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How to address poor spelling for struggling primary school students

Written By: Michelle Haywood
6 min read
By assessing spelling against a continuum of development, a suitable intervention can be planned


Spelling is an area of concern for Billy. He can spell single letter sounds now on an oral cue (i.e. sound to symbol) although he confuses some similar sounding letters such as j/g and b/d. He can also spell some two- and three-letter regular words from a list of the ‘hundred most used words’ including some high frequency irregular words, but he finds spelling other irregular unknown words very difficult, and uses phonetic approximations, for example, said (sed) and what (wot). This is particularly obvious when Billy is writing independently and this has the effect of slowing down his creative thought processes resulting in frustration and upset. It also means that his finished written text is often difficult to read or decipher by either Billy or his teacher/parent.’ – (Diagnostic Assessment BA, November 2015)

Billy is not in year 1. He is 10 years old and in Year 5 of a mainstream school. The diagnostic report, in describing what Billy cannot do in terms of spelling, highlights that for his age he has a significant spelling difficulty, and his teacher is concerned. Billy is frustrated and cannot understand why he cannot spell well, like his friends.

Advice given by the website, The Undercover Recruiter, suggests that poor spelling can… be the difference between being offered a job interview or recieving a letter of rejection.

Real life consequences of poor spelling

To a good speller, poor spelling can be one of the most striking elements of a handwritten piece of writing; multiple spelling errors can distract from the content and mistakenly convey an image of the writer as being less capable than their peers.

Commonly, the ability to spell has often been linked to ‘signs of intelligence’, as a survey undertaken by the Telegraph newspaper found (The Telegraph, 2014). Half of the respondents who reported that they misspelled familiar words also admitted that they judged others on their poor spelling.

Judgments about poor spelling are not unique to readers of the Telegraph though; advice given by the website, The Undercover Recruiter, suggests that poor spelling can limit opportunities in the workplace and can be the difference between being offered a job interview or receiving a letter of rejection.

Technology can’t correct everything

Due to the rise in mobile devices, less hand-written material is being produced; however spelling errors are still being made. Poor spelling is not being eradicated by spell-checkers or predictive text programmes, which can be ineffective as they may fail to recognise some misspelt words, for example homophones. Locating the correct spellings for a word such as amanuensis, for example, is a challenge if the speller is unable to identify the first few letters correctly.

Electronic spelling aids can be useful if mastered, but there is often little difference between them and using a dictionary when there is the same reliance on knowledge of the English sound system.

Ultimately, if the speller is unaware what the correct spelling should be, they may not recognise it when they do see it and may therefore select one which is out of context and incorrect.

Spelling techniques

Most children learn to spell without incident, and good spellers develop a range of strategies which help them to recognise the words they want and need, and which they can apply to the spelling of unknown words or use to learn new unfamiliar words, including techniques such as:

  • Chunking the component parts of a words
  • Sounding a word out phonetically
  • Breaking a word into syllables
  • Breaking a word into phonemes
  • Using knowledge of existing patterns or knowledge of word families
  • Applying knowledge of morphology
  • Using known spelling rules
  • Recognising words within words
  • Knowledge of similar letter strings
  • Making use of mnemonics
  • Remembering a critical feature.

Poor spellers, like Billy, may have struggled to acquire these skills, and one suggestion might be that he, and others like him, have not moved as quickly through a continuum of spelling development as their peers. A continuum model, such as the one proposed by Rees and Rivalland (1997), could suggest that Billy is functioning at a semi phonetic stage of spelling development, and that a revision of an earlier stage of the continuum which would be recognisable in key stage 1 is required.

Continuum model

Stage of the Continuum Key Indicators (Rees and  Rivalland, 1997)
Preliminary Uses writing like symbols to represent written language. Uses known letters or approximations of letters to represent written language
Semi Phonetic Uses left to right and top to bottom orientation of print. Relies on sounds which are most obvious to him or her

Represents whole word with one, two or three letters. Uses mainly consonants

Phonetic Chooses letters based on the sound without regard for conventional spelling patterns. Sounds out and represents all substantial sounds in a word

Develops spelling for certain sounds often using self-formulated rules

Transitional Uses letters to represent all vowel and consonant sounds in a word, placing vowels in every syllable.

Beginning to use letter patterns and critical features of words

Independent Uses a multi-strategy approach and has the ability to recognise when a word doesn’t look right.

Will have accumulated a large bank of words which can be automatically recalled

The National Curriculum (2014) recognises a continuum of spelling development, but has placed it within age-defined stages. For spelling, Billy would be assessed as not meeting age-related expectations, but that is not to say he never will. For now, Billy needs additional intervention to support his spelling development, and for it to be effective, the intervention needs to match the assessment of what he can and cannot do.

Assessing spelling difficulties

Spelling difficulties such as Billy’s could be assessed in two ways, and then thoroughly analysed. Firstly, through a standardised spelling test, with a test such as The Single Word Spelling Test (SWST), which is a common choice for a diagnostic assessment, and then secondly, within the context of a written piece of work.

Both the standardised test and spelling within context can help identify the types of spelling errors being made and highlight which groups or errors can be re-taught (see table below for some suggestions). Spelling in context is particularly important as it can show which words are used frequently by the speller, as poor spellers can often avoid words they cannot spell and use alternative words instead.

Name Example
1 The impossible trigram Cwiyatly for quiety
2. Misrepresentation of sound Cet for get & cot for cut
3 The wrong boundaries a-another or halfanhour
4. Wrong syllabification Sundly for suddenly and rember for remember
5. Inconsistent spelling Same word spelt in different ways on the same page
6. Wrong letter doubled Eeg for egg and beel for bell
7. Mistaken recall of order All the letters have been written but in an incorrect order
8. False match for the order Sitser for sister
9. Omission for one or more sounding letters Amt for amount
10 Duplication of one or more sounding letters Piyole for pile
11 Phonetic attempt misfired Yuwer for your
12 The instructive vowel Miy-yils for miles
13 b-d substitution Bady for baby

(Miles, 1993, summarised by Ott, 1997, p.104 – 106)

Suggestions to help other students like Billy

As well as a targeted spelling intervention, reasonable adjustments will be needed in the classroom to reduce stress and support the writing process. These suggestions were made for Billy as a result of his diagnostic assessment and might help other poor spellers:

  • Don’t always mark for spelling, sometimes mark for content only
  • If a piece of work is marked in a pupil’s absence, mark in two colours, one for content and one for spelling and presentation
  • Scribe when longer pieces of writing are required, so that vocabulary can be experimented with and spelling is not the focus of the task
  • Teach word processing skills and use them as often as possible, so that use of a spellchecker can be developed. In external examinations, for example GCSEs, access arrangements can be requested where pupils can type their responses, either with or without spellcheckers
  • Use charts and diagrams, for example graphic organisers, rather than writing long pieces of text
  • Use redrafting and correcting of a pupil’s own, other pupil’s work or a fictional piece of work
  • Create individual activities such as bingo, tracking activities and sorting (correct and incorrect words) which can be played as games and are personalised for the pupil
  • Develop a set of class mnemonics for subject-specific words and/or an independent list
  • Limit copying from boards, as this can lead to miscopying and errors.

Billy may in the future be considered in the half of Britons who can spell common words when The Telegraph next asks.

There may be many pupils like Billy, and although it should be acknowledged that their poor spelling might be an indicator of other learning difficulties, it may be simply that they need additional and different support with this one aspect of their learning.

By assessing using a continuum of development rather than an age-related one, and then developing a suitable intervention with some reasonable classroom adjustments, Billy may in the future be considered in the half of Britons who can spell common words when The Telegraph next asks.

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