What is the best way to teach spelling?

Sometimes teachers have to get creative with spelling to spread a love of words to reluctant learners, says Lucy Moss

Lucy Moss

What's the best way to teach spelling?

"I just hate spelling. I can’t do it, I’ll never be able to do it, so don’t ask me to do any more."

So said a new Year 6 in my class who was telling me, in his own way, that he hadn’t been taught spelling properly, that it scared him, even intimidated him.

And so we stopped learning "spelling". I would, I decided, have to find another way.

This was not an inviting prospect, with the threat of Sats never far away. However, I was as keen to avoid any more showdowns as he was keen to avoid learning to spell.

So instead we spent the next few months dissecting words, using games such as Scrabble, and learning words by labelling and stickering everything without (and sometimes with) a pulse.

This last approach I found appealed hugely; he seemed to prefer learning the "shape" of a word rather than understanding its root, prefix or suffix parts.

Spelling: a mixed approach

There are, of course, plenty of children out there who do not learn to spell in the way many people think they should.

Long have the virtues of synthetic phonics been extolled, but it’s not for everyone. 

Toe by toe, an intervention that uses the principles of synthetic phonics but also drip-feeds non-phonic words from the start has produced great results in many children who struggle to decode or who have dyslexic difficulties. 

And teaching spelling in a more creative way can show your passion for words: and that is important. 

Ask any child, and they will tell you that they need to be able to spell. Many of them know it is important, especially to the adults in their lives.

But actually wanting to understand words, caring enough to look up the meaning and learn a spelling off by heart comes from deeper within. 

Learning to love words

The love of words, of etymology, the need to comprehend the origin of a root word, can only be instilled by a teacher who is themselves enthusiastic and passionate about language. 

Word games, wordplay, puns, riddles, idioms – if these pepper the talk around language then surely the children in that environment will become stronger and more confident in navigating their way through unfamiliar words and less intimidated by challenging spelling patterns.

I saw this in action one hot day last spring at National Trust property Lyme Park in Cheshire. Arriving on a family day out, we were handed a treasure hunt trail through the woods, inspired by The Lost Words (written by the inimitable Robert Macfarlane and brilliantly illustrated by Jackie Morris).

Despite the lure of free archery sessions and an ice cream van, we joined the scores of children, knee-deep in ferns, squelching through streams, scrabbling up rocky slopes, hunting madly to "find the words before they are lost forever".

With clues to solve and prizes to win, it became a game. They forgot they were learning, forgot they were spelling. All they knew was the shape of that word, the beautiful bird or plant that it represented. 

One fellow mum commented, as we followed our children, breathless through a willow tunnel: "He doesn’t even like spelling or reading – I’ve never seen him so enthusiastic!" 

It’s the only way, miss

But the key isn’t enjoyment and fun alone. Rote learning, over-learning even, is important, too. Perhaps the best approach is a balance of the two? 

A quick survey of my current class revealed some interesting opinions about the teaching of spelling: they think spelling games are fun. They don’t, however, see them as the best way to learn tricky spelling patterns, and actually enjoy spelling tests. 

They look back fondly on the "Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check" sheets they remember taking home in the infants, and are unanimous in thinking that over-learning and repetition are the best ways to memorise a word – "You just have to do it over and over again Miss, it’s the only way."

When choosing spelling activities, we can indeed make sure there’s plenty of fun around. But maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to say that "try, try and try again" has its place, too. 

Hopefully, along the way, we can instil a true curiosity around words and a love of language that will stay with our children forever.

Lucy Moss is a key stage 2 leader in an inner-city primary school


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