How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles…

Many children struggle with spelling because they’re told to rote-learn random lists of words.  Learning some basic principles can make spelling far easier…

We’ve mentioned in other articles that the English spelling system is particularly complicated.  However, although it’s complex, it isn’t entirely random.  In fact, the English spelling system is actually quite regular.1  

Detailed analysis has shown that the spellings of nearly 50 percent of English words are predictable based on sound-letter correspondences that can be taught, and another 34 percent of words are predictable except for one sound. 2

This means that children can spell most words, either completely or in part, once they’ve developed a good understanding of common spelling patterns and the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent. 

In this article, we explain how you can help your child to grasp the most important principles that underpin good spelling.

We cover additional aspects of spelling instruction in other articles.

Click here for a summary of the article, or browse the contents of the main article below…

Contents:

Summary

  • The English spelling system is complex, but there is more structure to it than many people realise.
  • In order to spell accurately, your child needs to understand the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent.
  • This requires clear, systematic and detailed teaching using a high-quality phonics programme.
  • Focus on the letter sounds at first and avoid letter names until your child can read and spell fluently.
  • Writing out words by hand is important, but using magnetic letters or alphabet cards is a good way of introducing spelling.
  • It’s important to start with simple words and gradually build up to more complex ones.
  • Don’t ask your child to spell tricky (irregular) words at first. 

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Phonics First…

The best way of learning to spell is through a good phonics programme. This should provide a clear, systematic and detailed explanation of the relationships between spellings and speech sounds in our alphabetic writing system.  

This view is supported by the conclusions of extensive reviews commissioned by Governments in the US, Australia and the UK.

The Australian National Enquiry into the Teaching of Literacy said that phonics skills for reading, writing and spelling should be taught explicitly and systematically. 3

The US National Reading Panel report of 2006 said:

“Across all grade levels, systematic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell.” 4

And an independent review carried out by Sir Jim Rose in the UK also said phonics skills should be taught in a well-defined and systematic sequence.  He said:

“… phonic work is … essential for the development of writing, especially spelling.” 5

Learning to spell accurately isn’t straightforward, even with the benefit of a good phonics programme. 

Many letters in the alphabet can represent more than one sound, and there are also a number of letter combinations that need to be learned, so it does take some time. 

Nevertheless, learning to spell using phonics is far easier and more effective than the alternatives… 

A lot of spelling strategies emphasize the visual aspects of spelling, but studies have shown that spelling ability depends much more on having good linguistic/phonics skills than it does on visual memory. 6

An effective spelling strategy needs to help children remember the sequence of letters in a word. 

Consequently, it’s essential for children to break words down into their individual sounds because once they’ve internally vocalised the sequence of sounds in a word, they can link these to the letters that represent those sounds

This teaches children a fundamental principle of spelling – the letters in words are not arranged randomly, they are linked to the order of the sounds in the words.  

If the relationships between letters and sounds are ignored altogether, then a child is left with the immensely more daunting task of trying to memorise the sequences of individual letters in thousands of printed words by rote. 

This makes learning a spelling more like learning a random string of numbers.  

Even some phonics systems don’t place enough emphasis on spelling.  A good phonics programme should make it clear to children that spelling and reading are closely related.  In fact, spelling is a bit like reading in reverse:

  • Reading involves recognising the letters in written words and recalling the sounds they represent before combining them together to make spoken words.
  • Spelling involves recognising the individual sounds in spoken words and recalling the letters that are used represent these sounds in writing.

We describe some things you can do to help your child with the basics of spelling below, and we provide some further guidance in other articles in this section.  If you would like to know more about teaching your child phonics, see our article about this.  

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When Should I Start Teaching My Child to Spell?

Ideally, children should be taught how to spell as soon as they begin learning to read their first words. 

Learning to read and spell at the same time makes it easier for them to understand that the two skills involve similar thinking processes.  And, according to some researchers, teaching a child how to spell words can actually make them a more fluent reader.6

Although it’s best to learn how to spell right from the start, the suggestions we describe below should help your child no matter how long he or she has been reading.

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Focus on the Sounds in Words, Not the Letter Names…

Your child needs to be able to break words down into their constituent sounds and recall the letters used to represent those sounds because this can help them to spell most words more accurately.

