“Familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”
― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
If you allow a child to spell ‘he’ as ‘hee’ or ‘they’ as ‘thay’, they’re going to practise misspelling these words. They’ll become so familiar with their invented spellings that they may struggle to unlearn the inaccurate sound-spelling correspondences. I use ‘invented spelling’ because the notion of ‘phonetically plausible’ spelling is flawed.
First things first: all spellings are phonetic. The alphabet was invented roughly 5,000 years ago, whereas humans have been communicating orally for 100,000+ years; the alphabet was invented to represent the sounds in speech. If a word wasn’t ‘phonetic’, you wouldn’t be able to say it. Anything that is spoken can be represented with various combinations of the 26 letters in the English alphabet.
The English language is an incredibly opaque writing system:
- 44 sounds are represented by 175 common spellings;
- every sound has more than 1 representation (alternative spellings);
- most spellings can represent more than 1 sound (alternative pronunciations);
- spellings may be made up of 1, 2, 3 or 4 letters;
- we have anglicised many spellings;
- and we only have 26 letters.
Spelling has been standardised since the 1700s, yet pronunciation is constantly evolving. Complex? Yes. Phonetically irregular? No – read John Walker’s brilliant post on ‘the ill-conceived idea of regular and irregular spelling’ here. Possible to teach? Yes. Possible to teach in EYFS & Y1? No – it takes a minimum of 3 years. Assessed (fully) by the Phonics Screening Check? No – only partially.
Unfortunately, it appears to be common practice for EYFS and KS1 teachers to model ‘phonetically plausible’ (ie. invented) spelling. The rationale? Depending on where you are within your systematic teaching sequence, there will be parts of code that you haven’t taught yet. The misconception that teachers should model invented spelling likely comes from the ELG for writing in EYFS:
The key word here is children. The children use their phonic knowledge for spelling; sometimes they misspell words, but their attempts are phonetically plausible. This does not suggest that teachers should model invented spelling! The teacher can kindly provide the parts of the code that haven’t been taught yet.
Below are some ‘dos and don’ts’ for teaching spelling, inspired by Susan Godsland who reminds us that ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent‘ (Doug Lemov. Practice Perfect).
How not to teach spelling:
- Don’t introduce only 1 spelling of a vowel sound – and especially do not encourage children to use this 1 spelling whenever they write that sound. You’ll be reinforcing illogical positioning of alternative spellings (e.g. the ‘ay’ spelling is rarely used before the sound ‘l’…)
The tiny snayl on the tayl of the whayl.
- Don’t replace phonics with spelling rules at the end of Year 1. Continue to teach spelling and word recognition through phonics. Phonics is reading and spelling; it takes a minimum of 3 years to teach the alternatives of the English alphabet code, and phonics should continue to underpin spelling beyond Key Stage 1 (alongside etymology & morphology).
- Don’t teach spelling rules. English spelling does not obey rules. (You’ll probably find yourself spending more time teaching the exceptions.)
- Don’t use ‘Look, Cover, Write, Check’ for spelling. This whole word memorisation ignores the fundamental construct of the alphabet and the research into eye movements in the context of how we read. Similarly, don’t encourage children to look at ‘word shapes’ or to ‘look and say’.
- Don’t send home lists organised alphabetically, rather than by sound. (The rationale for this has been clear since Dale’s work in the late 1800s.)
- Don’t refer to letters as ‘silent’. Listen carefully to the letters on this page… every letter is silent. Letters do not make sounds – we do. Why do we accept ‘k’ as silent in ‘know’, but we don’t question the ‘w’? Teach ‘kn’ as a spelling of the sound ‘n’, much like you would teach the spelling ‘funny’ or ‘gone‘: it’s as simple as that.
How to teach spelling:
- Do support students to spell words correctly. When following a systematic teaching sequence, there will be pieces of code that children haven’t learnt yet; you know the code, so simply tell them the part(s) that they haven’t learnt (yet).
- Do approach the complex code (1 sound: different spellings) in a systematic way. Introduce the frequent and consistent spellings first, then introduce the less frequently encountered spellings in the successive cycles.
- Do insist that the children say the sounds when they are writing the words. The integration of sensory input (auditory and visual) and the motor output (writing the spellings) helps embed sound-spelling correspondences. (This reinforces the link between sound and spelling.)
- Do have realistic expectations. If you’re teaching the basic code, is it realistic to expect students to attempt to write words with complex spellings? Or polysyllabic words? Are students ready to write independently, or would it be more beneficial to lead a shared writing session? (You wouldn’t leave a learner driver to drive solo once they could confidently turn left and right; you’d work with the learner to build their hazard perception and confidence long before independence.)
- Do teach students to spell HFWs by drawing attention to the spellings which are exceptions. (Remember, an exception word is simply a word with (a) sound-spelling correspondence(s) that are beyond the systematic teaching sequence.) You can find the first 100 and next 200 HFWs organised by sound here.
If your students are struggling to spell, particularly in Key Stage 2, it is likely that phonics teaching wasn’t rigorous enough in EYFS and KS1. I teach, train teachers to teach, and wholeheartedly recommend Sounds-Write linguistic phonics.