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Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Learning to spell is difficult. It is always an active process. Learning to read takes time, but once a student gets it, the act of reading accumulates, and they are away. Spelling is tricky and an arduous trek to a finish line if we don't teach systematically and show students how sounds, letters and word parts link.

Reading and spelling are said to be two sides of the same coin, and they are — to read, we have to be able to decode the written word to gain meaning from print. To spell, we have to retrieve the spellings to write the words. Learning to spell is not as easy as I can read. Therefore, I can spell. The act of writing is not simple. Students must be able to form the letters correctly and automatically before they even get to the spelling bit. Some children can read and spell effortlessly. I don’t see those children, and only one out of three of my children sit in that camp.

Spelling instruction is often lacking in schools

Spelling instruction is not — here is a list of words that are possibly now grouped by sound and possibly spelling thanks to the science of reading movement — read them, write them — we’ll test you on Friday. Once children can decode, teaching spelling has to go further than just teaching the sound-symbol correspondences. Early phonics instruction is crucial, but that’s only the beginning! Instruction that teaches children to link speech sounds to individual letters, or letter strings kickstarts the learning to read and spell process. But what next? What about E, G H that are in words, but we don't say them? Why do we have a ‘K’ at the beginning of some words, and why does lamb end in a ‘B’ And let’s not forget the letter ‘E’ that makes a deathly silent appearance in lots of words. Spelling instruction should also not be about creating mini linguists. A few students might be very wordy and truly love all things words, but too much instruction can kill any love of reading and spelling if all you want to do is curl up with a book or write that story.

Surely the point of literacy instruction is by the end of primary school, everybody in a mainstream classroom can functionally read and spell

Education seems to be a swinging pendulum from let’s be all holistic and surround students with good books that will somehow teach them how to read and spell to morpheme madness! Surely there is a middle ground. The first year of school should cement skills and concepts for later years. Most students should leave their first year mainstream classroom with strong decoding skills and the ability to attack longer words such as present or stocking — can you tell it is Christmas, and we have been working on longer decodable words? This is the year we should start to teach learners that the alphabet code is complex and a journey that doesn’t end when we know initial sounds and letter names. We should be teaching flexibility through our instruction. Some will be brilliant, some will need intervention, but all should have growing skills and knowledge by the end of the first year.

Teaching flexibility through phonics instruction is key to success

If we keep our language fluid, students will know there is more to learn. The letter ‘A’ represents more than one sound. We don’t need to teach them all in one go — that would be madness. But we do need to teach that there is more to learn. This instruction helps our learners become flexible thinkers. But we can only do this if teachers are armed with the right knowledge and skills. Many teachers don’t know where to start, and the internet is awash with the next best hack.

I am not aware of any literacy hacks that really work. But I do love the history of the word hack. Click here for a short New Yorker article.

The one idea (not really a hack) we always use that doesn't feature in any of these resources is the spelling voice — say words as they are written — Wed-nes-day, w - oh - man and link to w - oh - men. It even works for suffixes — construction is pretty easy until the end. We always say eye on to remember. Of course, this has to happen within a session based on spelling to give it weight. It's no good just saying words as they are written without meaning behind the spelling.

So with that in mind, I thought I would share some of my favourite books about spelling that are not a hack but will empower you to teach spelling successfully.

A knowledgeable teacher is a school's best asset.

Investing in teacher knowledge is paramount.

“You cannot teach what you do not know.”

Said by many, it seems, when I googled the quote!

The order is alphabetical by author. This is not a sponsored post. I have purchased every resource with my own money. They were not gifted.

This dictionary is huge, and the PDF version is free. Here is the link. I have it downloaded on my iPad. I use it less than the Carney book, but this is free, so would be a good download if you don't want to buy the Carney book. You can use it in your browser or download and save it in the Apple Books app. This dictionary is the perfect companion for any teacher who teaches early literacy. The contents page is comprehensive, but it lacks an index. The book has a very useful 'How to use this book section' but lacks an index. It covers all elements of the British spelling system in depth. There is also a physical copy available to buy.

A Survey of English Spelling by Edward Carney is an absolutely brilliant reference book. I use it all the time. It is a systematic review of all things spelling. A couple of years ago, I decided I really needed to get to grips with the multitude of questions asked by students. Edward Carney has helped me do just that. This book lays out the sound-spelling correspondences as a frequency with the historical processes that created the spellings. It is a deep read, but the contents pages and index are brilliant — so it is easy to find what you are looking for. It discusses rules, patterns, spelling errors, linking speech to writing, language variation due to accent and dialect, and so much more. This book has it all! Check it out here.

