15th November 1996 at 00:00
The strategies of spelling are built up in stages, until children can perform the entire repertoire of skills. In the first instalment of a three-part series, Sue Palmer looks at how infants learn to match sounds to symbols.

UNPACKING THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM. Teaching reading and writing is not a tidy business. You can't say, "First you do this and then you do this," and proceed in a neat sequential fashion until all the children have achieved complete literacy. It doesn't work like that. It's more a case of coming at it from every angle under the sun - balancing incidental and systematic teaching methods, meaning-driven and code-driven approaches, real books and phonics - and, with fingers crossed and eyes skinned, trying to ensure you pick up every child's needs along the way.

However, there are certain aspects of literacy teaching which do have a sequential feel about them, largely because developmental factors are involved. The way children learn to spell, for instance, seems to depend on them going through certain stages, and the spelling targets listed in the National Curriculum reflect them. Broadly speaking, there seem to be three major phases of development - a phonetic stage roughly covering key stage l; an increasingly visual stage during the lower junior years; and a wider "linguistic" stage in upper juniors and beyond. Each stage seems to build on, and to some extent depend upon, the last. Teaching methods have to vary to suit the needs of children at different stages.

In the beginning, learning to spell seems largely concerned with recognising common sound-symbol relationships. This cannot begin until children are aware of the significance of sound in language and the ways in which spoken language is converted into writing. So, we shouldn't even think about spelling until we know children have adequate phonological awareness, are familiar with the alphabet and, through plenty of modelled reading and emergent writing activities, are thoroughly at home with print, what it's for and how it works.

Once this sort of readiness is achieved, learning about sound-symbol relationships for spelling is bound up with the teaching of phonics for reading. All the time you're teaching phonics, you're preparing the ground for spelling.

The major elements of phonics, which in my experience help the development of spelling at KS 1, are listed in the box opposite. As they gradually absorb this phonic data, children need lots of opportunities to use it. Working out how to build up words from sounds for yourself is an excellent way of internalising phonic knowledge. This allows children to "experiment" in their spelling, which will help develop both reading and spelling skills, as well as sitting comfortably within a developmental writing programme.

Phonics and spelling are also connected with the teaching of handwriting. It makes sense to combine learning the sound of a letter with learning how to form its shape, and later to rehearse the sounds groups of letters make while learning how to join them together in writing. I'd always teach digraphs such as "sh" and "oo" as joined-up units, where the "together-shape" reflects the "together-sound". As soon as possible, join common word-endings (rimes) too, like "ing" and "and".

Indeed, if you're teaching phonics and handwriting thoroughly you could probably get away without teaching much spelling at all. But a structured spelling course starting towards the end of Year 1 is a grand opportunity to revisit and revise phonic facts in another context, and to ensure that everything children need to know has been comprehensively covered. Such a course should concentrate on common rhyming (and riming) words such as "top", "stop", "shop", "drop""day", "say", "stay", "plays""name", "came", "same" so that children see over and over how patterns of sound can be reflected in patterns of letters, and learn the inestimable use of analogy in dealing with regular words.

Unfortunately, of course, regular words in basic English can be thin on the ground, and many of the common words children want to use in their writing don't follow the simple phonic rules we teach. In the early stages, try not to bother too much about this. The child who writes "sed" instead of "said" is demonstrating an understanding of sound-symbol relationships which we should applaud rather than decry. On the other hand, no teacher wants children to spell such a common word wrongly over and over again, getting into bad habits which might be difficult to eradicate later.

These common irregular words are best dealt with as wholes - linking spelling with handwriting by teaching them as joined-up words from the beginning. I always used to refer to such words as "oddbods", since they didn't fit into any of the patterns we looked at in spelling lessons. But usually as time went on we would come across others which shared an obvious link. "Said", for instance, can eventually be chummed up with "say" in terms of its meaning and "paid" in terms of its spelling pattern. If you encourage children to analogise, they'll eventually be on the lookout for links such as this.

It's traditional to list frequently-used "key words" (especially irregular ones) in word books or on wall charts as children need to be constantly reminded of oddbod spellings. Unfortunately, referring to word books and charts can distract children from the actual business of writing. A head teacher in Bristol, Clive Felton, has solved the problem by producing "writing mats". These are A3 sheets of laminated card, with alphabetical lists of key words written on them, which children can lean on as they write. The words are there in front of them, which is far less distracting than flicking through a word book or raising your eyes to look at the wall.

In terms of spelling development as a whole, however, ensuring correct spelling of irregular words as wholes at this stage is, in my experience, something of a side-issue - involving rote learning, rather than cerebral activity. Much more important is the inputting of the phonic data which will allow children to generate regular spellings for themselves. Despite the many irregular everyday words, the vast majority of English words are phonetically regular, and armed with a good understanding of the major sound-symbol correspondences, children will have an excellent basis upon which to expand their spelling strategies as they progress up the school.

* The Language 1 pack of the Longman Book Project (by Sue Palmer and Michaela Morgan) is a complete course in phonics, handwriting and spelling for Key Stage 1.

* For information on spelling mats send SAE to Clive Felton, 37 Manor Lane, Charfield, Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucester, GL12 8TA

* For details of Sue Palmer's roadshow "The Five Ages of Spelling" for teachers and student teachers, send SAE to Language Live, 11 St George's Road, Truro, Cornwall TR1 3JE

* Next week Years 3 and 4 - Spelling by eye, ear, hand and brain


Start with single-syllable words, teaching: * the basic alphabet letter-sounds and how these can be used to build simple words, like c-a-t;

* that letter-sounds can blend together (like st and br) or letters can join up to make a new "together-sound" (like ch, sh and th);

* that patterns of sound (rhymes) are often reflected in patterns of letters (rimes), as in tip, drip and chip or sing, bring and thing;

* that vowels often combine to make together-sounds (to represent their vowel names, as in ay, ee, oa, or to make completely new sounds like oo and ow);

* that some letters can stand for more than one sound (for example, y), others often double up (like ll in ill or ck in back) and some are silent (for example, final e, as in name).

When children can produce and respond to single syllables as complete units, begin building bigger words, for instance:

* adding endings, like -s, -ly, -ing,-er or -ed (beware this one - it has a variety of sound values which can confuse children with poor visual memory);

* putting two obvious syllables together to create a longer word (for example, in+side, rob+in);

* showing how to break upbuild common multi-syllabic words (for example, sis-ter, chil-dren, hap-py);

* teaching some common irregular syllables as wholes (for example, -tion and -ture).

A complete list of the most important phonic sounds to teach at KS 1 was given in The TES Primary and Pre-school section on September 6.

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