Spelling has been a controversial issue in primary schools since the introduction of the strict secure fit model of the interim framework. Teachers across the country are spending hours planning in-depth spelling activities to ensure their pupils meet the expected standard at the end of each key stage.
I’ve heard horror stories of teachers shoehorning random words from the DfE spelling lists into pupils’ writing to demonstrate that they are secure with those spellings. But this approach does little to prepare children to spell similar words in the future.
During the course of this year, I’ve been using the following approaches to break down spelling rules in ways that will create lasting understanding, while also ticking the necessary boxes.
1. Study the origins of words
The National Curriculum non-statutory spelling guidance suggests exploring the etymology of words to help pupils see the links between spellings. I cannot recommend this enough.
For example, if your pupils recognise that “auto” means “by itself”, this will help them to decode and spell words like “autopilot” and “automatic”. Similarly, if they understand that the root word “bio” is Greek for “life” and that “graph/graphy” is Greek for “written”, they can use this knowledge to unpick the meaning of “biography”. And if they combine all of this, they should be able to grasp “autobiography” too.
This knowledge can be applied when pupils encounter new words, giving them a better idea of how to spell them.
2. Create neologisms to teach spelling
Shakespeare played with words and their meanings to create new words like “bedroom” and “bloodstained”. Getting our pupils to create new words and discuss the potential meaning behind their creations will open possibilities for them to see yet more patterns in words they encounter in future.
3. Perform contraction surgery
Every single year I encounter pupils who struggle to spell contracted words accurately. The baffling thing is that they can all spell “did”, “would”, “should”, “could” and “not” correctly, which means that the apostrophe itself is clearly the problem; pupils do not understand its use. So, now I get my pupils to take part in contraction surgery and physically perform the role of the apostrophe.
Take two words which can be contracted ─ “should not”, for example – and write them on a strip of paper. Use scissors to cut out the letter to be omitted (in this case, the letter “o” in “not”). Next, use masking tape to connect “shouldn” to the separated “t”. Finally, draw an apostrophe over the tape joining the two parts of the word together.
It’s astonishing how many pennies will drop as soon as the pupils do this a few times.
4. Get pupils to spot irregular verbs
Spelling patterns mainly differ for irregular verbs, so pupils need to learn these.
to walk > walked > has walked = regular
to fly > flew > has flown = irregular
Use strips of paper to write verbs in the present simple tense (walk, talk, run, listen, swim, etc) and then ask the pupils to fold the end of the paper over to conjugate the verb into the past simple. For example, “walk” becomes “walked”, while “swim” becomes “swam”.
Pupils will soon see that although lots of verbs just add a suffix ‘-ed’ to the end, there are some that do not follow this pattern. From here, you can explore irregular verbs further.
5. Mark by the letter
Simply telling a pupil that they have spelled a word wrong is not going to help them fix future errors. I have recently worked with a school where teachers tick all of the correct letters in a misspelled word and then put a dot or cross beside the incorrect letter. This approach means pupils only have a single letter to focus on, which they can often correct independently by sounding out the word again.