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How to get primary students excited about spelling

How to get primary students excited about spelling

Language and literacy specialist Lyn Stone joins Teacher magazine in today’s video to discuss ways teachers can get primary school-aged children excited about spelling.

She says that spelling goes beyond the ‘look, say, cover, write, check’ formula that has been used in schools in the past.

‘I think if teachers talk about the structure of words, where words come from, how they’re linked to one another, what the complex layers of words are, they do a number of things – they do get students excited about it, but they also help to bust myths about the English language.’

Stone discusses a common myth about spelling and shares why she believes that, when armed with enough knowledge, teachers can be very confident and very enthusiastic about teaching spelling in an engaging way.


Lyn Stone will be presenting a Spelling for Life workshop on 12 May 2017 and a Language for Life workshop on 2 June 2017. Click on the links for more details.

Her books Spelling for Life and Language for Life are available for purchase instore at the ACER bookshop in Melbourne.

What strategies do you use to get students excited about spelling? What impact has it had on their learning?

Lyn Stone suggests talking about the structure of words and where they come from. Is this something you do in your own classroom? Has it been effective with your students?

Allan 28 March 2017

Good luck! Another convoluted method of trying to teach literacy using a clapped-out tool – English spelling. When ar (sic) we going to recognize that our spelling “system”,  unlike our numeracy system, is atrocious, and not fit for purpos. It is a broken tool for learning to read and rite the language. Teachers should not hav to put up with its peculiarities. An apprentice carpenter would not use a blunt saw; why should we and our students hav to use a blunt spelling tool?

Masha Bell 28 March 2017

Some aspects of English spelling are teachable, but at least 4,219 quite common words have unpredictable spellings, like the 459 words with an /ee/ sound (speak, speech, seize, siege, these, police, people…). Their spellings all have to be learned one by one. They can be taught in various little groups, to aid memorisation, but it still boils down to word-by-word rote-learning.

People like Lyn Stone, who claim that English spelling is more teachable than it is, merely promote continued unquestioning acceptance of a rotten system that is in dire need of modernisation. Teachers should be angry about having to carry on teaching thousands of unfathomably irregular spellings that keep ensuring exceptionally high rates of literacy failure and educational underachievement. They should make their pupils cross about it too, so that something finally gets done about it.

English spelling was not God-given. Its first version in the 7th century was quite regular, but the system was made worse by a succession of changes that paid no heed to ease of learning, starting in the 8th C. - Because monastic scribes did not like the look of a series of short strokes, as in ‘munth’ and ‘wunder’, they changed u to o in the majority of such words. Having created ‘won, wonder, worry’, they equally casually changed ‘wos, wont, wosh’ to ‘was, want, wash’.

Matters were made even worse in the 15th century, with the wrecking Chaucer’s regular ‘e-e’ and ‘e’ spellings (speke, speche, beleve;  lern, erly, frend). Adopting ea for both /ee/ and /e/ (to read, have read) was clearly designed to flummox learners.

Johnson’s dilution of regular consonant doubling after short, stress vowels (rabbit, merry, poppy ...) with exceptions like ‘habit, very, copy’, deliberately made the spellings of over 1000 words unpredictable. – Teachers should be clamouring for reductions of such nonsense, instead of meekly continuing to pass it on from generation to generation.

Steve 29 March 2017

It would be much easier to teach the Webster dictionary phonemic spellings of the commonly misspelled words.I also think that starting this way might be the best way to get children “interested and excited” about spelling. A dictionary key or phonemic spelling can be taught in the first year in 3 months or less.  With this knowledge, kids can reach the traditional 3rd grade level of reading and writing proficiency in 1 year.  Since they know how the word should be spelled to match broadcast pronunciation, they are more confident and better prepared to deal with the “silly” traditional spellings.

commonly misspelled words:
əˈkərɪŋ  The tradition spelling makes no sense and just as to be memorized.  ocurring might make sense if the extra silent letters marked syllable stress. What does the first double consonant mark in occurring?
əv         f is related to v but it is not the most plausible spelling the voiced /v/.. 
‘definit   nit is often used to indicate an unstressed syllable rather than the schwa /ə/.  *nite doesn’t make sense.
            as a way to represent the unstressed nit.  nite is a plausible spelling pattern for “night”.
lábəl or lábl with a syllabic L.  If you want a marker e, label is a better spelling but this logic doesn’t extend to tabel. 
lít         could be rendered lite lyt or light in the traditional writing system. 
ther     This is a phonemic spelling for there, their, and they’re. 
thöt     ou is a common spelling pattern for thought and ought, but is also used to represent thru and ruff.
gól       gole and goal are equally plausible ways of representing the sound. /ó/ 
          goll and goul might also be a plausible spellings.

Masha Bell 30 March 2017

I don’t think that English spelling needs to be changed as drastically as proposed by Steve Bett, to make learning to read and write English easier. -  The literacy problems of English are caused by its irregularities, so reform need NOT CHANGE THE SYSTEM itself (summarised in the blog EnglishSpellingProblems). It need merely REDUCE EXCEPTIONS to it.

Learning to spell English takes longer than learning to read, because around 4,000 common words contain spellings which are irregular (bed – head, said) or completely unpredictable (speak, speech, seize, siege), while only 2,000 words have letters with irregular sounds (out – group, couple). As being able to read is more essential for other learning, including learning to spell, reformers might do best by identifying changes which would help most with that.

I have established that the very worst handicappers of reading progress are a mere 700 high frequency words, and that their number could be greatly reduced, by just reducing the 67 irregular spellings for short /e/ (any, head, meant, friend) and 68 for short /u/ (other, some, double, flood). – The worst hurdles for beginning readers are the irregular pronunciations of EA (treat - treasure), much used for short /e/, and of O, by itself (only, once, other), or in combination with other letters (food – flood, trout – trouble), many of which are used for short /u/. 

I know that taking a closer look at detail is not something that most people enjoy, but it reveals that it is perfectly possible to improve the learner-friendliness of English spelling, without drastic transformations.

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