A spelling classroom

Why learning to spell can be so hard

Spelling words is one of the very few activities in life where anything less than 100% correct, is considered a failure. A child can put a huge amount of effort into thinking about how to spell a word, get almost every single letter right but in getting even one letter wrong (however logical and plausible that letter might have been), the whole word is considered to have been spelt wrongly.

It is also the case that the English language has a fascinating but confusing history which has left us with a raft of weird and wonderful spellings, complex conventions that only work some of the time and countless rebellious exception words that break every rule in the book. Children who have had their confidence built by learning to spell straightforward, predictable phonically regular words can find when they move beyond phonics and into spelling that they feel as though they have stepped off a cliff into an unfriendly sea where the spelling survival skills that they have learned simply don't seem to work any more.

These two factors together have the potential to make learning to spell a pretty demoralising and unpleasant experience. Demoralised and unhappy isn't a mental state that is generally considered to be conducive to great learning.

However, just because it can be this way, it doesn't mean it has to be this way in individual classrooms. We (in partnership with the children in our classes) get to create our own ethos in our own classrooms. When children are in the early stages of learning to spell, a '100% right vs failure' attitude doesn't really do anything to promote learning or improvement. Instead, we can create an environment where learning and improving are valued at all times whilst children gradually make their way towards the end goal of being 100% correct. We can tick every correct letter and focus on the effort and the thought processes that have gone into spelling a word. Then instead of viewing the incorrect bits as failures (and learning nothing from them) children can use them as useful, precise information that they can learn from and use to help them avoid making the same mistake next time.

Similarly, we can take children on a gentle, gradual route from phonics through to spelling. Their phonic knowledge still works for the majority of bits of the vast majority of words. We can matter of factly show them that when they can't use phonics to work out a bit of a word there is no need to panic and no need to throw the phonics baby out with the bath water, there are simply other strategies that they can bring into use. We can progressively build up their understanding of how English works by teaching them conventions that will help them spell huge numbers of words (knowing that at first they may over-apply these rules and experiment with using them when technically they shouldn't) and then gradually as they become confident and more accurate we can introduce them to the exceptions, the weird and wonderful bits, the bits that catch us all out. They don't have to master all the intricacies of the English language at once. We need to take them on a journey that gets them there step by step.

A mindset for spelling

The research carried out by Carol Dweck into fixed and growth mindsets is absolutely fascinating for all areas of teaching. If you aren't familiar with her work, try searching the internet or getting hold of one of her books. In essence she found that people who have fixed mindsets and believe that they just happen to be born with a particular set of abilities have far less potential to learn new things than those who have a growth mindset where they believe that, whilst we all have our own individual starting points, there is always the possibility to change and improve. This is particularly important in terms of spelling because it seems to be an area of learning where people tend to have a particularly fixed view of their own abilities. Many people will happily say 'I'm rubbish at spelling.' Others, clearly believe that they are very good at spelling and openly criticise others when they make mistakes (it happens on internet forums all the time). Regardless of whether they are good or bad at spelling, people with these mindsets, don't tend to invest time, effort and energy to improve their spelling. Instead they invest time an effort in criticising others, to reinforce to themselves the idea that they really are better or they spend time putting their own abilities down before anyone else can.

For children in the classroom to be successful, they need to learn. Therefore, we need to help them develop a growth mindset towards spelling. We can do this by praising effort rather than telling children what great spellers they are. We can also celebrate mistakes as learning opportunities. "Miss Takes is the best teacher in the world." We can encourage them to reflect at all times on what they have learned and how much effort they have put in. Finally we can help them see that objective measures, such as spelling tests, don't necessarily tell them much about how successfully they are learning. Getting 10 out of 10 on a spelling test isn't necessarily a great achievement - they might have already known loads of the words before they started. On the other hand getting just one word right, if it has been a problem word for a long time and has had a huge amount of effort put into tackling it, can be a significant achievement.

