That Spelling Thing is an evidence-based method using the ‘bones of English’ to support memory, ensure accuracy and increase vocabulary. Here are the steps to creating a classroom or even a whole school where everyone participates in spelling across the curriculum.
Use this method to introduce important subject vocabulary and to tackle frequently misspelt or misread words. If you have a statutory spelling list to master, group the words logically which is usually not alphabetical order. If almost every student spells a word wrong – a college tutor told me about 19 out of 20 of her GCSE resit students writing ‘quite’ instead of ‘quiet’ on a mock paper – then use puzzles. Once you have spelling framed as a conversation, every student and staff member can take responsibility for improving spelling across the curriculum.
Start with the everyday root.
Spelling lists often include words like happening, definitely and immediately. Take these words back to their everyday root – which means the one you know without looking it up in an etymological dictionary. So, for ‘immediately’, start at immediate then talk about adding the ly suffix. There will be time later to look at ‘med-‘, ‘mediate’, medium’ etc.
Check everyone can say and use the word.
Spelling is as much about voice as sight. Make sure everyone can say and use the word in speech. If a student writes ‘trapzum’, they are unlikely to be saying ‘trapezium’. If they say ‘inpossible’, they’re unlikely to spell impossible. If they aren’t completely secure about what a word means, they are unlikely to use it convincingly in writing. Be explicit about the connection between what we say and what we write.
Note that you don’t have to ‘talk through’ this process once it becomes the established approach to spelling in your classroom. Do the groundwork and spelling becomes much easier for everyone.
Ask how many syllables are in the word and have them tap or extend fingers – nothing embarrassing. The only reason to count is to slow down and be aware of the parts of the word.
Ask everyone to say the syllables clearly. Teacher ‘nudges for meaning’ if necessary. For instance, if someone says in/ter/es/ting, nudge to isolate the obviously meaningful part, /ing/. This is not word study – just everyday affixes.
Suggest a spelling voice to clear up any unstressed vowels or unclear syllables. Some words have more than others: en/vi/ron/ment
sounds & graphemes
If you’re using puzzle pieces, reveal them now and have students build the word syllable by syllable and sound by sound if necessary.
If you’re spelling without puzzle pieces, have students write the graphemes syllable by syllable and sound by sound if necessary. If you are not sure what puzzles, building or graphemes are, the book is a good place to start. Buy That Spelling Thing
Looking at morphemes is particularly useful in maths and science subjects where meaningful parts of words are repeated. It’s also a great way to approach long words which are visually similar but morphologically distinct. Here’s an example from an article I wrote for the RaPAL Journal based on a training with college vocational tutors who noted that their students struggled to visually differentiate ‘physiology’ and ‘psychology’.
If you use an etymology website like etymonline.com or wiktionary, you will notice references to Greek, Latin, Old French and PIE (proto-Indo-European) roots. Use your judgment about whether or not the information found there will make spelling easier or not.
Ask (don’t tell) which bit needs extra concentration.
Once you’ve built or spelt the word, ask each student to decide which is their ‘tricky bit’ (or bits). They will often be predictable but not always. Give your students ownership of their spelling in a shame-free environment. Reinforce the fact that teachers aren’t perfect spellers by letting them know which bits you have to remember. Good spellers know where their gaps are and how to fill those gaps.
Bundle to support memory. Make every word the jumping off point for 4 to 5 others.
There are many ways to bundle words to support memory but here are a couple of ideas.
Choose words with the same morpheme even if pronunciation is different – hierarchy, arch-enemy, archbishop, archangel
Choose words with the same graphemes when you’ve got an unusual spelling of a sound like the <oe> in ‘does’. ‘Does that shoe pinch your toe?’
Sometimes you will want to start with a bundle of words to clarify spelling and meaning. Here’s a slide from That Spelling Thing whole school training, starting at ‘finite’ to get to the target spelling word, ‘definite’.
See this blog post for advice on evaluating spelling strategies, particularly bad mnemonics. Please don’t make up stories to remember how to spell a word. No more elephants or salmon sandwiches!
Enjoy spelling as cumulative and collaborative.
Teaching spelling is a process which doesn’t happen in an instant but you can enjoy the journey together with your students. Book a 3-hour whole staff training to learn about creating a culture of spelling and how improving vocabulary teaching can support your weakest readers.