Do We Need to Teach Spelling Rules?

a child writing on a sheet of paper with a pencil

Spelling is a challenging task to master for many of us; it’s also challenging to teach. In order to teach it well, we need to understand how we learn to spell.

How can we teach spelling?

I believe there are four clearly defined methods to teach spelling:

  1. Whole word instruction – listening to the sounds of words
  2. Phonemic spelling instruction - linking sounds to individual or clusters of letters
  3. Morphemic spelling instruction - using meaningful units of language: prefixes, roots and suffixes
  4. Spelling rules - providing clear and explicit instruction

(You will have noticed I have not included mnemonics e.g. there is a RAT inside separate or my best PAL is the principal. I do occasionally teach a few mnemonics myself as they are fun and useful to a degree, but they only apply to a very small percentage of words).

Whole word instruction – listening to the sounds of words

The look/say/cover/write/check is a method, that falls into whole word instruction. This is the method I hear parents talk about and the method they use with their children when learning at home, but all too often when using this method too much emphasis is placed on looking at the word instead of listening to the sound of it.

Listening to the sounds within words is of paramount importance when it comes to learning how to spell. With a simple twist of focus this method can become far more effective. As I have said, one crucial element in learning how to spell is the ability to listen to the sound of the word and link that sound with the letter pattern(s) that make that sound.

So, if the word being taught was ‘train’ the spelling instruction should be:

  • Look at the word and say the word clearly – train
  • Now look again and say it slowly, breaking it down into the sounds you hear within the word – tr ai n
  • Repeat – tr ai n – a few times making sure you continue looking at the word
  • Now cover the word and say the word slowly again, tr ai n
  • Now write down the word and say the sounds as you write.

The same process would be of use when spelling more difficult words e.g. condensation – con den sa tion or indeed with irregular words such as synagogue – syn a gog ue.

Delivering it this way achieves far greater success and, more importantly, it provides the learner with a methodology they can go on to apply for themselves in class or during home study. It also begins the process of learning the rules of spelling and vocabulary rather than relying upon learning large lists of words out of context. It teaches and trains them to become more word conscious.

Phonemic and syllable spelling instruction

This method involves the young learner using and applying the pure individual letter sounds, before moving on to words containing letter strings, vowel digraphs and indeed syllables. If you are not clear what I mean by pure letter sounds here is a link that will take you to a Pure Letter Sounds PowerPoint that you can download.

The learner should be encouraged to listen to the sounds they hear and build the word in their head using those sounds. This does not involve seeing the word first, but they need to have been previously taught the letter, digraph and syllable sounds in order to do this effectively.

e.g. c-a-t, or str–ea–m, or e vap or a tion

Morphemic spelling instruction

Morphemic spelling involves applying knowledge of prefixes, roots, stems and suffixes. Direct and explicit instruction in common roots and affixes, can lead to huge improvements in spelling accuracy.

If you have ever watched the Spelling Bee game show on television, you will have seen these amazing young spellers use this method. When they are asked to spell a word which they have perhaps never heard before and do not know its meaning, they will ask for the definition. Once they know that they can use their knowledge of prefix and root word knowledge to support them.

Take the word ‘antipsychotics’ as an example. If I had never seen the word and had no knowledge of its meaning, I would apply my sound knowledge only, so my attempt might be something like ‘antesicotics’. However, if someone gave me the definition, which is – a group of medicines that are mainly used to treat mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia and mania – I would know that the prefix was anti (against) not ante (before) and the ‘si’ sound of the stem would be spelt ‘psy’ (psycho – mind). I would now be in the position to accurately spell the word.

Many words, particularly academic words, fall into this category:

chronology not cronology, symmetrical not simetrical, phonemes not fonemes, disappear not dissappear

Teaching prefix, roots, stems and suffixes explicitly is another crucial element for the development of spelling, and equally as important for building vocabulary knowledge and understanding.

Spelling Rules

Spelling rules, the final element required to become a proficient speller, is a method that I don’t believe get the attention they deserve.

Many students, particularly dyslexic students, love rules; in fact, they need to have rules to follow. Yes, you might argue that no sooner do you learn a rule you come across an exception. That is because of the complexity of our language, however, if you know the rules that normally apply, it reduces the number of words you need to learn as the exception. But the rules need to be taught well. One rule that gets particularly bad press is – ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ e.g. thief and receive but then we find numerous exceptions e.g. height and sleigh.

That is because only half the rule was taught, but if you teach the complete rule which is ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ but only when it sounds like the ‘ee’, many of the exceptions simply disappear.

Are you able to clearly explain and provide a rule to answer the following questions?

  • Why we spell the plural of lady as ladies but the plural of play as plays and not plaies?
  • Why is pollution not spelt pollusion?
  • Why is really not spelt as realy?
  • Why is running not spelt as runing?
  • Why does referring have a double ‘r’ yet ‘offering’ has only one?

What does it take to be an effective speller?

Effective spellers need to have: a solid knowledge of letter to sound correspondence, (individual letter, digraph and syllable sounds), a knowledge of prefix, suffix and root words along with knowledge of basic spelling rules.

But a word of warning!

Firstly, the rules need to be taught explicitly and, secondly, the learner needs to have lots of short spelling activities covering that rule, building in repetition and spelling practise of the same rule.

Remember – Don’t practise till you get it right; practise till you can’t get it wrong.

We need to look at the way we teach spelling.

Do you agree?

If you feel like you want to learn more about our intervention programmes check them out here or if you’re looking for advice, get in touch.

Katy Parkinson
Lexonik • Founding Director