Image of Teaching Spelling Effectively: Tips and Tricks

Teaching Spelling Effectively: Tips and Tricks

In this blog, Emma Rogers, experienced literacy and learning expert, shares how we can establish effective spelling habits in our classrooms that children will continue to apply in their independent writing and long into their adult lives.

I was watching a popular, albeit very dated, TV quiz show last night. In this show, the contestants play alongside celebrity panellists to correctly guess a missing word. Both contestants and panellists write their answer on a piece of card, which then gets waved to the audience. What struck me, as well as the dreadful prizes and low-budget set, was the number of incorrect spellings from both contestants and celebrities alike.

However, rather than be critical of the inaccurate spelling, we need to reflect on why these rules have not been carried forward into adulthood if they were ever taught at all. Growing up in the seventies, accurate spelling tended to be ‘caught’ rather than ‘taught’. Those children who read widely and had good visual memories managed to correctly spell words they became very familiar with and applied this knowledge analogously to other words they wanted to write. Although I was an avid reader, I was a dreadful speller until at least my mid-twenties. At that point, I started to teach spelling and became very excited about the rules I was discovering that helped my class to make sense of the often very opaque process of spelling.

So, how can we establish effective spelling habits in our classrooms that children will continue to apply in their independent writing and long into their adult lives?

Teach don’t test

So often, the learning of spelling lists is given as homework with very little time spent in class teaching spelling. Effective spelling teaching involves investigation and exploration of words and patterns. It takes time and needs to be a focus of whole lessons or, ideally, a focus across a series of lessons. As Leipzip points out:

“Children should be word detectives, engaged in an on-going attempt to make sense of word patterns and their relationships to one another. Spelling ‘rules’ are not dictated by the teacher for children to memorise, rather, spelling patterns and generalisations are discovered by the child.”

The National Curriculum provides lists of words that pupils must learn to spell. However, these lists should be seen as a means to an end, rather than an outcome in themselves. Being able to spell quickly and accurately supports pupils in developing fluent and accurate writing skills.

The EEF summarises the (very little) evidence for the teaching of spelling, and indicates the complexity of teaching and learning accurate spelling:

“Fast and accurate spelling of an extensive vocabulary is a key component of writing fluency. Many of the skills that support word reading will also support spelling, but spelling demands great specificity and has different motor demands.” 

Spellings that have been understood and learned should then go on to be applied in writing. Testing spellings in isolation through spelling tests does not accurately reflect those words a child can spell within a piece of writing. Dictation, as suggested in the DfE’s reading framework, allows children to practise their transcription skills, including spelling, without the cognitive challenge of composition. So, dictation is an effective way of checking whether spelling patterns have been understood.

However, the real challenge comes in remembering the correct spellings whilst writing. Often this comes within the essential transcriptional stages of editing and proofreading but, as a correct spelling becomes permanent in the long-term memory, then accurate spelling becomes automatic during composition.

What are the different spelling types?

The type of investigations, explorations and strategies we provide in our spelling lessons will depend upon the type of spelling being taught. Understanding which types of spellings have been taught and applied also helps with teacher assessment and the identification of specific spelling errors. Effective teachers alter the prompts that they use to scaffold children’s spelling as they write too. I generally consider spellings under these four headings:

1. Phonological

Phonological understanding is concerned with the correspondence between letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes). It includes knowledge about:

- Phonics

- Spelling patterns and conventions

- Homophones

- Phonological knowledge (this relates to syllables, rhymes and analogy)

This may well be taught through your school phonics scheme in FS and KS1, so sufficient time should be given in phonics lessons to teach reading and spelling. As children move into KS2, they continue to develop their phonological understanding through spellings in the National Curriculum, such as:

  • The / / ɪ sound spelt y elsewhere than at the end of words (Years 3 and 4)
  • Words with endings sounding like /ʒə/ or /tʃə/ (Years 3 and 4)
  • Endings which sound like /ʃəs/ spelt –cious or –tious (Years 5 and 6)
  • Homophones and other words that are often confused (Years 5 and 6)

Prompts to support children with spelling these types of words include:

  • How many phonemes can you hear in the word?
  • Which graphemes do you know that match that phoneme?
  • Which grapheme choice do you think is most likely? 

2. Morphological

Morphological knowledge is the recognition, understanding, and use of word parts that carry significance. For example, root words, prefixes, suffixes, and grammatical inflections (e.g. –s or –es for plurals) are all morphemes, which can be added or taken away from a word to alter its meaning. Knowledge of roots, suffixes and prefixes, what they mean, the function they serve and how to join them together will enable children to make reasonable attempts to write new words.

