Spelling Photosynthesis

Here’s an updated version of a post which was originally a response to this tweet:

Of course #syntheticphonics is vital, but does it help a child spell photosynthesis in Yr. 5? We need to equip ALL children with ALL the tools to succeed. #syllables

It’s a reasonable question that highlights two issues:

1. If phonics doesn’t help a year 5 child to spell photosynthesis it’s because year 5 (and year 6 and secondary and beyond) teachers are often not equipped to use phonics (syllables, sounds and graphemes) as a tool for spelling increasingly complex vocabulary in a way that suits the age and experience of their learners.

2. There seems to be a perception that phonics and morphology are mutually exclusive but this is simply not true. Start with speech and the symbols that represent the sounds we say but support memory and expand vocabulary by exploring everyday roots and suffixes. It is impossible to spell well using only sight or only sound. It is a beautiful mixture of the two so be prepared to be flexible.

Spelling photosynthesis without using syllables, sounds and graphemes is asking students to recall and draw a visually complex string of letters. According to (a spelling site that no longer exists), the following is an analysis of misspellings of photosynthesis “collected from over 14,913,252 spell check sessions”:

Errors that could be fixed by saying the word clearly, syllable by syllable: photosythesis (29%)   photosynthsis (15%)   photosnythesis (4%)   photosythenisis (2%)

Errors that could be fixed with a clear spelling voice and good use of bundling for memory: photosynthisis (8%)   photosynthasis (8%)   photosenthasis (4%)   photosyntheisis (4%)   photosyntheses (4%)   photosynthesise (4%)

I would also add that, without phonics, some of the young people I’ve worked with would spell it something like photosfys.


So how do you make sure every student can spell photosynthesis without memorising and regurgitating strings of letter names? These are instructions for working one-to-one or in a small group but it could also be taught from the front or online via Jamboard etc.


  • First make up puzzle pieces for each student with one grapheme (not letter) per tile. Keep in a pile until you’ve completed the following steps:


How many syllables in photosynthesis?

‘5’ (having tapped them out on the table)

Say them clearly.

pho to syn the sis

You will probabably have to model the spelling voice, something like ‘foe toe sin thee sis’, but have them say it out loud too. This will fail unless students are saying syllables and sounds out loud.

  • Now reveal your puzzle pieces.  

What’s the first syllable? (might have to say them all again) pho

Build ‘pho’. The beauty of the puzzle approach is that there is no letter f to confuse them. Some will just build photo because they know the word; others might need you to ask for the first sound in ‘pho’.

Make sure they say the sounds as they move each puzzle piece.

Then ‘to’ (‘toe’).

More confident spellers might work syllable by syllable but less confident spellers may want to work sound by sound with you talking through each syllable.


  • Next, everyone writes out the word, syllable by syllable, saying the sounds.

The more confident will say and write whole syllables fluently without looking at the puzzle. The less confident may copy and say each sound.