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Download our spelling assessment (PDF 135kb) Opening a new window - an assessment tool to help you identify a pupil's spelling needs.

You can also download our baseline reading and spelling assessment (PDF 965kb).

Learning to spell

Learning to spell a new words is a complex and often lengthy process for learners with a specific learning difficulty.  It relies heavily on memory, which is generally an area of weakness for such learners.  Success therefore depends on learning a spelling strategy to support their memory difficulties. 

Different pupils have different learning styles, so it is important to try a range of strategies to find which works best for each child. can produce personalised precision reading walls in seconds.

Learning Hierarchy for Spelling

Whichever strategies are used, there are 4 key stages to mastering the spelling of a word so that it can be used automatically and accurately in independent writing in a range of situations and so this can be maintained over time.

  1. Accuracy (teach and practise)
  2. Fluency (practise at speed)
  3. Generalisation (practise in different contexts)
  4. Maintenance (retain accuracy over time)

Each stage must be mastered before moving onto the next and this is achieved through overlearning or lots of practice.  For learners with SpLD, it is recommended that they practise spelling activities daily for short periods focussing on a small number of spellings.  The amount of time spent on each stage will vary from learner to learner, but will perhaps be a week initially of daily sessions for the accuracy, fluency and generalisation stages followed by a maintenance period where the pupil embeds their new learning and self-monitors, perhaps by self checking against the spellings in a personal spelling dictionary or on a word mat.

How to develop the 4 stages to spelling mastery

Accuracy stage

To maximise learning, it is essential that a multisensory approach to learning the new words is adopted so that all the neural pathways (visual, auditory, verbal and kinaesthetic) are being used simultaneously.  This way, learners with SpLD who have a weakness in one or more modes of processing can use their strengths in another mode of processing to compensate for it.

The Look - Say - Cover - Write - Check method is a multisensory approach and can also be slightly adapted to suit the child's learning style.  For example, for kinaesthetic learners, additional stages can be inserted such as the learner tracing over the word in the air before writing it, closing eyes whilst writing it.  For pupils with severe difficulties, it is important that the child vocalises the letter names and then the whole word each time they spell/read it.  Additionally, they should look very hard at the word and be encouraged to visualise it by taking a 'mental picture' of it before beginning the rest of the routine.

Rainbow Writing is a helpful multisensory method for learning tricky high frequency words in particular.  An A4 sheet is divided by folding into 4 equal sections and the word to be learnt is written clearly in the centre of the top left section in pencil using cursive handwriting by the adult.  As the adult writes the word, they say each letter name and then the whole word at the end.  The pupil then traces over the word in a different colour, again saying each letter name as they write and the whole word at the end.  This is repeated several times in different colours.  Next the pupil copies the word into the top right section of the paper, verbalising it as they write.  The paper is then folded in half to hide the words already written and the pupils writes the word from memory in the bottom left section whilst saying each letter name aloud.  Lastly, the pupil writes the word with their eyes closed in the bottom right section, still saying each letter by name and then the whole word.

Visual spelling is a useful technique to practise with visual learners, but it is also a good way to help other pupils develop stronger visual spelling skills.

Firstly it is necessary to build up the learner's visualisation technique.  Ask the child to look up towards a blank piece of wall space and imagine that they can see the image of a familiar object on that space e.g. a cat.  Ask them to describe what it looks like e.g. its colour, markings, size, collar colour.  As the pupil gets better at this type of activity, move onto describing less familiar items and ask the pupil to close their eyes while they do it.  If they get stuck, they can open their eyes, look at the space on the wall where they visualised the image, then close their eyes again and carry on.  Once they are able to do this easily too, move onto visualising simple words such as their name.

Next, move onto applying the technique to the new word to be learnt.  Show the child the word and ask them to look carefully at it and then take a mental photo of it.  Cover the word and ask them to look up at the blank space on the wall and project the image of the word onto it.  Ask: How many letters are there in the word?  Are there any tall letters?  Are there any letters that go below the line?  Say the names of the letters reading the word forward.  Say the letter names reading the word backwards.  Write the word in cursive handwriting.

Repeat the process until the new spelling is secure and the pupil is ready to move to the fluency stage.

The book Seeing Spells Achieving by Olive Hickmott and Andrew Bendefy gives more detail about this approach.

Mnemonics - these are ways of giving a pupil a 'mental hook' to help remember a tricky spelling.  This can be visual, using colour (perhaps highlighting a word within a word) or a picture, or auditory, perhaps using a rhyme to remember each letter.
E.g. drawing a pair of eyes in the OO of LOOK
E.g. highlighting 'a rat' in separate
E.g. making a rhyme to remember the ould in COULD Oh! You lucky duck

Onset and rime - this approach supports children with weaker memories by reducing the number of sound units the child has to remember.  The initial sound is separated from the rime unit      e.g. p-it, k-it, s-it, l-it, m-it.  New spellings are taught in word families (in this example, the it family) so the pupil can also learn by analogy.  

