Understanding Spelling

Understanding Spelling

Understanding Spelling

Understanding Spelling


How do children learn to spell and what kinds of teaching support them most effectively?

Based on a three-year longitudinal study of children's spelling in different primary classrooms, Olivia O'Sullivan, Assistant Director of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and Anne Thomas, the former Inset Director of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, pose a number of important questions:

  • what kinds of knowledge are involved in spelling?
  • what are the links between learning to read and learning to spell?
  • what kinds of systematic teaching and interventions make a difference to children's progress?

Packed with case studies, photographs and examples of children's work, this unique book sets out the most effective approaches to spelling and provides teachers with a broad set of principles on which to base their teaching. This is an invaluable resource for any teacher or trainee teacher wishing to raise standards in spelling in their classroom.


This edition of Understanding Spelling will be published seven years after the first edition, which was itself based on a three-year research project. It is interesting therefore to reflect on what has happened to the teaching and learning of spelling since then.

The National Literacy Strategy (NLS) (DfES, 1998), introduced in the final year of our research, and now in the process of revision, contained many of the teaching approaches highlighted in our project for the effective teaching of spelling. The NLS also highlighted wider aspects of English spelling which, as our research showed, become increasingly important in Key Stage 2, such as the role of meaning and grammar within English spelling, through compound words, prefixes, suffixes, word roots and origins.

What we have found, however, in courses and inservice training sessions is that many teachers are still unsure about how children learn to spell. Many find difficulty addressing the needs of all children in their classes and lack confidence in how to intervene in children’s spelling, particularly when there are difficulties in making progress. There has also been a continuing lack of appreciation for the different routes children might take into the spelling system in the early stages, as exemplified in the case studies presented in Chapter 5.

Several issues arose which became causes for concern. First there was a lack of time for children to write. This was partly due, in the earlier stages of the NLS, to restrictions imposed by the timings of the literacy hour but was also due to other curriculum pressures. The restriction on time was particularly important given the relationship which our research project uncovered between frequent opportunities to write at some length and the positive effects on children’s spelling progress. After two or three years of the strategy, some schools began to introduce longer writing sessions where children could write more extensively, but lack of time for writing and the achievement gap between reading and writing, particularly in the case of boys, became a cause for national concern. Several research and development projects have addressed this broader issue, which is wider than our core concern of spelling, but which has important effects on children’s spelling, if they can be encouraged and inspired to write (Barrs and Pidgeon, 2000; Safford, O’Sullivan and Barrs, 2004; UKLA/PNS, 2004).

Second, greater emphasis on the teaching of ‘word level’ work, i.e. spelling and phonics, put a greater emphasis on spelling, but there has been a continuing tendency at all levels to muddle the processes involved in learning to spell and learning to read, a complex relationship explored at some length in this book (Chapters 3 and 4). In the last few years there has been a growing emphasis on the role of phonics in learning to read which has sometimes led to an overemphasis on ‘sounding out’ as an approach to spelling. This has been at the expense of adopting a broader range of strategies from early on, including looking at words, or helping young children to think about the structure of words. During inset sessions and courses we have found that one of the most effective ways of persuading adults to appreciate the different kinds of knowledge and strategies involved in spelling unfamiliar words is to carry out a spelling test. Adults who are put in the position of children . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.