Spellbound: how to spell well


Cast a Spell 17/9/17


A new focus on spelling within the curriculum has meant that we are all cursing the vagaries of the English language. Reading, spelling and handwriting are often integrated within specialist literacy programmes. Whilst many dyslexics learn to read; difficulties with spelling can persist and different skills to reading are required. Read on and help ALL of your struggling spellers!

  • I was curious about the etymology or history of the word ‘spell’, did it have any connections with magic ‘spell’?? For some children the ability to spell is acquired effortlessly, like reading, as if by magic.

Turns out the Middle English ‘spell’ meant to ‘preach, speak, talk and tell‘. The Proto-Germanic ‘spellan‘ meant ‘to tell’.


The first recorded instance of ‘spell’ to indicate individual letters in a word, was the early 15th Century. Naturally, children are now expected to do most of their ‘talking’ i.e. spelling, on the page.

For many children, some dyslexic, the ability to spell does not happen by magic… but after many hours of frustration, hard graft, shame and often tears.

  • What is it with the English Language??

We have one of the most opaque languages around with */44/ sounds (*two lines denote a sound) and only 26 alphabet letters! For languages with a more direct, one-to-one grapheme (letter) – phoneme (sound) correspondence: Spanish, Italian, Finnish, spelling is almost as easy as talking! …Lets just move to Spain.

We have a pick ‘n’ mix language with latin, greek and anglo Saxon influences. It’s no wonder children (and adults) get confused!

There are particular dyslexic spelling traits to be found, this isn’t exhaustive but keep them in mind. Remember the clues from my last post :Finding the Elephant in the classroom.

  • Persistent difficulty spelling High Frequency Words (common in the English language) i.e. lots of different ways ON THE SAME PAGE!
  • Not knowing when a word looks wrong.
  • Transposition of letters e.g. sliver for silver.
  • Missing part of a blend e.g. /s/ in /st/ or the /m/ in /mp/.
  • Not being able to identify the separate sounds in a word.
  • Missing whole syllables out (because they can’t hold them in working memory).
  • Unusual attempts at spelling, often over-reliant on phonics because they can’t picture the word.
  • Once learnt, an over-application of a spelling rule e.g. ‘e’ on the end of every word, just in case! (split digraph rule)…but never on an actual split digraph where it SHOULD go aaarrrgggghhhh!

The Role of Memory and Spelling.


Memory is thought to comprise of Working, Short Term and Long Term; incoming information is processed via the Central Executive. Working Memory can be thought of as a shelf for temporary information; everyone has a different size shelf and overload causes items to ‘drop out’ or off.


  • ‘I don’t know’.

Dyslexic learners, in particular, can start to loose faith in their memory. When put on the spot in class, it often fails them and they give up! The connections that dyslexic children make are often circuitous and complex. Give them time to find the words and they will surprise you and themselves! The act of trying means that more effective connections are made and they will remember better next time. Please, please, please, give them time.

Within short-term memory, we are thought to have the phonological loop (auditory) and the visuospatial sketchpad (visual). Importantly, these two aspects do not work together but are integrated at the Central Executive stage. In dyslexia, whilst auditory memory is often poor, the visuospatial sketchpad is unimpaired and is thought to be a strength. (Swanson, H. L., 2006)

The Central Executive is thought to drive the whole thing, as well as attention and is the boss!

Types of memory and how we can apply it to spelling:

  • Working Memory.

Auditory information can be retained better if it is chunked or repeated, so teach syllable division, it might be better supported by using visuals.

Tip: A useful app for this is Chimp Fu (Nessy)

  • Short Term Memory.

Do> use spelling routines that engage several senses SIMUTANEOUSLY e.g. writing the word, saying each letter, using scented pens. (Smell has strong links to memory).

Do> use colour, as this stimulates the visual memory e.g. You can colour each syllable differently.