David Crystal is my favourite linguist. He introduced me to all things language back when I did A-levels. He has a writing style that is easy on the brain but packed with useful information. If you haven’t discovered David Crystal yet, you should. He has helped me create word stories to show my students the reasons why spelling is how it is. Without David Crystal, I wouldn’t have so many stories to tell. This book is not so much about spelling, although the subject is covered in many chapters and has a dedicated chapter — number 10 spelling rules and variations. Together with Stories of English 2004, these books give a simple history that discusses phonetics, language development and society in an accessible way for all. Check it out here.

This book answers many of those questions about ‘the why’ of spelling. It works through the history from the first scribes to the present day in 292 pages and has an excellent further reading section — many are on my ‘to read list’ This is the book with the most highlighting. I only highlight really useful books. I took my sticky notes out for the photo! This book discusses how history and invasion impacted spelling. The reasons why the letter ‘E’ is all over the place, why knowing some French and Latin is good for your spelling health and the future of English spelling. The appendix is handy. You can find two discussions that all teachers should read if you don’t read any other pages in this book – 14 pages!

Why avoiding isolated lessons is the best course of action

“If we view English spelling as being, in essence, a system of principles — albeit with many exceptions — a number of teaching strategies immediately follow…words should never be taught out of context.”

Towards a linguistics of spelling

“Spelling is a unique skill; it is the bridge which interrelates reading and writing. Literacy involves three skills not two: reading, writing — and spelling. “

This book has three brilliant indexes, which makes finding what you need a breeze. I love it when the author has put the time and effort into thinking about what the reader may need. This book describes the origins and development of English spelling. It also discusses the complexities of the sound-symbol correspondences and pronunciation. Check it out here.

If a student gets to high school unable to read and spell, it will not be the best start to this chapter in their life. These students need intervention quickly. Tricia Millar works with older students who have literacy problems. Her approach kickstarts literacy know-how when you can’t do it and are no longer in primary school. The plan of attack in this book is simple — young people and adults benefit from these straightforward strategies that structure learning appropriate for their needs. Tricia Millar says that her method is:

“A jumping off point for improving spelling no matter where, how or what you teach.”

A new purchase because the rabbit hole that is Google led me to their YouTube page. Similar to Spell it Out, but different. There are so many questions to ask about why words are spelled the way they are, and this book answers many in a way that is easily understood and entertaining. This is not a dry spelling book — it is funny yet dives deep with lively explanations and engaging drawings that you can use with your students.

This book also discusses grammar and word usage. Perfect for word stories to tell to give context to instruction. Arika Okrent weaves a beautiful tale and tells the story of invasion, the first printer and language oddities. Check out the YouTube channel here.

My image is not blurred. The cover is a blurred image! Michael Quinion has several amazing titles and a website he no longer updates, but it is still a wealth of knowledge. I loved his newsletter that he no longer sends. But you can get copies on his website here. As you can see, this book is well-used. It is my go-to when I want to check on the meaning of a prefix or suffix. It is set up just like a dictionary and works through all prefixes and suffixes in alphabetical order. It gives the meaning, examples and history for each entry. Sadly out of print, but copies are still available online. Check if it is in your local library!

Knowledge is power is a quote attributed to a few, and it rings true.

We should bring knowledge to the table. But as Chip Health states in his book Switch — How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

“Knowledge does not change behaviour.”

If it did, we would all follow health advice. We would all exercise, eat our daily dose of fruit and vegetables, and drink the required amount of water. But we don’t! Knowledge is often not enough to spark change.

He continues to say—

“It takes emotion to bring knowledge to a boil.”

But of course, without knowledge, it is often impossible to change. Once we have the knowledge, how do we fix the problem? Here is a sketch note that highlights the key points of Switch by graphic artist Rachel Smith

If you haven’t read Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, I suggest you give it a go!

Nothing to do with Literacy, but so good to think about change.

When you know the stories, know the students, and have a goal — spelling instruction can be entertaining! I talk about patterns rather than rules, as the word ‘rule’ is definite. We also talk about frequency — in some words, the letter ‘G’ represents the /j/ sound. In nearly all words, the letter ‘C’ that comes before an ‘E, I or Y’ represents a /s/ sound. We then discuss words that also don’t fit the pattern.

First spelling instruction resources


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