A competent speller involved in a Centre for Language in Primary Education research project observed: "Spelling's quite hard sometimes. When you say it, you can't spell it the way it says. It's in another way - with words like 'mosquito', you think it has a 'k' in it but it has a 'q'."
Eliot was just eight years old and is in Year 3 at a Hackney primary school in London. He rarely made spelling errors.
From our analysis of the writing of 36 children in three inner London primary schools over three years - and through observing and talking to the children and their teachers - my co-researcher Anne Thomas and I discovered a great deal about the ways children learn to spell and how teachers teach spelling successfully. The range of children was wide, in terms of age, spelling competence, experience as readers and writers, languages spoken and cultural background. We found that good spellers, like Eliot, were invariably fluent readers and took a spontaneous interest in how words were put together, their meanings and spellings. They found it easy to make generalisations about the ways English spelling worked. However, a number of children who were fluent readers were not such competent spellers and tended to see the spelling system as fairly arbitrary.
Jonathan was a fluent reader and a creative thinker. He had an engaging style and a sense of humour, but had problems choosing the right spelling pattern. He wrote in Year 4: "Henry VIII was fat because he ate to mutch. He wears a cloack, tunic, tites, a hat, rope belt and julry. He was boold (bald) so his hat could fit him. He had these weard shoes like duck bekes."
The difference between good spellers and those with difficulties, like Jonathan, was that good spellers seemed - from an early age - to be able to apply many different kinds of spelling strategies when they spelled new words, drawing on their knowledge of phonics, visual spelling patterns, word meanings, grammatical features. Spellers like Jonathan, even by Years 5 and 6, had not developed these areas of knowledge to anything like the same extent and had a small range of strategies. In fact, these children tended to rely mainly on sounding out words. Jonathan rarely made links between words he knew and new words. His spelling began to improve when his teacher helped him to see that there was a connection between "jewellery" and "jewel", and that he could make the analogy that "tights" would probably be spelled in the same way as "nights" and "lights".
The National Literacy Strategy contains many of the teaching approaches highlighted in our project for good teaching of spelling, such as shared text work and the use of spelling logs. The strategy also highlights wider aspects of English spelling which were, our project showed, to become increasingly important in key stage 2. This included helping children make connections between words in many different ways, drawing attention to the role of meaning and grammar within English spelling, through compound words, prefixes, suffixes, word roots and origins.
What teachers continue to find difficult, however, is addressing the needs of all children in the class. We found that successful teachers took a view of spelling which went far beyond teaching a pattern and testing it. They created a climate of interest and involvement in words for all children, and set up a range of classroom contexts and routines for working on spelling (see box).
Given the pressure on schools over national tests, in which spelling plays a small but vital part in the overall score, it is no surprise that a number of publishers have pinpointed schools' anxieties, particularly in KS2, by investing in the production of comprehensive spelling schemes. While I am wary of such schemes, it is clear from these latest resources that publishers have embraced concepts such as shared work, interactivity, problem solving and fun. They have taken a multi-dimensional approach and seem to have left behind - to some extent - the notion that all you have to do is work through a couple of exercises to learn a complex concept. All the schemes are based on literacy strategy spelling objectives and meet the needs of the Scottish primary curriculum.
Olivia O' Sullivan is assistant director of the Centre for Language in Primary Education and author, with Anne Thomas, of Understanding Spelling. Order a copy at www.clpe.co.uk
Teaching spelling: what successful teachers did
In planning for the whole class, they created opportunities for:
* shared reading and writing (seeing and discussing how words work in practice) from Reception to Year 6.
* children's own writing. This may seem obvious, but our project showed that children need practice in working out spellings during the actual process of writing, not just in tests and exercises when it's easier to get spellings right.
* word and language study, in relation to different areas of spelling knowledge, for example, word meanings and structures - knowing that "sign", "signature" and "signal" are related. These sessions are now part of the literacy hour and need to be lively, mainly oral and interactive.
* using a range of spelling resources, from alphabet cards in the early years to a range of dictionaries and thesauruses later on.
* using computers for writing and editing, as well as for activities linked specifically to spelling.
To support individuals, teachers created regular routines for:
* targeted individual support and intervention during the writing process. Children in our project valued this teacher support in all aspects of their writing, and enjoyed talking to teachers about their writing and spelling.
* children to proof read their own work - even from an early age. Create an "editing table" with appropriate resources, for example, word banks, classroom-made and printed dictionaries.
* children to work on misspellings from their own writing by using a spelling log. This can be done on a weekly basis in the literacy hour by using "look-say-cover-write-check" and making collections of words with similar patterns. This is crucial for addressing individual spelling issues; for children to take control of their own learning, and for teachers to monitor progress.
* working with a spelling partner for learning and testing spellings.
* monitoring the development of children experiencing difficulties.