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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.


Expertise in spelling is essential to writing. Teachers need an understanding of the knowledge strategies and awareness students require to be come competent spellers. This involves knowledge of:

  • phonemic awareness
  • letter-sound relationships and of spelling patterns
  • the morphological structure of written language
  • spelling rules and conventions
  • strategies for writing and proof reading.

Writers need to develop the ability to use conventional spelling in order to write clearly, fluently, and accurately. This involves moving through a number of stages. To become a proficient speller, a writer has to develop various kinds of knowledge, strategies for spelling unknown words, and awareness of how to use their knowledge and strategies.

Learning to spell is a developmental process; it goes hand in hand with learning to write. Young learners normally begin with scribbles. Then, as they come to understand that writers use letters to write down the words used in spoken language, they may write strings of letters so that their writing contains “words”. As they develop further knowledge of how the alphabet is used, they learn that letters are used to write down the sounds that make up words and begin to use letter-sound correspondences in their writing. Beginning spellers usually learn to write the beginning or end sounds of words, which are often consonants, before they can isolate and write medial sounds, which are usually vowels (see Relating parts of words to sounds, on page 36). Reading and writing experiences provide young learners with knowledge about spelling patterns (orthography) and about the rules
and conventions that apply to words (morphology). They then use this knowledge in further learning.

Students are exposed to correct spellings through reading a wide range of texts. However, not all students develop the detailed knowledge that they need simply through exposure to print. Students need to be taught explicitly how to use the common orthographic and morphological structures of written English for spelling (encoding) words in English.

Developing spelling knowledge

The teacher needs to support students to enable them to:

  • use their phonemic awareness 
  • use their knowledge of letter-sound relationships 
  • develop a knowledge of orthographic patterns 
  • develop a knowledge of the morphological structure of written English.

Students use their phonemic awareness in spelling to break words into phonemes. The child who is able to write every sound in an unknown word is demonstrating phonemic segmentation skills. For example, a child might spell “jump” (with four sounds) g, a, m, p (for the four sounds).

Students use their knowledge of letter-sound relationships, that is, of phonics, to write the letters for the sounds they have identified.

Students need a knowledge of orthographic patterns – that is, of the spelling patterns that represent sounds in words. The teacher can help the students to develop this knowledge by encouraging them to make analogies to known words that sound the same or look the same. Beginning spellers need to be exposed to ways of writing all sounds (not just those that are commonly associated with the alphabet letters) since they will be trying to write words such as look, out, now, house, toy, boot, train, and tree.

“I tuk my nyou t_ to the prk akros the rod from my hows.”

“I took my new toy to the park across the road from my house.”

The child does not know how to write the“oy” and “ar” sounds. They have used what they know from “put” to write “took” and from “you” to write “new”. Phonetically and orthographically, this is an excellent attempt, but it also tells the teacher that the child needs to learn that “ar” and “oy” are separate sounds that have particular ways of being written in words.

Students need a knowledge of the morphological structure of written English, that is, of the rules and conventions that underlie conventional spelling patterns. Teachers need to show their students how to transfer knowledge about conventions of print from one word that they have learned to spell by sight to other words that have a similar sound or use the same convention.

A child has learned to spell “played” and “jumped” using the “ed” ending. Although the “ed” ending sounds different in these two words (“playd”, “jumpt”), the child has worked out that the “ed” ending is added to words that mean something has already happened even though the words might sound different at the end (“t”, “d”, and “id” in “endid”). When they meet a new word that describes something they did yesterday, one that they do not recognise as a sight word, they can use the correct convention to spell the word ending (“Yesterday I hopped all the way down the path”).

Through engaging learners with texts, teachers can model and explain the use of such conventions as apostrophes in contractions, adding “s” for a plural, and putting two “p’s” in stopping (doing the same when they want to write “hopping” or “shopping”). Students who apply this knowledge demonstrate a developing awareness of morphological structure.

Helping students to move towards accurate spelling

Teachers need to support their students in moving from producing strings of letters to spelling approximations and then to accurate conventional spelling. They can do so in the following ways.

  • Model how to break the word the student wants to use into individual sounds.
  • Prompt the student to relate the sounds in the word to letters or letter patterns they already know. The teacher can help them to draw analogies to words they know that sound the same and have the same spelling patterns, for example, by saying “What is a word you know that has the same sound as …?”
  • Give feedback acknowledging the parts of the word that are correct and accepting and expanding on approximations that make sense and show that the student is acquiring spelling knowledge and strategies. For example, a student may use the correct number of syllables or make correct letter-sound connections. When a student spells “kat” for “cat”, every sound in the word is correct, even though the spelling pattern used is not the accepted one.
  • Lead students towards self-correction by giving them appropriate feedback that informs them about accuracies and inaccuracies in the way they have written a word. For example, the teacher can say, “You’ve used correct letters for all the sounds in ‘cat’ but, in this word, we use the letter ‘c’ to write the ‘k’ sound.”
  • Model correct spelling by comparing unknown words with similar known words (and explaining the different patterns). For example, when a student spells “awful” as “orful”, the teacher can say, “You know how to spell ‘saw’ in ‘I saw a bird’; how do you write the ‘or’ sound in ‘saw’?” The teacher can then explain that the “or” sound in “awful” uses the same pattern – which is also used in “lawn” and “yawn” and “awesome”.
  • Use questions and prompts, during shared and guided reading and in writing activities, to reinforce their students’ knowledge of spelling patterns and conventions. For example, the teacher can ask, “Who can find me a word that has a ‘ch’ sound in it? What letters are used for writing the ‘ch’ sound in ‘chicken’?”
  • Analyse each student’s spelling errors to identify specific knowledge or strategies that the student may need more help to master, and provide specific instruction to meet these needs.
  • Ensure that each student continues to develop a bank of words that they can spell automatically.