Do> use tactile and some gross motor activities such as playdoh, skywriting and writing in scented salt. Gross motor activities will give feedback into the shoulder girdle and help further with a motor memory.


because 3d
Making words out of play doh
  • Long-term memory is thought to comprise of the following:
  1. Declarative (knowing that): semantic (facts) and episodic (autobiographical and experiential – strong in dyslexics).
  2. Procedural (knowing how). This is rote learning; doing something over becomes automatic. For some,  particularly dyslexics, this takes longer. (see Automaticity/Cerebellar Theory, Nicolson and Fawcett, 1999)

Do> use etymology (history of words), this provides meaning (semantic memory). Students should also be clear on the meaning of the word and know how to use it.

Do> use spelling rules (for the same reason!).

Do> let the child make up mnemonics (episodic/autobiographical) and make up stories or characters around spelling rules. Make it funny!

Do> use cursive (joined) handwriting, this will build up a motor memory (procedural). Dyslexic learners will take longer to do this. e.g. Use ‘rainbow’ writing: writing over the same word in several different colours.


  • Explicit teaching, what struggling spellers need to know:
  1. Teach letter names and encourage children to use them in spelling, each letter only has one name but can make many different sounds – confusing!!
  2. Tell the child a letter is a ‘picture’ of a sound, a letter has a name AND a sound. This is the ‘Alphabetic Principle’.
  3. Make sure they know all the vowel letters and that vowels can use their name AND sound in words. Y helps out and is a ‘semi-vowel’.
  4. Vowels are said with the mouth open and they create a syllable in a word.
  5. When a vowel makes a ‘short’ sound, it is usually in a closed syllable (closed in by a consonant). With a ‘long’ sound (saying its letter name) the syllable is called an ‘open syllable’.
  • Consonant = con/with, son/sound.

Tip: one way to introduce the idea of open and closed syllables is to cut words up!

cut up words

Cut up words
Cutting words into syllables


Top Ten Spelling Strategies; be inquisitive, spelling detectives!

  1. Teach spelling rules.

Struggling spellers are often relieved to find there are rules to spelling as they have spent most of their time making random guesses! Teach a few at a time and ensure that they are being consistently applied before introducing more e.g. ‘e’and ‘I’ turn ‘c’ and ‘g’ into soft sounds. Encourage the student to self-check.

2. Teach your students to use a dictionary.

Using a dictionary will build fluency around the use of letter names. It builds independence and encourages analysis of words, broadening vocabulary too. It is ‘discovery’ learning.

3. Teach prefix, root and suffix.

Students can start to ‘build’ words if they understand that the same components can be removed and changed around e.g. root ‘press’ can be de+press, then de+press+ing, there is a formula to spelling, like maths.

You can connect parts of words like blocks.

4. Teach onset and rime.

This helps students to understand that there are patterns in spelling and it is not as random as they thought. e.g. cat, can be pat, sat, hat etc by changing the first letter! Use analogy e.g. book… gets to cook and look.

5. Teach morphology and analysis; certain groups of letters can be seen as a unit, they appear in the same place. Taking the above example, ‘press’ can be express, depress, impress etc.

  • What are my spelling choices? Which out of the digraphs and trigraphs are the most/least common in a given position? e.g. from 5 choices for long e: /ee/, /ea/, /i.e./, /e_e/,/e/- (open syllable).

6. Use a mirror. See what the lips, tongue, teeth are doing. Feel for air, vibration etc. This will help to differentiate between sounds e.g. /b/ and /p/.

7. Say the word in a funny way e.g. Wed nes day, fru it. Look for words inside words e.g. ‘here’ is in ‘there’.

8. Use multi sensory techniques: say the letter names as the word is written, play spelling tennis, make the word in play doh, write it in scented salt, write over the same word in different colours.

9. Teach cursive handwriting. This creates a motor memory and writing will flow.

10. Teach to chunk into syllables. Tip for counting syllables – place hand under chin, feel the jaw move. A syllable is created by the vowel, vowels are uttered with the mouth open.


NB for spelling tests try to group like spelling patterns together and limit spellings.

Remember: there are always exceptions to the spelling rules! Teach them.


Sight Words – background 11/11/17

Siiiiigh…..t words! part one.

Sight Words make us sigh; with frustration, disappointment, exhaustion.

