Learning to spell is certainly a puzzle for many students. Research shows that the easiest way to learn to spell is for students to access all of the pieces they need to complete the puzzle and really grasp how words work.

Whether slowly or at speed, all learners move through a number of key spelling stages and the following spelling strategies are key to students’ growing spelling competence and confidence as they advance through each stage:

Phonetic Spelling Strategies

Knowing letter phonemes (the sounds in words) and understanding that phonemes are represented by letter combinations. Despite there being only 26 letters in the English language there are more than 40 unique sounds (phonemes). These sounds help distinguish one word from another. Various letters and letter combinations (graphemes) are used to represent the different phonemes. A table of these can be found at the end of this article.

Hearing and understanding the ‘onset’ and ‘rime’ in words. The “onset” is the initial phonological unit of any word (e.g. c in cat) and the “rime” is the letter string (phoneme) that follows, usually a vowel and a final consonant/s (e.g. at in cat, ast as in past). As with teaching about rhyme, teaching about onset and rime helps them recognize common chunks within words. (Note: Not all words have onsets.)

Segmenting and blending phonemes made by letter combinations. Blending (combining sounds) and segmenting (separating sounds) both aurally and orally are essential skills for learning to read and spell i.e. S-A-T = SAT = S-A-T.

Understanding grapheme-phoneme correspondence. Students need to match the sounds (phonemes) they hear in words with the letters (graphemes) that represent those sounds.

Recalling the common sounds of words, parts of words or letter strings. When students recognise similarities in sounds, and can hear rimes, rhymes and alliteration, they can use their prior knowledge and memory to read, spell, and write new words.

Identifying the phonic elements. Visual, oral and aural facility with consonants, vowels, blends, and digraphs enable students to read and recreate the 40 plus phonemes in the English language.

Visual Spelling Strategies

Recalling the look of words or letter strings. Orthographic visual memory assists students to recognise words they know and to judge by looking whether a certain spelling is right or wrong i.e. “bat” is a real word but “bta” is not.

Rule-Based Spelling Strategies

Understanding and recalling word structures, spelling patterns and rules. Although there are always exceptions to rules, it is helpful for students to learn, that spelling patterns and rules do exist and that these patterns and rules help to explain how to spell, read, and write words i.e. many past tense words end in ed even when the phoneme sounds like it as in jumped.

Morphemic Spelling Strategies

Identifying the meaningful parts of words. Roots, prefixes, and suffixes are the essential building blocks of all words (prefixes at the beginning and suffixes at the end). Understanding these meaningful parts enables students to break down unfamiliar words into manageable segments, and learning new words becomes much easier.

Understanding syllables and how these can reflect the meaningful parts of words.

Etymological strategies

Identifying how words reflect their derivations. Explaining to students how words and letter combinations are derived from other languages will help them to spell words with the same base word, e.g. tele meaning far (reaching over a distance), is used in television, telephone, telegraph.

Contextual Strategies

Knowing that context makes meaning, and the meaning of a word can determine how it is spelled – The realisation that words can sound the same, look the same, but mean different things (depending on how they are used) is an essential understanding that students must come to grips with. Puns can be great fun in this regard, e.g. “In the winter my dog just wears his coat, but in the summer he wears his coat and pants.”

Comprehending the relationship between words in phrases and sentences (syntax). Awareness that word order and punctuation can affect meaning is crucial. Consider these examples:

“I like cooking dogs and watching movies.” – Poor dogs!

“I like dogs watching movies, and cooking.” Hmm – I wonder what movies they like?

“I like dogs cooking and watching movies.” Clever dogs!

“I like cooking, dogs, and watching movies.” Punctuation helps understanding.

“I like watching movies, cooking, and dogs.” Punctuation and word order avoids any confusion.

Understanding that what is important is not just how a word should be spelled, but how it should be used in a sentence. e.g. “How much lollies am I aloud.” In this sentence ‘much’ and ‘aloud’ are spelled correctly but ‘many’ and ‘allowed’ are the correct words e.g. “How many lollies am I allowed.”

To learn to spell more easily and make continued spelling progress, practice, consolidation, and integration of these strategies are essential. The easiest way to do this is for children to participate in a range of carefully targeted learning activities in enjoyable engaging non-threatening ways – exploring words through speaking, listening, reading, writing, saying rhymes, drawing, playing games, and doing word puzzles. Children learn through actively being involved and practising with words, and when children enjoy themselves they are enthusiastic and they learn much more.

The Learn to Spell books, with their carefully targeted content, reinforce the crucial spelling strategies (noted above). The “What’s Next” page also details a range of interesting follow-up consolidation activities that can be completed after each puzzle. These books also provide enjoyable opportunities for students to practise, consolidate and extend their spelling knowledge and skills whilst having fun and achieving spelling success.

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