter spelling of the sound /ie/ and, to boot, it is an infrequently encountered spelling of /ie/.
- ‘Different’ presents new problems. On the face of things, it’s relatively simple. Yet, the stress in the word is on the first syllable ‘di’ and the subsequent two syllables contain schwas ‘ffe’ ‘rent’. In fact, the schwa in the second syllable is so reduced as to turn what is, in written terms, a three-syllable word into a spoken two-syllable word (di/frunt). For many (even) older students these kinds of issues make a significant difference to their writing: they know the spelling is probably incorrect but they don’t know why and thinking about why adds to the number of things they have to think about as they write (cognitive load).
- ‘imagine’ is a three-syllable word, which splits very nicely into ‘i’ ‘ma’ ‘gine’. The stress is on the second syllable in this word and, in some accents of English, the first syllable is a schwa, which can be realised as an /uh/ sound. The last syllable is the one likely to give trouble because the sound /j/ is spelt with the spelling < g >, followed by another schwa, followed by the spelling < ne > for the sound /n/. And, the spelling < e > at the end of the word is not a ‘silent e’, as some would claim. In fact, there are no individual silent letters in English writing because all of them are silent: spellings represent the sounds in the language. Have a look here is you want to read more about this: https://theliteracyblog.com/2021/04/07/shh-silent-letters-at-work-again/.
All the above gives a hint that teaching a random list of words is utterly crazy for both students and teachers. For teachers in Years 3 to 6 who are unlikely to have had any phonics training, these words are almost certainly going to leave them with a very serious headache when it comes to teaching them.
Let me explain the problem.
There is no magic wand when it comes to teaching spelling or reading. It’s a long hard road for most students and anyone who thinks that it can be taught piecemeal – statutory spelling lists – is making a big mistake. This is because English orthography is complex and it takes a long time to learn it successfully, which is why we insist that laying solid foundations over the first three to four years is essential. As Stanovich says, “The combination of lack of practice, deficient decoding skills, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences and that lead to less involvement in reading-related activities…Slow capacity draining word-recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to higher-level processes.”* If that’s what it’s like for beginning readers, how much harder and how much more dispiriting is it for older learners?
However hard the task, we have a recipe.
The essential ingredients in our brew are:
- teaching the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation;
- teaching systematically the alphabetic code – the link between sounds and the way those sounds are spelt;
- and, teaching the four elements of conceptual understanding necessary to build a schema for both reading and spelling, starting from words with the most simple CVC structures through to the most complex of polysyllabic words.
[Here’s my reprise of the four concepts, which you can skip if you’re already familiar with them.
The four elements of conceptual understanding are:
- Letters are symbols that represent sounds from left to right across the page thus making sure that children understand the direction of the code: from sound to print.
- Sounds can be spelt with one, two, three or four letters, as exemplified in the following four words: s a t, f i sh, light and weigh
- We can spell all the sounds in English in multiple ways. For example, we can spell common consonant sounds, such as the sound /k/, in many different ways: < c >, < k >, < ck > being the most obvious and common ones, though we can also spell /k/ as < q > in ‘quit’, < qu > in ‘mosquito’, < kh > in khaki and < kk > in ‘pukka’.
- Many spellings represent more than one sound so that the spelling < o > can represent the sound /o/ in ‘hot’, /oe/ in ‘most’, /oo/ in ‘to’ and /u/ in ‘mother’.]
Teaching multiple ways to spell the forty-four sounds in English takes time, practice and patience. It’s obviously complicated stuff, though it’s made very much less complicated if we start by recognising the fact that there are only forty-four or so sounds in the language and that all children growing up speaking English learn these sounds from even before they leave the womb (biologically primary knowledge). The forty-four or so sounds – some accents of English have forty-five – provide us with a solid base from which to begin teaching reading and spelling (biologically secondary knowledge).
Beginning with the most simple, CVC-structured words and moving with lots of practice to the very more complex, building in the teaching of morphology and etymology as we go, takes us effortlessly by Years 5 and 6 to the very most complex polysyllabic words. And when reaching those ‘heights’, ‘imagine‘ how ‘different’ reading and spelling could be in KS2 and beyond!
- Stanovich, K. E., “Matthew Effects in Reading’, in (2000), Progress in Understanding Reading, Guildford Press.