A study of children in three London primary schools suggests those who pick up spelling at an early age tend to have a particular interest in both the sound and shape of words.
Learning lists by rote and spelling exercises appears to be the least effective way of improving children's spelling. Teachers who intervened in children's writing and discussed with them the points they could develop, produced greater improvements.
The study was carried out before the introducation of the National Literacy Strategy, which also emphasises direct involvement in children's writing, rather than the marking of completed work.
Ministers are concerned about poor standards of writing in primary schoos and spelling tests are included in the key stage 1 and 2 national tests taken by seven and 11-year-olds.
Schools are also provided with spellings that children should be able to tackle by particular ages.
The researchers, Olivia O'Sullivan and Anne Thomas, say teachers find it more difficult to create time for children to write at length or in depth because of the demands of the curriculum.
In some case studies, children's progress faltered or regressed when writing lessons were too narrowly focused.
The study suggests that fluent readers who spell badly benefit from direct teaching of spelling patterns. The children needing most help are those who also have difficulty in reading.
'Understanding Spelling' is available from the Centre for Language in Primary Education, Webber Street, London, SE11 8QY