Models of accurately spelled words can be recorded in individual spelling notebooks (personal dictionaries). New words should be added regularly for students to refer to and revise, as appropriate to their stage of spelling development. The student should understand the meanings of the words they are learning to spell, which should arise from their reading and writing experiences. Words from their personal writing have meaning for students and so are relevant for their spelling notebooks.

Most teachers make a range of high-frequency words readily accessible, for example, on a wallchart or on large cards. A class dictionary, in alphabetical order, is a valuable resource for the group to use during shared writing and for students to refer to when writing independently. Entries can be made after talking through the students’ approximations, and the dictionary should be constantly used and expanded.

Approximations in spelling

An approximation is a word that a child writes using spelling that is not completely correct but is as close as they can manage to the word they want to spell. It is generally good practice to suggest that children “have a go” at writing a word by themselves before seeking help. This will encourage them to use the knowledge, awareness, and strategies that they have (see page 26).

Teachers should regularly model ways of attending to spelling. Because beginning spellers do not know how to spell many words, they need to use the sounds in unknown words to guide their spelling attempts. The ability to discriminate between and segment sounds in words is a critical skill and is based on phonemic awareness (see page 32). Teachers can model how to break words into sounds and then write these sounds using known letters and letter patterns. When there are two or more possibilities for spelling one sound, teachers should demonstrate or explain that for this word, this particular pattern is used to write the sounds. For example, when writing the word “they”, many students who can spell “play” and “day” will write it “thay”. The teacher should model the correct spelling – “they” – and explain that, in this word, the long “a” sound is written “ey”, not “ay”.

As students gain more knowledge of spelling, they can be shown how to use dictionaries, word lists, and electronic spellcheckers to ensure that conventionally correct spellings are resulting from their decisions.

Students need to become aware that they should spell the words they use in their writing correctly. However, spelling must also be kept in context.54 The writer’s main aim is to convey meaning. Too much concentration on accurate spelling, especially during draft writing, can reduce the focus on conveying a meaningful message and may make students tentative and unadventurous in their writing.

Analysing the nature of spelling attempts in children’s writing will show the teacher the skills and knowledge the child has and the gaps they need to fill.

  • If a child is not writing all the sounds in a word, the teacher needs to consider whether this is because they cannot hear them all (due to hearing issues or lack of phonemic segmentation skills) or whether they do not yet know a letter orletter pattern for writing the sound.
  • If a child can write all the sounds with an appropriate but incorrect letter or letter pattern, the teacher knows that they are ready to learn more about thepossible spelling patterns for different sounds.
  • If a child can use a spelling convention for one word (they can spell “can’t” using an apostrophe correctly) but cannot apply it to other words (they are not able to spell “won’t” or “didn’t”), the teacher knows that they have learned “can’t” by sight and need to be taught the principle of how contractions work and topractise applying the convention.

Everything a teacher needs to know about children’s developing spelling knowledge is displayed in their writing. The best starting point is to look for what they are able to do when they write unknown words.

Key resources

  • Sounds and Words: Support for teaching phonological awareness and spelling in years 1–8. This resource outlines what teachers need to know and what children need to learn at each of the different year bands.
  • Effective Literacy Practice in Years 1 to 4: Technical skills for writing: Spelling: this section provides information on the knowledge strategies and awareness students require in year 1–4 as they move towards accurate spelling. This includes knowledge and use of: phonemic awareness, letter sound relationships, orthographic patterns and the morphological structure of written English.
  • Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8: Technical skills for writing: Spelling: this section provides information on the knowledge strategies and awareness students require in year 5–8 to develop spelling expertise. This includes knowledge and use of: phonemic awareness, the relationship between sounds and spelling patterns, the morphological structure of written English, spelling rules and conventions, and spelling strategies for writing and proof reading.
  • Allcock, J. (2002). Spelling Under Scrutiny: this resource provides an in-depth guide to the teaching of spelling including a critical look at the teaching of spelling and how spelling skills are acquired.
  • Literacy Learning Progressions: Meeting the Reading and Writing Demands of the Curriculum: this resource identifies the cumulative nature of literacy learning and describes the word level knowledge expected of students at particular points in their schooling.
  • Exploring Language: The word, pp 92–97: this section of the resource provides information on: morphemes, how new words are created and how words have been derived from Latin and Greek. 
  • Exploring Language: Words and meanings: this section of the resource provides information on word meanings and the relationships among these meanings. This knowledge will help provide instruction for developing students’ vocabulary and spelling. 

Published on: 08 Apr 2016