The importance of teaching spelling, and its affect on literacy, was highlighted in recent interim reports from the Primary Review; so what should schools be doing to teach the core skill of spelling? Debbie Hepplewhite looks at current thinking, requirements and problems

Some probing questions
So, in these gloriously professional days of ‘self-evaluation’, how do you evaluate your level of knowledge of the English alphabetic code and your skill in teaching the complexities of its many spelling alternatives? How would you rate the training provided for you at your teacher-training establishment in the complexities of the alphabetic principles and in methods of teaching reading and spelling? Did anyone point you in the direction of any research on spelling or information about standardised testing? And how would you rate your continuing professional development (CPD) in terms of developing your teaching skills for spelling, and addressing issues such as timetabling, marking, testing and diagnosis of difficulties with spelling of the pupils in your care?

What spelling reference charts, if any, does your school provide for teaching and learning spelling; and would a ‘walk around the school’ provide evidence of visual teaching and learning aids? How do you plan and track the delivery of your spelling programme (in-house, government guidance or commercial) and how do teachers pass on information to colleagues and parents? If you were asked to write down the alphabet, it would probably take less than 15 seconds. What if you were asked to write down the alphabetic code? What would you write and how would this compare with your colleagues?

How do we teach spelling?
Your Key Stage 2 pupils need to spell an unfamiliar place name and asks for your help. How do you respond? As the place name will not be in the dictionary, this is not an option. Do you tell the pupil how to spell the word by saying the letter names? What do you do, however, as an experienced speller, when you want to spell a multi-syllable place name with which you are not familiar? Do you break down the word into its syllables and then spell each syllable in turn from beginning to end? When you write the word, do you think of the letter names silently in your head – or the syllables and letter sounds? When you provide the letter names for your pupil, does it ever occur to you that you are not modelling the process that you are likely to go through yourself when you have to spell a longer or unfamiliar word? Are you, then, taking the pupil any further forwards in his or her spelling technique when you fail to model your ‘experienced-speller-routine’?

I find that this is a powerful message when I explore this spelling exercise in teacher-training events. I ask attendees to think through what they do when they spell a hitherto unknown place name. Invariably, the first volunteer tells us how to spell the name by saying the letter names. I then have to prompt this person and say, ‘Is that what you actually did yourself?’ Watching the penny drop is an interesting moment – and this happens time and again.

Synthetic phonics and spelling
As yet, not everyone realises the full implications of the synthetic phonics teaching principles for raising levels of spelling and not just reading. While ‘synthetic’ refers to the ‘blending’ of sounds all-through-the-word for reading (decoding), the synthetic phonics teaching principles include the opposite process for spelling (encoding) – the reverse side of the coin. Following the Rose review into the teaching of reading, the DCSF advises as part of the ‘core criteria’ for phonics programmes that teachers should ‘demonstrate how words can be segmented into their constituent phonemes for spelling and that this is the reverse of blending phonemes to read words’. While the government has emphasised the importance of the synthetic phonics teaching principles for beginning reading and its latest guidance, Letters and Sounds, has been provided for the teaching of four- to seven-year-olds, there has nevertheless been a noticeable lack of understanding as to how the teaching of spelling could be hugely improved across all key stages and for basic skills adult education.

Government programmes such as the Year 7 Spelling Bank (2001) are very piecemeal with a time-consuming ‘discovery-learning’ approach. Alphabetic code information about simple spelling variation is interspersed with long lists of words for sorting spellings at the complex code level. Words which are straightforward when the complex alphabetic code is systematically and well-taught are presented as ‘irregular’ to be learnt through a letter-by-letter approach; a look, cover, write, check approach and even through ‘guesswork’ games.

Spelling realities
I have asked various pupils:

‘Have you had regular spelling lessons in your secondary school?’ – ‘No.’

‘Have you ever been expected or guided to keep a spelling log’ – ‘No.’

‘Do your teachers mark your spellings?’ – ‘No.’

‘Is your spelling tested?’ – ‘No.’

Do these pupils spell well? – No! Worse still, I suggest, is that they don’t seem to care. Has everyone ‘given up’ on spelling?

I have asked teachers:

‘Who teaches spelling, either planned and formally or incidentally, as part of writing processes?’ – ‘Not me, I’m a chemistry/geography/maths/English teacher.’

Does no one take any responsibility for the 50% to 90% of pupils who these teachers suggest do not spell well? Teacher-training for ‘marking’ literacy work invariably amounts to ‘formative assessment’ according to the immediate learning intention – spelling is very low priority.

