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11/12/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 11/11/2019 18:34

The Complete and Exhaustive Guide On How To Teach Spelling

In summary: To teach spelling to primary or elementary-aged students, you should:

  • Strengthen their memorisation of words
  • Expand their lexical store (the amount of words they know)
  • Develop their linguistic understanding (why words are spelt the way they are)

Spelling is a complex subject to teach. While it's tempting to think auto-correct and other spelling software will solve all of our problems, the reverse is true. The ever-changing demands of communication in the 21st century require greater flexibility than any other time in history. It's never been more important for students to learn to spell.

As the demand for quality of communication and literacy grows, the ways we teach spelling to students must adapt. To help teachers deliver rich spelling instruction, we've devised a new pedagogical method: The Lexical-Linguistic Approach.

But before we introduce it, let's run through the problems we're commonly faced with in our classes:

The challenges of teaching spelling

Dealing with spelling myths and misconceptions

It's commonly thought that spelling is a fixed ability or a genetic trait and that the practice is dependant entirely on memorisation or reading.

In reality, spelling is a skill that can be learned, must be taught explicitly, and requires more than memorisation lessons to be properly understood.

Teacher confidence in spelling knowledge

While most educators have above average literacy skills, teaching spelling effectively requires deep pedagogical content knowledge. The way spelling was taught in the past has not adequately equipped some teachers with the depth of knowledge they require to teach spelling to the next generation.

Insufficient time to deliver proper instruction

In an increasingly crowded curriculum, teachers have less time to focus on each subject. Spelling can easily become a casualty in the fight against time - frequently relegated less focus in the larger subject of literacy, and ends up with less attention than it deserves.

Students can't hold onto their spelling knowledge

The 'Friday's Test, Monday's Miss' phenomena showed students excelled at remembering how to spell words for tests but failed to retain the information after the tests were over. This is due to the perfect storm caused by insufficient time and memorisation-first spelling strategies: we lack the time to teach in-depth spelling and are forced to rely on short-term memorisation techniques. This spelling learning isn't sticky - and it shows.

Students can find spelling boring

Spelling as an act of memorisation can reinforce fixed mindsets and perpetuate the misconception that spelling is only achievable for those with a naturally good memory. And with the stage set for failure, practice and fluency tasks in spelling seem disconnected, purposeless and repetitive.

How does spelling develop?

Spelling milestones age 5-6

  • developing phonemic awareness
  • learning about sound letter relationships
  • will learn that language is broken into words
  • are phonetic spellers
  • use invented spelling
  • leave out vowels
  • will learn to spell their name
  • will use environmental print to assist their spelling
  • learn to spell simple, common CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words
  • reverse letters

Spelling milestones ages 7-8

  • spelling words they read and use frequently
  • is breaking words into syllables
  • begin to spell unknown words
  • begin to use rhyme to spell words
  • will find and correct simple spelling errors
  • will use sources around them for spelling
  • consolidate how words are formed

Spelling milestones ages 9-10

  • continuing to develop visual memory
  • spelling is getting increasingly accurate
  • learning how to form compound words
  • spelling words made of many syllables
  • develop personal spelling lists for their writing
  • will learn spelling rules

What are the elements of spelling?

Spelling knowledge is made up of 5 distinct elements:


[phono'sound' +-logy'study']

Phonology is concerned with the smallest units of sound (phonemes). It is the understanding of sound in letters; how they're pronounced, how they change, and the ways they can be pronounced. Teaching phonology in spelling focuses on developing the skills to identify sounds through segmenting and syllabification and represent them using letters (graphemes).

Examples of phonology activities include:

  • Phonics knowledge (segmenting and blending)
  • Matching sounds to graphemes (eg. Elkonin boxes)
  • Finger spelling
  • Onset and rime


[orthos'correct' +-graphia'writing']

Orthography is concerned with the common letter sequences and patterns that are acceptable in the English spelling system. A rich orthographic knowledge allows students to make and apply rules and generalisations as well as develop visual sensitivity to acceptable letter patterns.