It’s important to realise that this isn’t the same as recognising the names of each of the letters used in a word.  It’s the sounds that are vital for spelling (and reading).

(See our article “Should I teach my toddler letter names?” for more information on this). 

So, for example, if your child looks at the word cheap, and can say the letter names as ‘see’, ‘aitch’, ‘ee’, ‘ay’ and ‘pee’, this won’t actually help them much with reading the word, or with spelling it.

They need to be able to break ‘cheap’ down into its 3 sounds: ‘ch’-‘ea’-‘p’.  Similarly, shampoo can be broken down into 5 sounds: ‘sh’-‘a’- ‘m’- ‘p’-‘oo’.

Notice that in order to spell these two words accurately, children need to know the letter combinations: ‘ch’, ‘ea’, ‘sh’ and ‘oo’, as well as the individual letter sounds. 

If your child doesn’t know the sounds the above letter combinations represent (and others such as ‘ai’,‘oa’, ‘igh’, ‘oi’ and ‘or’), they need additional instruction using a high-quality phonics programme. 

For children who don’t have these important phonics skills, the process of learning to spell is much more difficult and confusing because they can’t understand how words are structured.  

Learning without comprehension is extremely inefficient.  As the creator of the SuperMemo memory software puts it:

“If you are not a speaker of German, it is still possible to learn a history textbook in German. The book can be crammed word for word. However, the time needed for such “blind learning” is astronomical. Even more important: The value of such knowledge is negligible. If you cram a German book on history, you will still know nothing of history.” 6

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Handwriting Is Important

Once children have developed a reasonable grasp of phonics, writing out words is an important part of learning to spell accurately. 

When we write, the physical movement of our hands helps to reinforce our memory of the word.8,9  That’s why it’s easier for most people to spell a word by writing it out rather than saying the letters out loud.  Typing with a keyboard doesn’t seem to have the same effect.

However, don’t allow your child to copy out a word without thinking.  Encourage them to verbalise all the sounds in the word as they write them. 

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But Too Much Handwriting Can Sometimes Slow Down Progress in Spelling…

Writing out words can be very difficult for young children who are just learning to read and write. 

For some, writing can be a very laborious task, and they might have to concentrate so much on writing their letters clearly that they can’t focus on the actual spelling. 

With very young children, their fine-motor skills may not be sufficiently developed to write clearly with a pencil on paper. 

Of course, children do need to develop their handwriting skills, but in the early stages, it’s also helpful to practise spelling in other ways that don’t involve writing.

If you would like more information about teaching your child to write, see our article: “How to Teach Handwriting”.

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Spelling with magnetic letters or alphabet cards

If your child is already quite good at writing, they might not need to use magnetic letters or alphabet cards.  However, the exercises we describe below can be adapted and done using a mini-whiteboard. 

Using one of these is more convenient than a pencil and paper because letters can be rubbed out more quickly.

Magnetic letters are very useful resources for teaching children to spell and construct words.  Words can be made and altered quickly without any need to rub anything out and they are easy to handle. 

However, it’s important to consider your child’s safety with magnetic letters as they could be a choking hazard for very young children.  Look at the manufacturers recommended age and always supervise your child when they are using them

If you are happy to use them, magnetic letters can be purchased relatively inexpensively.  Make sure you get some with lower case letters and you will need more than one of each letter to make a good variety of words. 

If you would prefer not to purchase magnetic letters then you could use alphabet cards.  These are just small cards with the letters printed on them like the examples below.  

alphabet cards spelling hat

Alternatively, you could just type your own letters or handwrite them onto small cards.

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How to use magnetic letters and alphabet cards…

You can do the activities below with your children as soon as they start learning to read simple words. 

It’s vitally important that your child is fluent with the common sounds that each letter of the alphabet represents before you attempt these activities.  See our article ‘How to Teach Your Child Phonics’ for guidance about teaching letter sounds.

You could start teaching spelling by showing your child how to make a very simple word, such as ‘at’ one letter at a time as you first say the individual letter sounds followed by the word. 

Next, move the letter ‘t’ a few inches away from the letter ‘a’ and ask your child if they can complete the word ‘at’ again. 

For very young children, it’s quite likely they won’t know what to do the first few times you try this, but gently guide their hand to put the letter ‘t’ after the letter ‘a’, and again say the individual letter sounds followed by the word.

