On the eve of the last half-term break, I sat marking the latest assessments for my Year 5 class and felt proliferating waves of despair when it came to the spelling paper.
We’d worked so hard over the half-term on learning all kinds of rules and patterns but, when it came to the Sats-style test, the children – even the better spellers – resorted to implausible phonetic attempts at the unfamiliar words. Quizzical spelled with “kw” was a particular low.
Our school recognised the need to address the weakness in spelling 18 months ago and changes had been made. Then Ofsted visited in the summer and highlighted spelling as a weakness that was holding back our potentially greater-depth writers. Now, clearly, more work still needed to be done.
From Facebook forums, cluster meetings and county-wide subject leader training, it seemed we were not the only ones frustrated by the issue.
So what did we do next?
In key stage 1, we were consistently scoring a 100 per cent pass-rate in the phonics screening. And spelling wasn’t preventing children from achieving greater-depth standards in writing. We needed to applaud the successes of our KS1 team and accept that in KS2, we needed to make substantial changes to our approach.
Until too recently, it seemed all we did to “teach” spellings in KS2 was to wave a list of words at the children on a Monday and send them home to “look, say, cover, write, check”, then bring them back in on a Friday, aiming for 10 out of 10 in a test.
Most of them did get 10 out of 10. Full marks, week in, week out. And yet, the writing in children’s books looked more like something not in English but in another language, with random strings of letters seemingly thrown together.
So we began the process of improving pupils’ spelling by introducing more meaningful interventions.
A SNIP approach
We used the Special Needs Information Press (SNIP) Literacy Programme 1 (see bit.ly/SNIPLit1) to teach common exception words to KS2 children who hadn’t secured them before moving up to the juniors
We regularly reminded those children of how to spell those words when using them in their writing. It felt like we were nagging them, but perhaps that is what was needed.
A No Nonsense plan
We also invested in No Nonsense Spelling – the spelling programme by publishers Raintree – and trialled it in one class. The children loved the different methods for learning spellings. Over the year, spellings in written work improved. This year, No Nonsense Spelling has been rolled out from Year 2 to Year 6. Fifteen-minute lessons three times a week have been added to the timetable, in which children practise, discuss and investigate spelling.
Make it fun
Spelling is no longer a chore to be done at home – it is a regular lesson with time for exploring the English language and finding interesting ways for learning how to spell unfamiliar words.
We have taught children to “have a go” and have introduced half-termly dictionary lessons, using games and “word races” to teach children how to check their spellings.
Make it important
We have given spelling a higher priority, not just in the timetable but also through higher expectations in our marking and feedback.
Slowly, the spellings of words in children’s writing is becoming more accurate. They are applying the rules they are learning, getting full marks in a weekly test and using what they have learned in their writing.
For the children needing interventions, the journey is a long one, but the common exception words are being spelled correctly more frequently and the “nagging” is working. It feels like we never stop talking about spellings, but it’s paying dividends.
What of the government’s dreaded statutory word lists and our Sats-style assessments? Alongside the letter patterns and spelling rules, we now have the list of more than 200 words to be learned during KS2. This seems to be a bigger hurdle.
One teacher is sending home the statutory words 10 at a time, to be learned for a Friday spelling test, rolling back out the “look, say, cover, write, check” technique. Eventually, many of the children are getting them right. Other teachers are covering them in the No Nonsense scheme. But these words are seldom being used in written work and are still being spelled wrongly in end-of-term assessments. We still need to find a way for the spelling of these words to stick.
Our latest approach includes introducing a “word of the week”, based on the statutory words, through which we are encouraging children to use a selected word as often as they can in their writing, so they know not only how to spell it but also how to use it.
We also plan to adapt some of the games and methods used in our KS1 phonics lessons and use them alongside the No Nonsense approach. Finally, we are hoping to hold a spelling bee in the summer term to celebrate the importance of spelling and to make it fun.
Will it work? Looking back at how far we’ve come and thinking again of those half-termly assessments – “kwizackul” aside – analysis of the data shows that spelling is improving.
It’s an ongoing journey that will take time to fully embed, but by making spelling a high-profile priority and adapting the way we teach it, we are starting to see the improvements that were needed. We now have a clear path to follow to make further progress.
Rachel Lopiccolo is a Year 5 teacher and English and history subject leader at Waddington and West Bradford CE Primary School