How to teach ... spelling

In the first of a regular series, Sarah Strickland asks teachers how they put across this most basic of skills
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The Independent Online
Wendy Gibbens

John Perry Primary School, Dagenham, Essex

I used to teach spelling by "copy writing" - getting the children to copy from the board - and wouldn't put anything on the wall that had mistakes in it. But since this super idea of letting the children have a go at spelling came in, I couldn't go back to the old ways.

My classes probably look very informal, but they're actually very well controlled with a sound planning system behind them. The children usually work in groups of five or six: some might be doing dictionary work, others independent writing.

Our approach incorporates a range of strategies. Our whole philosophy is that words are fun and to be used. We are going for children who aren't afraid to write, who tell amazing stories because they are confident enough to take risks with their spelling. It can be slower than copying from the board so we've had to spend a lot of time convincing parents that it works.

They begin with a lot of "free writing" - mostly marks on a page. I'm watching for when they start attempting letters and words. Once they do, we begin looking at the shape of their names and initial consonants. Writing is constantly pointed out to them and there are always words on the walls. That way an interest in words and their shapes starts very early.

We do a lot of "shared writing" - I stand at an easel and they tell me what they want to say; I act as a scribe. Then they might go away and illustrate it, or write their own version. I don't make them copy it because then they'll see that model as the only right one and won't try for themselves. If a child is struggling, I encourage them to write what they can, even if it's only the first letter and a line. I highlight the bits they can do and develop them. If they're having trouble writing "cat", I might write it for them, then get them to make a book of words rhyming with "cat".

At the end of the first year, most will be drafting and beginning to edit, doing their own corrections. I wouldn't spoil a piece of writing; sometimes I'll leave it as it is or I'll just annotate it at the bottom. I don't mind putting work on the wall that isn't 100 per cent correct as long as the message is clear. There are standards I expect and they'll know why I let some things go and not others.

If certain words are causing constant problems, I'll take them out and get them to look at them, cover them, write them and then check them for several days. If I see one of them in the corridor, I'll ask them to spell it for me. Targeting words like that really does pay off.

Nick Lovell

Bromsgrove Lower School, West Midlands

Ours is a preparatory school for seven- to 13-year-olds connected to a long-established public school. We test the children's spelling at the beginning of each year to ascertain their spelling age in comparison with their chronological age and to compare their performance with the previous year. If it looks as if they are six to 12 months behind, we refer them to one of our part-time specialist teachers.

The tests also enable us to decide which scheme they should follow (we use a variety of textbooks). We are very concerned to teach the old-fashioned spelling rules and work through them using the books, doing exercises that highlight them. Most are aware from an early age that there are exceptions to the rules.

Every teacher sets the children a number of spellings to learn each week for homework: we are trying to get children to expand their stock of words week by week. It's then up to each teacher to decide how rigorous they are going to be. We indicate errors in their writing by underlining and children are expected to correct their spelling errors three times at the bottom of the page. Not all errors are indicated if that would risk a loss of morale and we tend to use green rather than red ink!

When I'm setting them spellings I'll always write the words out for them to copy and try to check they've got them down correctly. We collaborate with teachers of other subjects who let us know what they want the children to be able to spell, such as "siege" if they're going to do the Normans. So we do get them to spell words they haven't used yet. We do a lot on suffixes and sounds and also some history of the English language.

Sarah Thomas

Chalgrove County Primary School, Oxfordshire

Lots of teachers are dying to "go back to basics" - of course we want to teach spelling. I wish I had more time to spend on language activities, but we're expected to cover so much now that I usually have to work them round the current topic.

We're trying to take a more structured approach to spelling in our school while maintaining our belief in the value of "emergent writing" - letting children have a go at spelling rather than telling them how, and not correcting their efforts too harshly.

I do have spelling sessions. Every Wednesday morning we do a language activity, such as dictionary searches or word games. And every day after play I put them in groups according to ability and give each group five of the 100 most common words to learn. They have to look at the words, cover them up, write them and then check them. I tell them these are the words they really need to learn. I'd never give them words they don't understand or can't read or get them to copy from the board.

I'll always concentrate on what they get right, not what they get wrong. So I'll say "look, you got the first letter right". If they can't get a word, I encourage them to ask their neighbour or look in a dictionary, rather than come straight to me. When they do, I might play hangman with them and make the sounds of the letters, or do rhymes, or try to make connections with other words. I don't dwell on rules because there are always exceptions, but if one comes up I'll ask them to try to think of any exceptions.

I sometimes give them spelling tests at speed (they love them) or say "imagine you're a brilliant speller today" and get them to write uninhibitedly. That's when you can really assess their spelling: when they haven't got time to think or are being creative. Boys seem to have more problems than girls and I have a special needs teacher who comes in once a week to work with four of them.

You do have to use the word "wrong", but you don't want to make them feel they can't write. I don't generally put up work with mistakes because it sets a poor example and they might be ridiculed. I might let a couple of words go by, you can't be too perfect.