After a few tries at this, whether they are successful or not, move on to show how you can make another word, such as ‘bat’ from ‘at’ by putting the letter b in front of it as you first say the individual letter sounds followed by the word. 

Then move the letter b a few inches away and ask your child if they can complete the word ‘bat’ again. 

As in the previous example, it’s quite possible young children won’t know what to do the first few times you try this, so gently guide their hand to put the letter b in front of ‘at’, and again say the individual letter sounds followed by the word. 

Repeat this a few more times and then ask your child how they could change ‘bat’ into another word, such as ‘hat’.  Once again, they might not come up with the right idea at first, but you can guide them by asking what letter ‘hat’ starts with.  If they can’t tell you, then say the individual letter sounds ‘h’-‘a’-‘t’ and again ask “what’s the first letter?” 

Whether or not they give you the right answer show them that we can change ‘bat’ into ‘hat’ by changing the first letter. 

Then say, “how can we change it back into ‘bat’ again?”  Repeat changing the words in this way several times and don’t worry if they don’t seem to get it at first; they will still be learning something. 

(Remember how many times your child had to be shown before they could do a simple task like clapping their hands?  Imagine if you had given up teaching them how to clap because they didn’t get it the first few times you showed them!)

For most young children, it might be enough to just tackle these 3 words on the first occasion, and you could repeat the same exercise 2 or 3 times over the following week.  The idea is to make it as simple as possible for them at first by sticking to the same words and just changing one letter at a time. 

Once they are familiar with the exercise, you could try some different words, but don’t change too much at once.  The next step might be to move from ‘bat’ and ‘hat’ to other words ending in ‘at’ such as ‘cat’, ‘mat’, ‘pat’, ‘rat’, or ‘sat’. 

After this, you could move onto another group of similar words such as ‘it’, ‘sit’ , ‘kit’, ‘bit’, ‘fit’, ‘hit’, ‘lit’ and ‘pit’. 

When your child gets used to the idea of changing the first letter of a word, show them how we can also change other letters to spell new words.  For example, hat into hot, or hat into ham.* 

Hopefully, you can see how exercises like these can greatly improve a child’s ability to read and spell.  They encourage children to focus on the individual sounds in words and on the letters which represent those sounds – and these are the key skills needed for good spelling.

*See our free printable CVC word lists for lots more suitable words.

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Be Patient

Spelling can be much harder than reading for many young children, so don’t worry if your child’s progress is slower with this skill. 

Gradually Increase the Difficulty…

Once you feel your child is starting to grasp the idea, make things a bit trickier for them by getting them to choose the right letters to make a word. 

For example, have the word ‘at’ already made and ask them to make ‘bat’ again, but have a choice of 2 or 3 letters, say ‘c’, ‘b’ and ‘h’. 

The next step is to get them constructing whole words by first giving them just the correct 3 letters muddled up and later adding some extra letters they don’t need so they have to make the right choices.  However, it is likely to be some time before young children are able to do this quickly.

You can then gradually extend the idea by making 3-letter words such as ‘rip’ and ‘pin’ into longer words such as ‘grip’ and ‘pink’. 

Then move on to more complex words with more than one syllable, and words that have sounds made up from letter combinations such as moon, chin, ship, boat and tree

alphabet cards spelling train

We discuss how you can introduce words like these in another of our articles.

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Spelling Words Verbally:

Once your child is making progress reading simple 2 and 3 letter words, you can also ask them to spell words orally. 

Start with words they’ve already practised reading and maybe just ask for the first letter of each word to begin with (remember we still want the letter sounds at this stage, not the letter names).  If they seem to get the idea, try to get them to spell whole words. 

If your child gets a word wrong, don’t make a fuss about it; just say “good try”, do it for them and ask them to repeat it for you. You could also reinforce the idea by showing them the word in writing afterwards. 

Make the Most of Every Opportunity…

This kind of verbal spelling can be practised informally almost anywhere: at the dinner table, on the bus, or while you are pushing them on the swing. 

Another helpful tactic is to ask your child to give you something that begins with a particular letter sound while they are playing with their toys.  This is even more useful if you make it part of a tidying up game!

