How to teach spelling patterns

by | Oct 3, 2022 | Teacher's Lounge

There’s a lot more to developing children’s spelling abilities than weekly spelling lists, writes Alex Quigley, in an exclusive extract from his new book

Does spelling ability really matter in the age of the spell checker?

Many argue that it doesn’t. And yet, if you mistook “duel” for “dual” in a history essay, or “infusion” for “diffusion” in a science explanation, the spellchecker wouldn’t detect an issue.

Correct spelling isn’t the be-all and end-all of writing, but targeted support can help pupils to self-regulate their own spelling: when armed with a range of spelling strategies for unknown words, they can better fend off the narrow limits of their working memory.

It is worth taking the time to tackle spelling, then – especially given that research has shown that developing spelling ability can help to improve pupils’ writing quality, as well as improve their reading comprehension.

Pupils themselves also quickly develop a sense of judging writing with spelling accuracy in mind. In research with key stage 2 pupils, where they judged narrative writing – with either 8 per cent spelling errors or no spelling errors – pupils deemed those with errors to be poorly written and harder to read.

Unhelpfully, this aversion to spelling errors can lead to pupils limiting their own vocabulary choices, for fear of mistakes. I have told many pupils to be ambitious with their vocabulary regardless of spelling, but I observed them being inhibited all the same.

he natural urge to quickly finish a writing task with the minimum amount of mental effort can likewise act against spelling accuracy.

Accordingly, spelling often becomes a subtle measure of pupils’ attitude and effort, with misspelling often being attributed to laziness and not necessarily a lack of understanding.

Spelling patterns: why they need explicit instruction
But how do we go about improving spelling in practical terms?

Pupils may have regular spelling tests, but expecting them to improve their spelling skills with seemingly unconnected lists of complex spellings is unlikely to prepare them to use the strategic spelling strategies needed in extended writing.

When pupils attempt to improve their spelling, they are learning more than just the 26 letters of the alphabet. They are aiming to match those letters to the 44 phonemes – or sounds – represented in around 250 different spelling patterns. It is, therefore, more efficient to focus on sounds in spelling, and then common spelling patterns, than to attempt to memorise disparate lists of words.

The act of noticing spelling patterns and recognising one’s own spelling errors needs sensitive self-regulation. This can be taught explicitly.

Quick, easy approaches – such as asking young pupils to put on their “check specs” when writing – can help children to be more attentive to relatively minor spelling edits. For instance, at Wyndham Primary Academy, in Derby, each classroom had an array of colourful spectacles for editing writing. Older pupils may not tolerate such props, but the principle is the thing.

Ultimately, though, pupils can only check their spelling successfully if they have been taught common patterns and the relevant spelling strategies to do the job.

The idea that English spelling is odd and dominated by exceptions is wrong. With solid foundations in systematic phonics teaching, pupils can make plausible spelling choices based on predictable patterns.

Where, then, should teachers focus their efforts? Here are some of the most important spelling patterns that pupils of all ages need to be taught, and common errors that should be addressed.

Vowel clusters
Most simple words in the English language have a clear consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) structure. Individual vowel sounds can vary, such as a long /a/ sound being spelled with -a, -ai, -ay, -eigh, -ea or a-e.

It starts to get even trickier when vowel clusters appear, phonic patterns begin to vary, and the letter and sound correspondence is less obvious.

Tricky vowel clusters include “feet” and “feature”, “aerial” and “aerobics” (aer), “millionaire” and “questionnaire” (aire), and “queen” and “queer”.

Consonant doubling
Most consonants offer a consistent, predictable single sound when compared to trickier vowels. However, when pupils are faced with consonant doubles, they can struggle.

In fact, this is the type of error that pupils most commonly make in exams. For example, “droped” is a common misspelling of “dropped”. Typically, when the last three letters of a one-syllable word are “CVC” then you double – such as “big” to “bigger” or “sin” to “sinner”.

Spellings like “muddy” and “study” can be helpfully understood in this way. However, at other times doubling is not wholly consistent, so you can have “melon” and “mellow”, or “body” and “shoddy”.

A common issue is the presence of lots of commonly used homophones – words which sound the same but have different spellings. There are around 500 homophones which feature frequently in school writing.

Most homophones come in pairs, so the two possible spellings can be compared and practised, eg, “beach” and “beech”, “new” and “knew”. With explicit teaching, we can pronounce, pair and practise these common spelling issues which spellcheckers often miss.

Morpheme patterns
A vital progression for pupils’ spelling ability is the recognition of morphemes – or, more simply, word parts – such as word roots, prefixes and suffixes. This becomes essential when more complex academic terms are used in writing, eg, photosynthesis (photo-syn-thesis).

This implicit knowledge is used to learn new words and tricky spellings. You can target instruction, such as explicitly teaching a small number of prefixes (well over half of all prefixed words begin with “un-”, “re-”, “in-” and “dis-”).

Exception words
Every pupil can have their own spelling idiosyncrasies. Some spellings are borrowed from other languages or have rare combinations (words like “coffee”, which has a unique double letter spelling pattern).

Many spellings of academic terms have clear Greek or Latin origins, so a little etymology unveils many spelling oddities (such as the silent b in “debt” relating to the Latin roots of “debitum”).

Spelling lists can be a starting point, but more support is needed. With targeted teaching and structured practice, we can help pupils of all ages to better self-regulate their spelling when writing.

Spelling will never be simple for everyone, but teaching prominent spelling patterns, explicitly and consistently, is bound to make a helpful difference.

Source : tes magazine