Researchers agree that spelling is a developmental process, with children going through a number of stages during the primary years. This consensus is reflected in the national curriculum spelling targets. Different research projects define the stages in different ways, but there are three broad bands of development. In the infants, children should achieve a reasonable command of the phonetic basis of English; by the age of seven or eight most rely on visual strategies; and in the later primary years they develop more linguistic strategies based on their growing knowledge of language and their expanding vocabulary.
This article focuses on the middle stage, around years 3 and 4, when children have acquired enough knowledge of phonics to be able to build up words from their constituent sounds and make simple analogies, matching patterns of sound (rhymes) to patterns of letters (rimes) such as "and", "all" and "ick". Their writing is by this time readable but riddled with phonetic misspellings such as "wons" or "dident", demonstrating the inadequacy of relying solely on phonetic encoding in a hotch-potch of a language such as English.
From now on, visual strategies must be emphasised alongside more sophisticated auditory processing methods, and the phrase Look Say Cover Write Check is a useful model. Children need training in what to look for to make their visual scanning of a word as effective as possible, and how to pronounce words in order to remember significant features of the spelling (see box). They also need accepted classroom practices and routines which enable them to use the system productively.
Recognition of patterns and similarities between words is at the heart of spelling, so regular, structured lessons, each focusing on a particular feature in a number of words, are important; if we rely purely on incidental teaching of the words children need for their writing, their attention won't be drawn to the language patterns that will help them spell a wider variety of words. Structured lessons need not be boring. You can, for instance, make collections of objects with names that feature particular spelling patterns (such as a toy knife, a door knocker, a knee pad, some knitting and a pair of large knickers) or invent characters to popularise a particular spelling rule, such as Georgina the Egyptian Giraffe, who can be brought to life as a puppet and feature in children's stories larded with "soft g" words.
structured lessons also give opportunities for teachers to employ the Look Say Cover Write Check system as they demonstrate spelling features on the board, and for children to practise it when learning groups of related spelling words for homework or in class.By linking spelling lessons to handwriting practice, you can mop up another basic skill while you're at it.
It is, however, also important to address the teaching of spelling to individual children at "point of need", according to which words they need to spell in written work. This is not to say they should be encouraged to worry about spelling as they write. If they're busy with composition, they can't be expected to concentrate on correctness too, and continually stopping to check spellings ruins the flow of a piece of writing. Instead they should be taught and encouraged to proof-read their work, both at natural stopping places (when they fancy a break from composing) and at the end. During proof-reading they can list the spelling words they're unsure of and seek advice.
The national curriculum encourages the use of dictionaries, which are helpful when a teacher isn't available. But consulting a dictionary can be time-consuming and daunting (especially to the poor speller, who really needs personal help). The use of a spelling record book (see box) encourages children to use the Look Say Cover Write Check system twice on each word they enter, and, it is to be hoped, learning to spell it. It also builds up for the teacher a list of words requested by each individual in the class, which can become the basis of occasional individualised spelling homework - especially if, from half-termly spot checks of children's books, you add in other significant words which you've noted them misspelling.
Nowadays computer programs are particularly useful for assisting poor spellers; children are usually only too happy to spend 20 minutes or so twice a week working on an interesting program, and computers are just the sort of patient, non-threatening private tutors the poor speller needs to build up confidence. A particularly good CD-Rom, which backs up the Look Say Cover Write Check philosophy, is Speaking Starspell. It works on groups of related words, displaying each one on screen (often with an illustration), speaking it clearly (I encourage children to repeat it softly themselves so as to gain the benefits of articulation), then inviting the speller to key it in from memory and correcting any misspellings (very entertainingly).
Establishing a Look Say Cover Write Check spelling culture can be time-consuming, and children need lots of practice of the system and of the classroom routines through which it is maintained. But it ensures that they learn to use all the major routes of input - eye, ear, hand and brain - to access and retain spelling patterns. And the more attention given to spelling at this stage, the sooner correctness will become automatic and we can all stop worrying about it and concentrate on the content of children's writing.
* Sue Palmer has written two spelling courses for key stage 2, Mind Your Spelling and the language strand of The Longman Book Project (Language 2, 3 and 4), both published by Longman
* For information on her spelling road shows for pupils and teachers, send a SAE to 11 St George's Road, Truro, TR1 3JE
* Speaking Starspell is available from Fisher-Marriott Software, 3 Grove Road, Ansty, Coventry, CV7 9JD. Tel: O12O3 616325
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN LEARNING A SPELLING WORD
* Obvious analogies to other words (such as unusual spelling patterns like the Greek ph in dolphin, elephant and photograph or common and clearly meaningful prefixes like in or pre).
* Common letter-strings like and, all and ight. Worthy of special note are letter-strings such as ear and one which may be pronounced in a number of different ways (for example, ear, wear, earth, heart and one, done, gone, bone).
* Double letters, and "sandwiches" such as the ele of elephant and the cyc of bicycle.
* Words which exemplify fairly trustworthy spelling rules, such as c and g being soft when followed by e, i, or y, and the famous "magic e " rule. Examples of each of these can be the basis of regular structured spelling lessons.
HOW TO SAY AND LISTEN TO WORDS
* Pronounce the word slowly and clearly, splitting it into syllables (eg ad-ven-ture) . When you write the word, write it syllable by syllable.
* Exaggerate your pronunciation, especially of vowels, which in day-to-day speech we often pronounce as a sort of "uh" grunt (called a schwa). The usual pronunciation of elephant, for instance, contains two schwas. e, a, o and u are similar in shape and height, and can easily be confused in visual memory, so auditory reinforcement is helpful.
* Some children find it helpful to pronounce silent letters (for example,k-now, s-c-issors) and "silent syllables" (such as Wed-nes-day, re-mem-ber-ed).
A SPELLING RECORD BOOK
* Keep an exercise book in a central place, with a page labelled for each pupil.
* When a pupil asks for a spelling word, write it on a piece of scrap paper, modelling the Look Say Cover Write Check procedure, and drawing the pupil's attention to the main features to remember.
* Pupil goes to spelling record book and using Look Say Cover Write Check transfers word onto hisher page. (If she gets it wrong, she repeats procedure until it is correct.)
* Pupil then throws away scrap paper and returns to work, ideally able to write the word quickly from memory.