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Avoid “Tricky” Spellings at First

It’s possible to learn how to spell literally hundreds of words accurately using the methods we’ve described above. 

But, unfortunately, there are lots of words in English with spelling patterns that aren’t quite so predictable.  These are sometimes called “tricky words”, “sight words” or “irregular words”.

Whatever phrase is used to describe them, words with tricky spellings have some letters (or letter combinations) in them that are pronounced differently than they are in regular words…

For example, the letter ‘a’ in ‘bacon’ is pronounced as ‘ai’, and in ‘wasp’ the ‘a’ is pronounced like an ‘o’. 

In the word ‘many’, the letter ‘a’ has the same sound as the letter ‘e’ in ‘pet’. 

These pronunciations are different from the familiar sound for ‘a’ we find in regular words like cat, ant or bank. 

The word ‘was’ has irregular sounds for the letter ‘a’ and the letter ‘s’.  It sounds like it should be spelled as ‘woz’.  Some common words, such as ‘one’ and ‘two’, have extremely tricky spellings.

Tricky words like these appear quite often in print, even in books for very young children.  Consequently, many reading programmes teach children to recognise tricky words very early – sometimes before they’ve been taught the common sounds represented by the letters in the alphabet.

However, we think this approach is counterproductive; it’s like trying to teach a child to run before it can walk. 

Building a strong foundation, by concentrating on the basics, before moving on to more complex examples is a fundamental principle of good teaching.  This is true for learning virtually any skill.

To use a mathematics analogy, introducing tricky/sight words early is the equivalent of teaching children about negative numbers and fractions before they’ve mastered counting to 10.

The problem with teaching tricky words early is that children have to learn to recognise them ‘by sight’, which often means they just recognise the shape, or outline of the words.

This is unhelpful for spelling because children don’t pay any attention to the individual letters and the sounds they represent. 

(We discuss sight words in more detail in a separate article).

As we discussed earlier, reading and spelling ability depends much more on having good linguistic/phonics skills than it does on visual memory. 

So, in the early stages, the focus should be on learning the most frequent (regular) spelling patterns, not the most frequent words. 

Once children know the letter/sound relationships in the most frequent spelling patterns, they can spell a much larger number of words than would be possible if time had been focussed on learning tricky/sight words.

Fortunately, most tricky words contain some letters with more familiar pronunciations, and these can help children to read and spell tricky words once they’ve developed a good grasp of phonics. 

Tricky words can also be learned in a systematic way.  We discuss how to do this in another article and we provide detailed guidance about teaching your child to spell other complex words in the same article.

See below for other useful links.

Further Information…

The Spellzone website is a fantastic online resource suitable for 7-year-olds to adults.  It has some great word lists, activities and spelling games and you can also access a spelling ability test and a complete spelling course from the site.  The course is suitable for anyone wanting to learn British or American Spelling.

If you have an academic interest in spelling, and would like to explore the research on spelling more fully, Kerry Hempenstall’s article, ‘Feel like a spell? Effective spelling instruction is a good place to start: https://www.nifdi.org/resources/hempenstall-blog/390-feel-like-a-spell

If you would like more information about teaching your child to read then click on this link.

If you would like more information about teaching your child to write, see our article “How to Teach Handwriting”.

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References:

  1. Phiopot, D., Walker, J., Case, S. Sounds~Write’s ‘Spelling theory and a lexicon of English spellings’: http://www.sounds-write.co.uk/sites/soundswrite/uploads/files/49-sounds_write_english_spellings_lexicon.pdf
  2. Hanna, P.R., Hanna, J.S., Hodges, R.E., and Rudorf, E.H., Jr. (1966). Phoneme-grapheme correspondences as cues to spelling improvement.
  3. Teaching Reading (2005), Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training.
  4. US National Reading Panel, Teaching Children To Read
  5. Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Final Report, Jim Rose, 2006
  6. American Educator, Winter 2008-2009, How Words Cast Their Spell
  7. Wozniak, P (1999) Effective learning: Twenty rules of formulating knowledge: https://www.supermemo.com/en/articles/20rules
  8. McGuiness, D. (2002) A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code, Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter No. 49 page 21: http://www.rrf.org.uk/pdf/nl/49.pdf
  9. Handwriting and Spelling research, Logic of English: https://www.logicofenglish.com/research/handwriting-spelling