Strategies and routines

What do we mean when we ask children to learn to spell a word or to rehearse a word or have a go at spelling a word? What do children think we mean? Unless we actively teach children strategies and routines for learning words, rehearsing words, having a go at spelling words we can't expect them to know what we are really asking them to do. Without being explicitly taught how to do these things children will tend to resort to default strategies such as writing a word out lots of times or simply guessing when having a go at a word.

Learning to spell words

There are a number of strategies that can be used to learn words. SpellingPlay aims to encourage children to tackle words with phonics initially and teaches children a range of other strategies to bring into play for the bits of words that phonics can't tackle on its own. Research is very inconclusive in terms of what works for children when learning to spell words. It is therefore likely that different strategies probably work best for different children and for different words. This therefore needs to be a very reflective process of trying out strategies and seeing what works.

Rehearsing words

The sheer number of ways that children have found over the years to cheat at traditional methods of learning words such as, 'Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check.' suggests that children often don't 'get' how rehearsing spellings can help them and therefore don't take responsibility for putting lots of effort into rehearsal. We therefore need to find methods that are fun, engaging and allow children to see how they are doing. Even more importantly though, we need to help them see how rehearsing words benefits them. Children need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will have to spell these words in their own writing, this week. They also need to know that often working hard to learn a spelling pattern in one word can actually open the door to spelling hundreds of words that contain the same pattern. They need to get a chance to reflect on how much easier it is to produce fabulous exciting, descriptive writing when their brain power isn't clogged up and bogged down with trying to work out how to spell words.

Once children start to really see why rehearsing words is in their best interests, they begin to invent their own methods for rehearsing words that really tie in to their own strengths and interests. I've seen amazing board and card games and inventive pop-up books with sliders and flaps to hide/reveal the tricky bits of words (after we had done a DT project on pop-ups). I've seen physical learners putting huge effort into spelling games involving throwing and catching balls and visual learners creating intricate visual representations of words making the tricky bits really stand out.

Regardless, of how they learn words, if children are taking responsibility for doing so, they are far more likely to be engaged and far more likely to care about and reflect on how they are doing and whether their methods are working. With methods that work and children who are motivated and engaged, we stand the best chance of children quickly building up a large solid bank of words that they can write automatically (without even thinking about them).

Having a go at words

Children who have a solid grasp of phonics usually have a solid routine for having a go at spelling words. They say the word, soundtalk it, maybe draw soundbuttons and have a go at writing down the grapheme for each of the phonemes. As they move into spelling (where they have to make choices about which grapheme may represent some of the phonemes) it can be discouraging when their simple routine doesn't work any more. They therefore need to be introduced to new routines that build on phonics but tackle the tricky bits as well. Route to spelling is one example of this.

Of course, by far the easiest way of having a go at spelling a word (that you don't already know how to spell automatically) is just having a guess. Unfortunately, it is also probably the easiest way of getting the word wrong. Often, children who have missed out (for one reason or another) on phonics teaching are very much in the habit of guessing words. This can be a very hard habit for them to break.

Getting the balance right

If children don't care whether they spell words correctly or not, they aren't very likely to get them right but will feel free to write whatever they want (even though it may be very hard for others to read what they have written). If they care too much about spelling words correctly, they can become fearful about writing words that they don't know how to spell and the content of their writing becomes much less vibrant as a result. A 'bad cat' might be easy to spell but it doesn't conjure up the same images as a 'fearsome, ferocious feline'. Helping children to find the balance between these two approaches is a constant, ongoing juggling act in most classrooms.

Give children opportunities to talk about whether or not they think that correct spellings matter and why they matter and what constitutes great writing. Thinking about these things with a reader hat on and a writer hat on can give different answers. From a practical point of view, ensure that children know what the expectations are at any given time. Which words (maybe words that are currently being learned or have been learned in the past or words that are available in word banks) are absolutely expected to be spelt correctly. Expecting children to correctly spell words that they have never learned and which don't use patterns/conventions that they are familiar with is simply setting them up to fail but you can still have clear expectations for the 'Have a go' routine that you expect them to follow when trying these words. It can be helpful to discuss the fact that different types have writing have a greater need to be easy to read than others. A finished document that will be read by many people, probably needs to have more effort put into spelling then a quickly scribbled note that only the writer will ever read.