High Frequency Words, Sight Words, Tricky Words, plain annoying and silly words – call them what you will, they present a particular challenge to some children. These words are said to represent around 75% of what we read and write. As such, they cannot be ignored.

I have seen an argument that many of these words are ‘phonically decodable’. Some are but they are also complex and may be beyond a child’s scope in terms of their phonics e.g. he, she, be, we are all words with an open syllable at the end (hence the vowel has a long sound, not its short one). Much simpler to teach these by sight, or ‘look-say’ than to teach open and closed syllables??

A simple word like ‘the’ gave my son (and no doubt lots of other children) a massive headache. Okay /th/ is voiced, it vibrates, this can be taught…but what’s that vowel sound at the end??

I taught my son to read the word ‘the’ by using play doh; making ‘h’ into a chair and saying ‘the’ chair. Every time we read a book we found ‘the’ until he had it. You might think ‘that sounds crazy, how complicated! It worked though.

‘Like’ is a split digraph (/ie/ is split by ‘k’) and should be taught as such. In fact, any straightforward phonically decodable sight words should be taught with phonics. They are not ‘sight’ word at all.

There’s always an exception.

‘Have’ does not follow the split digraph rule though and we are beginning to see how complex these words are!

  • History

There are 3 lists that sight words come from: Dolch’s Sight Words List (created in the 30s and 40s by Dr. Edward William Dolch), Fry Sight Words List (a more modern list which picks up where Dolch left off, or a combination customised by the class teacher. The highest frequency words appear on both lists.

Both Dolch and Fry were advocates of the look-say method for the words on their lists, even though they felt phonics could be taught. They devised their lists based on secondary sources (reading materials), neither surveyed children’s written work.

What to do about these words which just will not stick for some children and why do they cause such problems both in read and writing? Read my next instalment, part 2!

Only 9 words on the Fry 100 List are not the Dolch 220 List or the Dolce Noun List. The 9 words unique to the Fry 100 List are each, more, number, other, part, people, than, way and word. There are big discrepancies in ranking on the lists with said #12 on Dolch and #40 on Fry. Little is #39 on Dolch and #106 on Fry. There is a huge discrepancy with pretty: #97 on Dolch and #935 on Fry!

We know a lot more about the processes of reading now and phonics is generally accepted as the most efficient way to teach it. Hence the words: each, number, part, than and way should be taught as part of, phonics instruction.

Sight word lists are important though, as these abstract words can provided the biggest challenge for students, both in terms of understanding them and in reading and writing. Some of these words cannot be learnt by phonics alone.

See part two for ideas on how to approach Sight Words for reading and writing.

see also

Comparing Dolce and Fry Sight Words

History of sight words


Sight Words – reading and spelling 26/11/17

In this post, I look at how learners can be taught to read and spell them.

The acts of reading (decoding) and spelling (encoding) are different. They require different skills but in my view are best taught together, along with handwriting, so that integration occurs.

How to tackle these ‘tricky words’? Given that they make up around 75% of what we read and write, this is worthy of careful consideration.

  • Using Phonics

Look out for those words which are phonically regular: like, home,

teach these for what they are: split digraphs. The vowel digraphs are: ae, ee, ie, oe, ue. These pairs are split by a consonant, which is why the ‘e’ is silent.


  • Say it funny!

Some words do not follow a spelling pattern but if said as written, it can be a useful memory aid: people, Wednesday.

  • Draw a picture

Homophones. Some of these words sound the same and have different meanings: to, two, too and children will continue to get these wrong throughout school, embedding the incorrect motor memory.

Try incorporating a picture!

HFW homophones

  • Words that follow a pattern

Some words follow a pattern and are not unusual in isolation, an example might be ‘was’. The rule: ‘a’ after ‘w’ makes /o/ and we can see this in water, wash, war, waddle. Better to teach this in context and a word web might work nicely here.

Another example is the group of question words, ‘wh’

  • Look for narrative/story to connect words

I’m constantly seeking to tie narrative and humour into learning. Examples here might be the words ‘where’, ‘there’ and ‘here’. All direction words, teach ‘here’ first, ‘here’ is in where and there. This is introducing the child to morphology.