Examples of orthography activities include:

  • Applying rules
  • Making generalisations
  • Exploring alternative letter patterns
  • Identifying acceptable letter patterns and spellings


[morpho'shape' +-logy'study']

Morphology is concerned with the smallest units of meaning (morphemes) within words. Instruction aims to develop knowledge of morphemes including prefixes and suffixes and the ability to manipulate and analyse morphemes in words. A rich morphological knowledge is vital to allow writers to use known words in different past of speech, person and tense.

Examples of morphology activities include:

  • Word building (prefixes and suffixes)
  • Compound word activities
  • Word fact files
  • Exploring word meanings


[etymos 'true sense' +-logy'study']

Etymology is concerned with the origin and history of words - where they came from, their pronunciation, and what their meaning is. Instruction aims to provide knowledge of these origins and how they inform spelling and meaning. A rich etymological knowledge is vital in storing words in a meaningful system and improves vocabulary.

Examples of etymological activities include:

  • Identifying word families (tricycle, tripod, trident, triple)
  • Recognising letter patterns from other languages
  • Constructing meaning from etymology (photo (light) + graph (drawing))
  • Vocabulary building

Lexical store

The lexical store is a well-organised and reliable store of words and word knowledge. It's where we store how words are spelt, what they mean, and their relationship to other words and meanings.

Efficient retrieval of a reliable lexical store reduces the cognitive load in writing tasks and allows students to focus on the complex task of expressive communication. It also provides a bank of knowledge that can be used to apply known spelling to new words.

Examples of lexical storing activities:

  • Mnemonics
  • Spelling bees
  • Look, say, cover, write, check
  • Word fact files

How do we teach spelling?

To help learners become confident spellers we need to build their understanding of phonology, orthography, morphology and etymology, grow their lexical stores, and develop efficient memorisation and retrieval techniques. We've developed a new spelling approach that addresses these disparate elements into one method:

The Lexical-Linguistic Approach

The Lexical-Linguistic Approach gives students the tools and knowledge they need to make better attempts at spelling unknown words.

What do we mean by explicit instruction?

Explicit instruction is used to demonstrate concepts and build student knowledge and skills. Teachers show students what to do and how to do it and create opportunities in lessons for students to demonstrate understanding and apply the learning. In the Lexical-Linguistic Approach, we acknowledge the need to provide explicit instruction in each component of effective spelling; showing them how it's done, what it means, and how they can do it themselves.

What do we mean by strategic knowledge and application?

After students have an understanding of phonology, orthography, morphology and etymology, they're able to apply the learning in their attempt to spell a word they haven't encountered before. For example:

A student learning to spell the word infinity for the first time may need to draw on:

Phonology The first 3 syllables are able to be spelt using common grapheme-phoneme correspondences i-n-f-i-n-i-t
Orthography The final syllable makes the long /ee/ sound. At the end of a word, this is more likely to use the letter pattern 'y' or 'ey'
Morphology The final /ee/ sound is also a suffix. The root word is 'infinite'. In order to change this word from an adjective to a noun, we need to drop the 'e' and add 'y'
Etymology The meaning of the word can be derived from the origins and meanings of its parts: in- 'without' + finite 'end'

What are the benefits of the Lexical-Linguistic Approach?

The Lexical-Linguistic Approach makes spelling stick. Instead of the traditional methods of teaching students to remember how to spell certain words briefly, it provides them the tools and reinforcement they need to understand words on a deeper level.

Further, while this improves students understanding and assessment scores in the short term, in the long term it creates better, more literate communicators.

Need help teaching spelling in your classroom?

We've got you covered.

Working with teachers all around the world, we created a next-gen spelling program that was designed to help busy teachers deliver rich spelling instruction to their students:

Readiwriter Spelling - the online spelling program that helps students and teachers with better spelling.

It's yours - with unlimited access - for free until January 2020

Take Me To Readiwriter Spelling

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Moon, B. (2014). The Literacy Skills of Secondary Teaching Undergraduates: Results of Diagnostic Testing
and a Discussion of Findings. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(12).