I have asked various student-teachers or recently trained teachers:

‘Have you had training in the alphabetic code and how to teach reading and spelling effectively?’ ‘Not me. We had one lecture on the National Literacy Strategy and we were pointed in the direction of an interesting little book that discussed the historical origins of the English language and writing system.’

‘Did you take a look at any leading spelling programmes or any research on spelling?’ – ‘No.’

‘Do you feel well-trained to teach reading and/or spelling in your school?’ – ‘No. When I left university, I didn’t know where to start.’

Parliamentary inquiries
In recent years we have had a House of Commons inquiry, (Teaching Children To Read, 2003) followed by an independent national review of how to teach reading (Rose report, 2006). The government accepted Jim Rose’s recommendations to teach beginning reading and provide intervention based on systematic, synthetic phonics teaching. The DCSF advises that the core criteria for phonics programmes, which include the teaching of spelling, are as follows:

  • Present high-quality systematic phonic work, as defined by the independent review of teaching of early reading and now encapsulated in the Primary Framework, as the prime approach to decoding print.
  • Enable children to start learning phonic knowledge and skills systematically by the age of five, with the expectation that they will be fluent readers having secured word recognition skills by the end of Key Stage 1.
  • Be designed for the teaching of discrete, daily sessions progressing from simple to more complex phonic knowledge and skills and covering the major grapheme phoneme correspondences.
  • Enable children’s progress to be assessed.
  • Use a multi-sensory approach so that children learn variously from simultaneous visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities that are designed to secure essential phonic knowledge and skills.
  • Demonstrate that phonemes should be blended, in order, from left to right ‘all through the word’
  • for reading.
  • Demonstrate how words can be segmented into their constituent phonemes for spelling and that this is the reverse of blending phonemes to read words.
  • Ensure children apply phonic knowledge and skills as their first approach to reading and spelling even if a word is not completely phonically regular.
  • Ensure that children are taught high-frequency words that do not conform completely to grapheme/phoneme correspondence rules.
  • Ensure that, as early as possible, children have opportunities to read texts (and spell words) that are within the reach of their phonic knowledge and skills even though every single word in the text may not be entirely decodable by the children unaided.

Letters and sounds
A government phonics programme, Letters and Sounds, has been recently produced and sent to all settings for four- to seven-year-olds. This programme is based on research and emulates key elements of some leading commercial phonics programmes. Critically, the government has not yet gone far enough to lead schools to evaluate their methods of intervention for both reading and spelling. A great deal of questionable advice regarding intervention for reading and spelling still exists on the DCSF and associated websites and many advisers are not necessarily fully up to date and experienced in the most effective teaching methods. Many teacher-trainers are unwilling to change from their whole language philosophies and look, cover, write, check spelling routines – and some continue to challenge the Rose report failing to appreciate its historic importance.

The biggest worry of all is that the basic knowledge and understanding to be found in Letters and Sounds is not directed at Key Stage 2 and beyond. Currently, the country still has a significant percentage of pupils and adults with basic skills literacy difficulties – and no one with authority has yet grasped the nettle effectively to deal with this vast problem. Myth and madness still abounds – and there is no evidence whatsoever of national joined-up thinking and shared understanding!
Special needs reading and spelling programmes in junior and secondary schools are frequently regarded by the pupils as ‘ABC baby stuff’. And yet I have described how the oral (mental) segmentation of syllables and sounds all-through-the-word is actually the skill of experienced spellers!

If all teachers of all subjects started to model the act of spelling in their written work (board work or supporting pupils in their writing) as the segmentation process that most of us follow when we spell, then the ABC phonics stuff becomes the acceptable practice of the ‘whole school’ and not just a process for the strugglers.

The many average pupils who are not that robust at reading and spelling – especially new vocabulary – would be enormously supported in lessons if all teachers knew about the alphabetic code and whole schools adopted reference charts with the alphabetic code overview for everyone to understand ‘commonly’ – teachers, teaching assistants, pupils and parents. Teachers, once again, should take responsibility for supporting pupils in spelling, drawing attention to wrong spelling (for example, subject-specific spelling). How are pupils ever to know if they have spelt words incorrectly if no one ever points this out?

In conclusion
I suggest that with the right determination, and with robust systematic spelling programmes which include alphabetic code overview charts, and a regular ring-fenced spot on the timetable (daily at first reducing to twice a week when appropriate), then spelling can definitely be taught well and pupils can definitely make improvements. And what greater gift could there be for raising self-esteem, raising standards, and increasing life chances?