Make ‘here’ out of playdoh – have it move around – here is lost – is it over there? (have it join ‘t’, where is it?

video on Facebook

  • Teach open and closed syllables

Some of the words on the list follow the open and closed syllable pattern. When a vowel is not ‘closed’ in by a consonant, it makes a long sound eg pa_per.

He, me, be, we are examples of this. We can say the vowel is ‘open’, it can shout its name – hence it’s making the long sound.

Cut up words

  • Teach y as a semi-vowel

The letter ‘y’ can make a long or short /i/. In why and try (words of one syllable) it makes the long sound, in happy, the short sound.

By broadening the context of sight words, we can start to encourage children to apply spelling rules and to look for patterns, to integrate these words. The spelling difficulties around these words tend to persist.

They are written often, each time they are spelt incorrectly, the wrong pattern is being reinforced via motor memory. Better to nip this in the bud straight away. Simply copying the word out three times may not be enough.

Have them keep their own journal of tricky words and when they are misspelled, add to the journal and look for a different method. Give them time to check and change work after every write.

What works for the child?

It’s worth spending some time on getting this right. Consider interleaving: incorporate these words into phonics, handwriting practice and use games interspersed throughout the day.


Fantastic Contractions 13/10/17

Arrrrrrgh what’s a contraction???????

  • Question: how can I give a concrete meaning to this abstract word? Is there a real life application?

Kinaesthetic/experiential (aka primary information): ask students to hold up their arm – when outstretched, the muscle is longer (antonym: expansion).

Tense the fist and bend the arm, feel the muscle; it is a ‘contraction’, it is smaller.



  • Depending on your assessment of class needs and arousal levels, other kinaesthetic options:

Walk around the room, on the command ‘expansion’, stretch up tall, on ‘contraction’, get down and scrunch up into a ball.

  • Question: Can I provide some semantic information about the word ‘contraction’?

From Latin contrahere: join together.

What physically happens in a contraction in grammar?

(Antonym: expansion) In the expanded phrase e.g. have not – the jaw creates two syllables (yes, test this! place hand under chin: ‘have’, ‘not’ – two movements of the jaw – agreed? good).

If you have mirrors for maths USE THEM, let students see how the jaw moves.

Fact: A syllable is created by a vowel, we have to open our mouth to let a vowel sound escape!

open mouth vowel

In speech, we are lazy and shorten phrases by clipping out a vowel and SOMETIMES a consonant too.

  • ‘Con’ ‘son’ ‘ant’ (meaning: ‘with sound’), consonants are said using the teeth, lips, tongue, throat.

Hence: have not, becomes havent, the missing vowel is replaced by an apostrophe – havent.

Say it now and look in the mirror, hand under jaw – we have lost a syllable – the phrase is shorter.

Fact: apostrophes were invented by printers to show where letters were missing in text (in case someone thought they couldn’t spell!).

And another thing: whilst it’s thought that no two people with dyslexia are the same, I find there are lots of common misconceptions.

One is, the comma vs apostrophe confusion. Why? BECAUSE THEY LOOK THE SAME!! Argh!

The difficulty is with perception and orientation: one goes on the ground, one goes in the air! They have different jobs too, OBVIOUSLY.

Try saying to your class: the word apostrophe has ‘trophy’ in it, reach up for the trophy in apostrophe!

  • Comma means ‘to cut into’, commas are used within sentences to cut the words into chunks and change the meaning. Commas go on the line.

Reinforcement activity: write a list of items, and ask children to cut with scissors where comma should go, (differentiate according to age, stage).

We can see that memory is not the issue but how information is processed is. If the information is abstract, can I give it other meaning?:

  • Kinaesthetic (using primary information – the senses); muscle for contraction, feeling the jaw for syllable
  • Semantic memory: some history, narrative or additional meaning.
  • Can I make it funny??
  • Can I help to differentiate between commonly confused items. WHY are they causing confusion? e.g. apostrophe and comma.

If these confusions aren’t addressed, they will persist into High School. It doesn’t mean a student CAN’T learn them, they haven’t been taught in the right way…until now!


