How important is good spelling, really?

James Clements 2

How important is good spelling, really? Is it still vital in a world of typed documents, emails and auto correct? Isn’t it the quality of writing we should be worried about, rather than the spelling of the words themselves? Perhaps, as Mark Twain observed, ‘anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word lacks imagination’.

The truth is that in the current educational climate good spelling matters a great deal. The 2014 National Curriculum places significant emphasis on correct spelling and Appendix 1 of the National Curriculum document features a long list of statutory requirements illustrated with non-statutory (and quite challenging) word lists for the different year groups. In 2017, these will be assessed through the spelling element of the grammar, punctuation and spelling tests in Year 2 and Year 6. At KS2, 20 of a possible 70 marks (29%) are awarded for spelling.

Strong spelling is also a significant aspect of the writing element of the curriculum. This is assessed by teachers against specific performance descriptors, and a child needs to be able to spell ‘most’ of the Year 5 and Year 6 words accurately in order to be judged as working at the expected standard. That means every child spelling words such as ‘receive’, ‘solemn’, and ‘conscience’ correctly in their writing and knowing when to use different homophones such as ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’ and ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’. Certainly a challenge for many 11-year-olds.

Aside from the statutory requirements, learning to spell well is extremely useful if we want children to become confident writers. If they are constantly stopping to think about how words are spelled while they write, it can interrupt the flow of their thoughts, taking them away from what we want them to be thinking about: their choice of words and how they construct those words into sentences that communicate exactly what they want to say. If they’re confident spellers, they’re also much more likely to make adventurous vocabulary choices, selecting the exact word to communicate their message, rather than playing it safe and using a word they already know how to spell.

Obviously there’s a lot more to being a strong writer than spelling, but anything we can do to help our children develop in this area is going to help them as they move through the school.

One of the difficulties we have with teaching spelling is that the English spelling system is often seen as being irregular or random. While English certainly is complicated due to its varied and rich history, the spelling system actually makes a lot more sense than a surface glance might suggest. Learning to spell each of the quarter of a million distinct words in English individually probably isn’t the best approach to mastering spelling. But as luck would have it, there are a few concepts that can help with learning to spell:

  • Orthography: An orthography is the set of conventions we use when we write down a spoken language.
  • Phonics: Or more accurately phonemic awareness. This is about the sounds of language and the graphemes that we use to represent them in writing.
  • Morphology: This is about the units of meaning that make up the words we use.
  • Etymology: This is the study of the history and origin of words and how they’ve changed over time.

If we can use these concepts as a basis for the way we go about organising spelling in our schools, we’ll go a long way to supporting children to become confident in navigating the English spelling system.

A significant part of effective spelling provision is adopting a whole-school approach that builds as children move through the school. What this will look like in practice will vary from school to school; there are many different models for teaching children to spell and each individual school will have its own approach.

training-toolkit-teaching-spellingTo help, I’ve worked with Oxford University Press to produce a training toolkit for the teaching of spelling. The toolkit provides lots of free resources for schools looking to develop teachers’ knowledge about spelling and to plan their whole-school model for spelling. The kit includes everything you’ll need to run a short PD session about spelling, including:

  • Films and animations that explain the key concepts
  • A staff presentation with notes for the presenter
  • A staff questionnaire
  • Notes, hand-outs and FAQs documents
  • Examples of spelling teaching in action, including a film of a spelling initiative run by Fox Primary School in West London.

You can access the films and all of the other resources for free on Oxford Owl. If you haven’t already, you’ll simply need to register for free at www.oxfordowl.co.uk to access the resources.


James Clements is a member of the Advisory Board for Oxford Owl, Oxford Primary’s platform, home to online subscriptions and free teaching and learning resources. He has worked as a teacher and senior leader in an outstanding inner city primary school, as a Local Authority Lead Teacher, and was consulted on the New National Curriculum for English. James is now an English adviser and the creative director of Shakespeare and More, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes effective English teaching.
Follow James on Twitter @James_ShMore

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