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.  The free website www.worksheetgenius.com 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

1.   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.

Look-Say-Cover-Write-Check Bookmark

Spelling Practice Sheet

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.

Rainbow Writing Sheet

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 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 Base Word Maps folder supports teaching using this approach.

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

2.   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.

Word Wall 1

Word Wall 2

3.   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.

4.    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.

A to Z Spelling Grid