Slimmed-down spelling

25th May 2001 at 01:00
Difficulties with spelling can affect children's writing skills. John Bald describes a simple system that helps when tackling problem words.

Almost all 11-year-olds who do not reach level 4 in writing, have spelling problems. This saps their confidence and lowers the quality of their writing, as they try to keep clear of words they do not know how to spell. My "Slimmed Down Spelling" system uses phonics as far as they can be relied on, and then offers a simple and systematic approach for children to use when phonics do not provide the whole answer.

It can be introduced in schools by first presenting infants with the ideas that listening hard to sounds helps us to spell, and that some words need extra letters. The whole system can then be presented in a unit at the beginning of Year 3, and reinforced in the normal course of children's writing.

Three steps to English spelling lSounds: c-a-t is not difficult, but sounds often do not tell us all we need to know in order to spell a word. We all take shortcuts in everyday speech that are easily carried over into spelling. One eight-year-old answered a question by writing: "dna", for "I don't know", unaware that he was taking a shortcut. Shortcuts often lead young children to leave out vowels. For example, in Glenda Bissex's book title, Gnys at Wrk, the first letter is pronounced "gee", so why write the "e" separately?

In writing, everything has to be spelled out. Children can learn to recognise this by pronouncing words carefully and listening hard. Knowing where the shortcuts are, and deliberately choosing not to take them, is a key part of learning to spell. If you can hear a sound when you say a word, you must have at least one letter to represent it. You never use groups or extra letters unless you have learned that you need them.

Accurate use of sounds is the basis for spelling at level 2 in the national curriculum, but phonics has a second wind in spelling longer words. Once these are broken down into syllables, each syllable usually has a strong phonic correspondence at the heart of it. This helps with the complex speling children need for levels 4 and 5.

lGroups of letters: letters sometimes need to work together in groups (key groups are set out in Beve Hornsby's Alpha to Omega (Heinemann)). Some groups are easy, as they represent sounds we might expect, such as "sh". Others, such as "ti" (as in patient), are difficult, as the letters do not behave as they would separately. Most groups are consistent, but a small number (eg "ough") are not. Extending their repertoire of groups of letters helps children move towards level 3.

lExtra letters: most extra letters serve a purpose - the most common is final "e". Double letters often keep two vowels apart (for example: shopping, sitting). Some extra letters are used purely to form a wall, such as the u in circuit and biscuit.

Some extra letters are awkward and serve no purpose, but there is often a pattern to them. In lamb, climb, and dumb, for example, "b" always follows "m". In wrist, write and wrong, "w" always precedes "r". There is usually not more than one awkward element in a word, and we can usually find at least one other similar word. Once children can handle the basic correspondences between sounds, letters and groups of letters, they can turn their attention to these elements.

John Bald is a language consultant and a registered inspector. He would like to hear from any teachers interested in using the system at


* We use what the letters tell us, but we don't believe they tell us everything. We can rely on them most of the time, but not all of the time. Some things we have to know and learn.

* We never use any extra letter letter in a word unless we're sure we need it. If we only think we need an extra letter, we leave it out.

* The English language is roughly 1,000 years old (explain William and the results of conquest). It's not surprising there are a few wrinkles.

* Once children have learned how to think words through, they need to practise them, to find words with similar spellings, and to use new words they learn in their work.

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