‘If you want children to learn to spell, teach them spelling – not phonics’

Children will not automatically learn to spell if we focus on teaching phonics, says Megan Dixon – we need to explicitly teach them spelling patterns, too

Megan Dixon

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A couple of weeks ago, a subject leader and I were looking in detail at the spelling of a group of low-attaining pupils in Year 5. All the children were eligible for pupil premium and not making the progress they should. The group were receiving daily phonics catch-up sessions and received a weekly list of spellings to learn. This, it seemed, was not having much impact. So, the subject leader and I decided to analyse the errors in their writing to look for any patterns that might help us to unpick the challenges they were having.

We had analysed the spelling errors for one piece of writing for the group in two stages. First, we sorted them into phonological, morphological or orthographical errors. The phonological errors were errors that showed the children had failed to hear all the sounds in a sequence – for example, writing "gaj", for "garage", or "frist" for "first". We classed errors as orthographic when the child had written something that was phonologically plausible, but not correct – for example, "gud" for "good". Morphological errors included mistakes such as "trappt" for "trapped", where the child has not understood how the word was built up of units of meaning, such as "ed", "ing", or suffixes and prefixes.

Daily spelling lessons

From this first stage, it was easy to see that the majority of the errors were orthographic and morphological. The children were spelling words exactly as they sounded – with no sense of whether it should be written in that way or not. As they were writing, the children were stopping at words they didn’t know the spelling of and saying them slowly. They recorded a letter or group of letters for each sound they heard and then carried on writing. Sometimes this resulted in a correct spelling, but often it did not. The same words were spelt in many different ways all the way through a piece of writing.

Having established this, we then moved onto the second stage of looking for spelling patterns the children didn’t use. We found lots: double consonants in the middle of words, letter strings that aren’t written as they sound, silent letters, and a large group of common exception words.

Once we had worked out the gaps for the children, it became an easy job to plan six weeks of teaching for them. We moved the children away from the daily phonics session they were having to a daily spelling lesson – linked to handwriting, which helped them begin to understand that there is a right way to spell a word.

Not relying on phonics

We showed them how to notice the patterns in words by playing close attention to the sequence of the letters as they were written – and not to just rely on hearing the sounds in the words. We gave them a daily diet of word sorts, got them to identify spelling features in words, to spot spelling patterns – for example, beat, seat, treat and feat – to practise spellings and sentence dictations.

Once we had spent time teaching spelling patterns, we repeated our analysis on a different piece of writing. And the result was that the group have made rapid progress – although they still have a long way to go to meet national curriculum expectations.

It is a strange truth that kids usually learn what we teach them. If they appear to be learning something different, it is often because we have been teaching something different. And if you carry on teaching what you have always taught – phonics, for example – you should not be surprised if you get the same results that you always have: phonetically plausible, incorrect spellings.

The moral of this story: if you want children to learn to spell, teach them what they need to know.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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Megan Dixon

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