The book 33 Ways to Help with Spelling by Heather Morris offers practical ideas for activities to support learners who struggle with spelling.

Fluency stage

The speed of spelling needs to be increased until no recall time is needed and the pupil is able to automatically write the word correctly,
Precision teaching method - this involves speed spelling the target words daily, or at least several times a week, with the aim of beating the previous day's record.  Allow 5-10 minutes.  You will need a timer.  The time taken for each activity should be recorded and can be plotted on a graph.  Word grids can be written on a word wall.  It is best to limit the target words to 10 at any one time and it may be best to begin with fewer words, depending on the child.  Start with 7 words the child knows and add 3 new ones.  The idea of this is to build confidence and support pupils with low self esteem.  After 3 consecutive sessions where the word is spelt correctly, it can be removed from the list and replaced with a new word.

Generalisation Stage

Children with SpLD need a staged approach to spelling the target words correctly in their independent writing.  They benefit from practice in short scaffolded tasks such as:

Dictated sentences - a short sentence containing a number of the target words and some previously taught words should be dictated to the pupil.  The pupil should then repeat the sentence back correctly and say each word aloud as they write it.  If they get stuck because they have forgotten which word comes next, encourage them to re-read the sentence from the beginning to jog their memory.  When the pupil has finished writing it, ask them to check it for any errors or omissions and then check it against the teacher's version, written in clear cursive handwriting.  Any errors should be addressed and corrected.

Cloze texts - the pupil has to complete the gaps in a short text by using their target words so that it makes sense.

Personal sentences - the pupil composes and writes short sentences involving the target words, focusing on punctuation and spelling.  They are encouraged to read them back and to self edit.

Maintenance stage

By practising the new words in their independent writing, the pupil will gradually become more and more secure with spelling them.  This stage can be supported with word banks of the new words or a personal spellings book e.g. the Base personal spellings journal.  The pupil can use these resources to help with self editing.

Recognising Spelling Difficulties

An effective way to assess a child's spelling is to analyse the errors they make in their independent writing.  Use the our Spelling Analysis sheet to help you do this. 

Photocopy a sample of independent work and highlight all the correctly spelt words.  This shows you what the child can do already. 

Note down up to ten spelling errors and then analyse each word.  For example: Is the error a common word?  If so, write it in the red section.  Continue for each word, writing each word in the correct box. 

Use this to see if there are any particular patterns of error that need addressing explicitly.  This will help you decide the most appropriate intervention or approach to use with the child.

Supporting learners with spelling difficulties in class

Not knowing how to spell a word can really slow down the writing composition process.  It disrupts the flow of ideas and contributes to the muddling of sequences, often leading to a piece of writing that is difficult for the reader to understand.  Learners with a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) tend to struggle with spelling and are often much stronger readers than spellers.  There are various ways that their spelling can be supported in class.

  • A phonic mat at the appropriate level for the pupil.
  • Clear displays in the classroom of frequently used words such as days of the week or months of the year.
  • Word mats of topic specific vocabulary with picture clues.
  • A phoneme frame for trying out spellings while sounding out phonemes.
  • A personal spelling book arranged alphabetically that they can add to.
  • A small white board for them to try out a spelling before committing it to paper.
  • ACE Spelling Dictionary.  This is a useful alternative dictionary for KS2 pupils who struggle with spelling, but who are confident at breaking words into syllables and identifying short and long vowel sounds.
  • Chambers Spell It Yourself Dictionary - lists related forms of the word next to it, helping the pupil to see connections and use analogy e.g. run, running, runner to develop their spelling.
  • Barrington Stoke School Spelling Dictionary - printed on dyslexia-friendly cream paper and shows a phonetically plausible version of the word in red with the correct version next to it in black.
  • Oxford Primary Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Dictionary (OUP).  The dictionary section makes up half of the book and is clearly laid out showing words related to the root word and highlighting some spelling oddities in Watch Out! boxes.
  • DD's Dictionary - an iPad app that groups words alphabetically and allows the user to listen to the word selected to verify it is the one they want.  It also shows homophones at the same time.
  • Ask Siri - pupil can use this facility on an iPad e.g. Asks aloud 'How do you spell.....?'  And then can see it written and with a definition.  Useful for pupils with very weak spelling who have no idea where to start looking up a word in a dictionary.

Download A-Z spelling grid, Word Fan (first 100 words) Word Fan (next 100 words) Spell Checker card, Key word spell check sheet from the free resources section.

How to teach the spelling of a new word in class

  • Use colour to highlight a word within a word, the tricky part of the word (yacht), the root word (sparkly, sparkler, sparkled), suffixes/prefixes (unread, misbehave, leaked) etc and draw pupils' attention to it. 
  • Help pupils to think of other words that share the same spelling pattern so they can use analogy (dream, cream).
  • Break the word into syllables and say each syllable aloud as it is being written (dis-gust-ing).
  • Display it on the Words of the Week board.
Page was last updated on: 12/04/2021 15:27:34


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