Many years ago, That Reading Thing was proving so successful that teachers started asking if they could deliver it in their classrooms. The answer was no because TRT is and always will be a one-to-one programme for those who need it most. However. I wanted them to understand the principles so I wrote a little book for teachers that eventually became That Spelling Thing. Today people are asking how they can teach spelling from the perspective of linguistic (speech to print) phonics. This 3rd edition of That Spelling Thing still equips classroom teachers to teach subject vocabulary, but it also offers advice for those who love phonics but realise students need more than sounds to become mature and accurate spellers.
That Spelling Thing is an evidence-based method which aligns with the 'science of reading'. It uses phonics and morphology to support memory, ensure accuracy and increase vocabulary. Spelling is a vast subject which can feel overwhelming. Learn this approach and both teaching and learning spelling will naturally fall into place.
Check that 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 write 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.
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.
Use this approach consistently:
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.
everyday morphology & etymology
Looking beyond phonemes and graphemes is particularly useful in 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 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. Make the best use of limited memory.
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 releated by meaning 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'.
Explore the frequency and context of spelling patterns.
As far as possible, let spelling words arise naturally from lessons.
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.
Choose mnemonics carefully
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 and be very careful that your 'words within words' aren't toxic morphology.
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.