Morphological knowledge begins in Y1 in the National Curriculum when children learn how to:

  • Add –s and –es to words
  • Add the endings –ing, –ed and –er to verbs where no change is needed to the root word

Morphological knowledge continues throughout the National Curriculum all the way to Year 5 and 6 with the learning of:

  • Adding suffixes beginning with vowel letters to words ending in –fer
  • Spelling words ending in –ant, –ance/–ancy, –ent, –ence/–ency 

Prompts to support children with spelling these types of words include: 

  • Can you break that word into smaller parts? 
  • What root word can you hear in that word? Can you write that part first? 
  • How does the root word change when we add ….? Does it stay the same?
  • How has the meaning changed now you have added …? 

3. Orthographic

Put simply, we use our orthographic knowledge to see if a word ‘looks right’. Children tend to make orthographic errors if they have not correctly applied a spelling rule or pattern or if they are attempting to spell a word that contains patterns they have not yet been taught. 

Orthographic knowledge is particularly important with words that are tricky to sound out, such as ‘friend’ or ‘because’, as they do not follow the basic phonic rules. To learn these spellings, it is often helpful to use strategies that help with visual recall, such as mnemonics or over-writing (writing a word many times over the top of each other in different colours) or rainbow writing (writing the word out many ties in rainbow ‘stripes’). Once children have developed a fluid, joined handwriting style, this often helps with the orthographic element of spelling as muscle memory plays a part in positioning the letters in the right order.

Prompts to support children with spelling these types of words include: 

  • Which spelling rule will help you to spell that word? 
  • What is there in the classroom to help you with that? 
  • Which of those choices look right?

4. Etymological

Etymological knowledge is the understanding of word derivations. Words in the English language come from a range of sources, and understanding the origin of words helps pupils’ spelling. In the National Curriculum spelling appendix, it tells us that:

“Phonic knowledge should continue to underpin spelling after key stage 1; teachers should still draw pupils’ attention to GPCs that do and do not fit in with what has been taught so far. Increasingly, however, pupils also need to understand the role of morphology and etymology. Although particular GPCs in root words simply have to be learnt, teachers can help pupils to understand relationships between meaning and spelling where these are relevant. For example, understanding the relationship between medical and medicine may help pupils to spell the /s/ sound in medicine with the letter ‘c’”

Prompts to support children with spelling these types of words include: 

  • What do you know about that word? 
  • How can we use the spelling of …. To help you with your word? 
  • What other words have you come across that have a similar origin? 

Once we have established what type of spelling knowledge we are teaching, we can support children with the most appropriate strategy. For example, using a mnemonic to spell the word ‘fairies’ would not help children to understand the process of pluralising a noun which ends with a ‘y’, so a morphological approach would be more appropriate. But with a word like ‘because’, it is unlikely that we would be able to plan a very useful investigation to understand ‘be’ as a prefix (it is possible, but words containing the prefix ‘be’ are not very common) so, in this case, a focus on the orthographical knowledge of the word by learning a mnemonic would be much more effective.

Understanding these different types of spelling knowledge also helps us to understand why children may make particular errors. For example, if a child spells ‘cakes’ as ‘caix’, they have not used their morphological knowledge to recognise that the word ‘cake’ is the singular noun that needs the morpheme ‘–s’ adding to pluralise the noun. Instead, they have applied their phonological knowledge to hear the sound ‘/x/’. They have correctly identified the ‘ai’ phoneme but not identified the correct grapheme ‘a-e’.

Spelling across the curriculum

Improving the teaching of spelling also helps children develop their vocabulary and, consequently, reading comprehension and understanding across the curriculum. Knowing word meanings supports learning how to spell words. Therefore, children should have the opportunity to learn about words both within explicit spelling lessons in English but also through developing spelling and vocabulary knowledge in other curriculum areas.

More information about spelling can be found at:

UKLA Viewpoints: Spelling - UKLA

Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2 | EEF (

Improving Literacy in Key Stage 1 | EEF (

Top tips for helping spelling

In summary, here are my top tips for helping children to remember spelling patterns and rules, and then apply them in their writing:

  1. Plan, teach and model an appropriate strategy – this will depend on whether the spelling is phonemic, orthographic or morphemic
  2. Give children time to investigate, play and experiment with spelling patterns and rules
  3. Focus on learning patterns and rules rather than the spelling of lists of words
  4. Support learners to apply spellings in independent writing by modelling spelling strategies in writing lessons, with a focus on proofreading and editing at an appropriate stage of the writing process
  5. Provide appropriate feedback and prompts to support spelling according to the type of word being spelt 

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Leipzig, D., ‘Actions teach louder than words: how and what experienced teachers learn about embedded word study from classroom practice and an inquiry group’, 2000

Education Endowment Fund, ‘Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2’, 2021,

EEF-Improving-literacy-in-key-stage-2-report-Second-edition.pdf (

Education Endowment Fund, ‘Improving Literacy in Key Stage 1’, 2021,

UKLA, ‘UKLA Viewpoints: Spelling’, Accessed 2023, Layout 1 (

DfE, ‘The reading framework’, 2023, The reading framework - GOV.UK (

DfE, National Curriculum, 2014, National curriculum - GOV.UK (