How I improved spelling at my secondary school

Spelling became a key focus with a 13-step plan that boosted every child’s ability, says this English teacher

Lyndsey Dyer

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A recent article in a well-known broadsheet suggested that learning to spell was no longer necessary and insisted that spelling instruction was antiquated.

But here’s the thing: spelling matters.

Not just because incorrect spelling can often obscure meaning; not because the key stage 2 tests say so; and certainly not because our state-of-the-art technology might malfunction and stop correcting for us.

Spelling matters because it makes writing easier to read.

Spelling matters because is improves writing. Accurate spelling gives people the confidence to use a wider range of vocabulary, particularly the Latinate and French vocabulary ‘borrowed’ from the continent way back when the Romans, then the Normans, did us all a linguistic favour by invading England.

Spelling creates meaning

And spelling correctly matters because meaning matters. In a language full of homophones, homographs, and homonyms, learning to effectively convey meaning by using the correct spelling will result in you appearing more reliable, credible, and intelligent. And, of course, fluency in word recognition during reading begins with the ability to recognise words that are spelled correctly.

At secondary, we must raise the profile of spelling and ensure we explicitly teach spelling.

How should we do that? We followed these 13 steps.

Step 1: a list was compiled of the KS2 compulsory spellings, as well as the most common misspelled words (from various research lists freely available). This was made available to staff as an excel document that could be used with students.

Step 2: form time was altered to include two days dedicated to literacy. One of these days would just focus on setting and testing spelling. A whole-school briefing session stated a clear timeline to follow and strategies to use when discussing and setting the spellings/vocabulary.

Step 3: pre-printed lists of ten weekly spellings were given to all students in a booklet to go in planners. They were pre-printed to avoid words being misspelled when copying and to avoid time-wasting. This list was the same for every year group.

Step 4: the importance of spelling and vocabulary was raised in assemblies to each year group, as well as through the weekly bulletin to parents. Students were reassured that they would not have to share spelling results publicly and a weekly record was not being kept. It was important that they felt the weekly tests were just about informing them of their areas for development.

Step 5: after four weeks, a whole-school spelling test was conducted. This took place for each year group over a couple of days. The test was made up of thirty words of the forty that were tested up to this point.

Step 6: every word for every student was then entered into excel as either correct or incorrect. The data was then analysed in two ways: by year group and then as a school.

Step 7: a rank order of the year groups was generated, as well as the top five most common misspelled words across the school based on that test.

Step 8: staff were briefed on the results and strategies to improve the top five most common misspelled words were discussed and a help sheet made. All students received the help sheet and this was included in planners. One of the most effective strategies has been improving spelling through oracy and repetition.

Step 9: the rank order and common misspelled words (which originally saw Y10 at the bottom and Y8 at the top!) were highlighted in assemblies and then sent to parents via the bulletin.

Step 10: posters of the top five list were displayed in all classrooms and form tutors and subject teachers were asked to re-visit constantly alongside new lists.

Step 11: the best spellers in each year group were publicly awarded a gift voucher, donated to us by a parent.

Step 12: After another four weeks, a second whole-school spelling test was conducted.

Step 13: data was then analysed and compared to initial list. A new rank order created and a list of the now new list of top five common misspelled words.

It is at this point that I was hoping to see an improvement, a different rank order, and a new top five. And I did. Y10 were now the top of the list and the top five list only had one reoccurring word, though it had improved from over five hundred students spelling it incorrectly to just over two hundred. 

What’s next? We carry on through this process and we add something new: a spelling bee, complete with a fantastic trophy as first prize. Each form group will nominate their best speller to compete against all year groups.

I’ll let you know how this goes!

Lyndsey Dyer teaches at South Axholme Academy, Epworth, North Lincs and tweets @realgingerella. She is a member of @TeamEnglish


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Lyndsey Dyer

Lyndsey Dyer teaches at South Axholme Academy, Epworth, North Lincs and tweets @realgingerella. She is a member of @TeamEnglish

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