Schools all have their own marking and feedback policies and that is what has to guide any teacher in how they mark spellings in children's work. However, there is one important consideration that should be kept in mind to keep any spelling feedback as effective as possible. As often as possible, ask yourself, "Is my marking of this particular spelling, moving forward this child's learning?". The reality of a teacher marking spellings whilst the child is not present is that, it is the teacher who is looking for mistakes, the teacher who is identifying how to correct those mistakes and the teacher trying to think about how to prevent those mistakes happening in the future. These amazing learning opportunities are therefore being experienced by the teacher (who clearly doesn't need them) instead of the child. If your policy needs you to mark in this way (and most of them do), ensure that there is always time built in for a child to look back at the marking and at least have a chance to learn themselves from any mistakes they made.

There are many, many other ways for children to get feedback about their spelling other than the traditional method of the teacher marking the spelling whilst the child is not there. Almost all of these types of feedback are (in my opinion) more effective than the teacher marking a spelling away from a child. This is for the simple reason that most of them give feedback instantly, whilst the thought processes that the child went through to spell the word are still fresh in their mind and whilst it still really matters to them whether the word is right or wrong. Some of these effective feedback opportunities are as follows:

Informal whiteboard tests where the teacher says a word and children write the word on a whiteboard. The teacher then shows the children the correct answer and the children can mark each letter. If they made a mistake they can see it, think about why it happened, correct it and instantly learn from it. The teacher also gets a quick overview of which children can or can't spell the word and can also tell a huge amount from observing body language, facial expressions, methods used (quick guesses, painstaking working out, repeatedly changing the answer) about how children are progressing.

Games with built in instant feedback. Most of the card/board/interactive games on this site will build in instant feedback so that when a child has a go at a spelling, they instantly find out (e.g. by another child showing them a word card) whether they got it right or not. They should be encouraged to mark each correct letter, celebrate everything they got right and learn from any mistakes.

The 'Route to spelling' routine for having a go at spellings, encourages children to work through a spelling step by step, giving them a better chance of noticing mistakes themselves. If they still aren't confident with the spelling, they can ask another child, or an adult to have a look at just the tricky bit of the word and either confirm it is right or help correct it. Again they get instant feedback on their detailed thought processes about how to spell a word.

Say it. Write it. Check it. Children are encouraged, whenever they are writing to constantly check their work. This gives them good opportunities for spotting mistakes and learning from them.

Guided writing involves a teacher working with a small group of children supporting them and moving their writing. In addition to whatever learning objective they are actively tackling, this gives a great opportunity for teachers to draw children's attention to spellings that they might want to check. Again the child is getting instant feedback on their spelling and the teacher is there to talk things over with if necessary.

Writing buddies / peer support. Children are put into partnerships with responsibility to help support one another, check each other's work and feedback to each other on all aspects of the writing, not just spelling. Yet again, any mistakes are spotted not long after the child made them and they are therefore getting feedback when (hopefully) the thought processes that they went through in order to spell the word are still fresh in their mind and therefore they will find it much easier to reflect on and learn from their mistakes.

Success criteria / expectations / displays / word banks. These all serve to make it clear what words children are expected to spell correctly at any given time and give them the means to check them themselves and therefore get instant feedback.

Mini plenaries. This is when, part way through a session, the teacher stops the class for just a few moments and asks them whether they have remembered what their success criteria were in this session and whether there are any words that they are supposed to spell correctly. This usually prompts a quick check through of work and children quickly identifying and correcting any of the expected words that they may have misspelled.

Plenaries. Hopefully, if mini plenaries have been successful, children will have corrected and learned from many of their mistakes before they get to the plenary at the end of a lesson. However, this is a perfect opportunity to ask all children to put their finger on a word that they spelt incorrectly but then corrected. This can be celebrated as great learning and children can be encouraged to think about what they learned from it. Children who aren't sure how to correct the mistakes can ask for help from a writing buddy or someone else sitting near. Anyone who hasn't made any spelling mistakes can reflect on whether they may need to think about making more adventurous word choices to both take their writing to the next level and also give them opportunities to learn more about spelling.