Is spelling really that important any more? Especially in the modern world where children are growing up using onscreen documents, emails, texts, all with autocorrect? Unfortunately, as Jerrold Zar illustrates in his poem ‘An Ode to a Spellchecker’, we can’t always trust the computer to spot the ‘Miss steaks aye kin knot sea’.
The truth is that good spelling matters a great deal for schools. The 2014 National Curriculum places great emphasis on correct spelling and every child faces a spelling test as part of the KS2 Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test. Spelling also forms a significant part of how writing is assessed throughout primary. The expectations for children’s spelling are high at KS2 (with words to learn such as receive, solemn, conscience, not to mention not mixing up words like compliment and complement and stationery and stationary,) and meeting these demands can be a challenge.
Aside from the statutory requirements, learning to spell well is incredibly helpful if we want our children to write well. Struggling over a word’s spelling can interrupt the flow of their thoughts, taking them away from thinking about what they want to communicate to their reader. If children are confident spellers, they’re also much more likely to make adventurous vocabulary choices, selecting the precise word they want to use to communicate their message, rather than playing it safe and using a word they can already spell.
Clearly, there’s a lot more to being a confident writer than spelling, but anything we can do to support our children is going to help them as they move through their education.
So, how can we help children to develop confident and accurate spelling?
One answer is for everyone to work together as a whole-school team. The English spelling system gives us plenty to learn, and becoming a confident speller is a long-term goal that builds incrementally over time. English is a wonderful language, constantly changing and evolving. Over the course of its history, English has absorbed words and ideas from across the world to give us a rich language with which to express ourselves – official estimates suggest that there are a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language. Counting different meanings of the same word and including archaic words that are no longer in use, that figure rises to more than a million. Learning to spell each word individually might take a while. Thankfully, there are a few concepts that can help with learning to spell:
- Phonics: the sounds of language and the letters and groups of letters that represent them
- Orthography: the conventions we use to turn a spoken language into a written one
- Morphology: studying the units of meaning that make up the words we use
- Etymology: the history and origin of words and how they’ve changed over time
The Spelling Toolkit
To support busy teachers to understand and use these concepts to improve spelling teaching, I’ve worked with Oxford University Press to create a free Teaching Spelling Training Toolkit. The toolkit provides step-by-step guidance, advice and tools to help deliver training in your school. There are opportunities for staff to reflect on what works well across the school and to identify elements from the training that they could use to develop the teaching of spelling in their own classes.
The toolkit includes:
- A series of short films introducing the English spelling system, and explaining phonics, orthography, morphology and etymology
- Case studies (both film and documents) that illustrate what strong spelling provision might look like in effective schools
- A staff questionnaire to explore the staff team’s ideas and confidence with spelling teaching
- A presentation (with detailed) facilitator notes to deliver training in your school
James Clements is an education writer and researcher, working with schools and academics to try and find out what makes great English teaching. James is a member of the Advisory Board for Oxford Owl, Oxford Primary’s platform, home to online subscriptions and free teaching and learning resources. You can follow James on Twitter: @MrJClements