How can we help children to be good spellers? (With or without school spelling tests!)
School spelling tests: love them or hate them?
Do you remember spelling tests at school? I'm not really sure I do but for some families, they're a big deal for a number of reasons. I often hear that parents like a spelling test, spending a long time, at home and in the car, making their children learn a list of words, then comparing scores each week with others. The big question is, after the test, do these children spell well in their day to day writing? Possibly not. It's easy to learn by rote and reel off a list of words, but being a good speller is much deeper than a weekly test, which is why lots of schools are ditching the tests and making spelling an important part of all written work.
I'm actually quite pleased that my children don't have a list of spellings in their bags each week, and that I don't have to add making them learn the list to our already busy schedule. They do learn spellings, but their school takes a different approach and for my two, it's working really well - phew!
Whether your child's school still uses weekly spelling lists and tests or not, there are a few things to consider about spelling that might help your child in the long-run, not just in the weekly test. At the time of writing, there were approximately 750000 words in the English language (Collins English Language dictionary). If a child has a spelling test each week throughout Key Stage Two (years 3 - 6), they will learn to spell around 1560 words, hardly scratching the surface! Instead, if they learn how to spell high frequency words (the ones we use a lot), a few spelling rules and spelling patterns (in the national curriculum and beyond), a little about homophones and couple of tricks to avoid making errors, they'll have far better success in spelling in later life.
Reading, reading, reading
"The more you read, the more things you will know..." said Dr.Suess. It's true! It also applies to spelling. I was once told during teacher training that a child needs to see a word 100 times to recognise it on sight. Imagine how many times they need to see it to then be able to recall the spelling when they are writing. Reading school books at home can often feel like a battle, especially if your child finds reading difficult, but with the right books, a routine with regular time for reading, and a little patience, practising the skills regularly really helps children to become better readers. With more reading comes more accurate spelling.
Take away the rubbers!
Children love erasers for rubbing out their errors but they can be like a poisoned arrow for some children who become perfectionists and end up rubbing out more than they write! Learning from mistakes is an essential part of the learning journey and rubbers can hinder this a little. Teaching children to put a neat line through a spelling error will really help to keep the flow of writing going, and enable them to see and learn from their mistakes.
The first spellings children learn will be those they can 'sound out' or encode. This means breaking words down into their individual sounds, e.g c-a-t or sh-i-p. Children will make errors, such as 'elifant' or 'stayshon' when they are learning to write, but using sounds to spell is encouraged in the early stages. This stage can start a long time before children begin learning to read, through 'sound talk.' Sounding out words orally from an early age (preschool or before) really helps little ones to build the foundations for reading and spelling. Typically, many nurseries don't start this soon enough but reach for the letters instead. Ask your child's key worker if they 'sound-talk' as part of their daily routines. This can be done at home, too, by sounding the last word in a sentence to start with, e.g. Can you get your c-oa-t? or Let's go to the sh-o-p.
Just like encoding, breaking words into syllables or chunks is an essential skill for spelling and can be developed long before reading and writing begins - it helps with both! Good words to start with include the names of your family members, then words for animals and foods. Words like Grand-pa, Ver-i-ty, Unc-le Rog-er, cel-er-y, pine-app-le, zeb-ra or hipp-o-pot-a-mus are brilliant for practising chopping up words... long before starting school. These can be sneaked onto the ends of sentences, too, e.g. Let's go to the sup-er-mar-ket, and they're easy to say in chunks if you can speak like a robot!
High frequency words
These are the words we use the most. The list might have been created a long time ago, so there are some, like 'narrator' that might not be as popular now as they once were, but generally, if children can master these, they'll have learnt something really valuable. You can find them here:
Having said this, there's still a question over whether testing children on writing these words in isolation is necessary. Having a word mat to hand when your child is writing can be just as effective, if not more. Checking a few spellings at the end of a piece of writing is always a good thing to do, and the high frequency words provide a good starting point. For example, if a child wrote, 'I whent to the beemish mueseeum and into the victoreean scool,' it would be good to encourage them to check the words 'went' and 'school' on the word mat then make the corrections. They're more likely to use these words again. Always go for a word mat that has the words in alphabetical order so they're easy to find. There's an example here: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/first-100-high-frequency-words-in-alphabetical-order-11252642 (You can create a free account).
Common exception words
These are the words from the national curriculum that don't follow the typical grapheme-phoneme correspondences (sounds written down) that children learn first. Some fall into the high frequency word list and some don't. It's likely that these words will be tested at school at some point but they do include words like 'chalet' and 'steak' which are not really that common! Twinkl have lots of versions available but if you don't have an account, there are lots of freebies around: https://www.twinkl.co.uk/resource/t-l-6192-common-exception-words-years-1-and-2-alphabet-word-mat Have a common exception word mat to hand when your child is writing, and use it in the same way as the high frequency word list.
If you really need to practise spellings as isolated words, try rainbow writing where your child writes each letter in the word in a different colour. In doing so, they will be looking at the word several times, noticing the letters and the shape of the word as they go.
In a similar way, bubble writing or writing in capital letters offer the same opportunities for looking at the word lots of times. Making the words with magnetic letters is popular and multi-sensory, or even writing them on the wall with chalk or with water and a paintbrush outside.
The look-cover-write-check method is a popular one with schools. Children look at the word, cover it up, write it, then check their spelling. This can be done at home, too.
Sticking the list or individual words up on the bathroom wall can be really useful! All my GCSE and A Level revision took a place on the bathroom wall!! This gives your child the chance to read the words and look at their spellings on every visit to the bathroom and while cleaning their teeth (though that might be another battle!).
Encouraging children to take a photo of the word in their heads can help so they can look into their minds and visualise the spelling later. When I was a class teacher, I would often see children directing their eyes up and to the right or the left, depending on where the words in the classroom had been positioned in relation to their desk place. They were visualising the words they needed as though they were on the wall, even if we were in a different room or outside!
There are many other strategies: some will be tried and tested, and others will be made up in the moment. Making spelling a casual talking point, however much you might not like spelling yourself, keeps it on the agenda, without getting stuck in the drama of practising for the weekly test.
There are currently two Wilbur and Flops group classes on Saturday mornings via Zoom with a focus on spelling: Super Speedy Spellers for year 2/3/4 and Consolidating Phonics for year 1/2. One to one lessons are also available on Saturdays and in school holidays - not a spelling test in sight! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.