How to fold away a vowel


Spelling between the desks 17/11/18

Guided spelling or ‘Spelling between the desks’, is a new concept of mine!

Informed in part by mine and others’ approaches to maths. We are essentially trying to get inside the mind of the student to help to guide and explore their own thinking, in order to model HOW to think analytically about spelling. Often when I ask why a child has made a certain choice, they will say ‘it SOUNDED like that’ or worse ‘I DON’T KNOW!’.

Whilst the children are working, you can circulate around the desks to support key students.

Questions the teacher should ask:

  • What is your next sentence?
  • Are there any spellings you aren’t sure of? (check High Frequency Words too).
  • What does the word mean?
  • How many syllables does it have, which are open, which closed?
  • What is the first sound? (encourage exaggerated artciulation or use a mirror if this is something they struggle with)
  • Go through the sounds until there is a sound which is ambiguous, usually a vowel.
  • Ask: what are the spelling choices? e.g. in exaggerate the beginning sounds like ‘eggs’, the /j/ is g followed by ‘e’ which makes it ‘soft’, ate could be eight, ayt, but is a split digraph.
  • Use analogy, affixes, and spelling conventions or rules to guide choices.


The result:

Children will start to take an analytical, metacognitive approach to spelling – will become empowered and better equipped to self-check work.

Why does this work:

Spelling becomes an integrated part of teaching, students learn to become ambitious in tackling spelling and curious about how words work, leading to greater resilience around spelling.

What you will need:

An awareness of how words work, how to use affixes and identify roots, a knowledge of spelling rules and conventions. Some knowledge of  articulation, phonics and the history of our language.

Analysing spellings: Spelling and metacognition 4/1/19

Whilst there are many creative approaches to teaching, spelling has not benefited from this in the past.

How has spelling been taught historically in your school?

Typically, spelling is not taught at all but delivered as lists, sent home to ‘look, cover, write and check’ and to be tested at the end of the week. Students who cannot spell exciting vocabulary will not use it in their writing. Difficulties with spelling will slow down the writing process and increase the cognitive load faced by struggling writers who often have amazing ideas.

Why do we need to analyse spelling errors?

Whilst a student may get 10/10 in a weekly spelling test, their free writing may tell a different story.
In starting to analyse their spelling errors, you can encourage them to monitor their own spelling mistakes.
The aim is confident spellers, with a repertoire of strategies, who use a range of ambitious vocabulary.
This can be a better approach for struggling spellers who may make little progress on phonics-based intervention programmes.

A note on High Frequency or ‘tricky’ words and why children can’t spell them:

From Reception, children are taught that certain words are tricky, almost as if there were no pattern or link to phonics at all, nonsensical – even difficult. No, no, no they are not ‘tricky’!! These are described as ‘look, say’ words and flash cards are used, even where these words follow phonic patterns , such as the split digraph word ‘like’. Practitioners love a mnemonic such as Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants – and children often remember them but ONLY BECAUSE THEY ARE REMINDED SO OFTEN. It’s actually quite taxing on working memory to use a mnemonic for children with processing issues.

Much more interesting to tell children that because is from French ‘par cause de’ – as a result of, and that ‘be’ is a prefix like before, begin, beware etc.

Children often spell these words incorrectly from the start (beacuse they are not encouraged to analyse them) and are allowed to build a motor memory of these words until by KS2 these mispellings become deeply entrenched.


Types of spelling error:

Semantics and homophones e.g. there, their, they’re.
High Frequency Words: whent, becuse
Orthographic/morphological e.g. slipt for slipped, happyness (affixes)
Reasonable phonic alternatives e.g. teecher, sed
Transposition (mixing up letters) or articulation e.g. callde, moth for month.
Letter reversals and directionality e.g. bad for dad, was for saw.
Additions e.g. frome.
Omissions e.g. mouten – mountain (see also articulation).


In starting to analyse your students’ spellings and helping them to analyse and manage their spelling, you are both building metacognitive strategies. Without this, students feel that spelling is random and arbitrary.


Contact me for whole school spelling training.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: