Early findings from the SOS Spelling KS2 project

    Published: 08 October 2018

    With 18 schools across Hertfordshire now involved in HfL’s SOS Spelling KS2 Project, Sabrina Wright reflects on what has been learned from the project so far.

    This term, HfL has officially launched the first round of the SOS Spelling KS2 Project.  Analysis of outcomes from trial schools have been very positive, and it is anticipated that this project will support targeted pupils to be on an improved trajectory towards EXS in writing at the end of the year.

    With a growing database of both qualitative and quantitative information, we are now in a position to share some of the early findings.

    The project began on a small scale, in one school, where the SL was keen to raise standards by improving the children’s spelling in their independent writing.  The agreed focus was specifically on plugging gaps for pupils that were struggling whilst developing a consistent approach to the teaching of age related expectations.

    The approach taken by the case-study schools was as follows:

    • develop teachers’ subject knowledge in order for them to identify misconceptions accurately;
    • complete a gap analysis of pupils’ spelling errors in their independent writing;
    • prioritise key learning areas to focus on from the analysis;
    • use the analysis to track back to where the pupils are working from;
    • use the track back information to review prior learning; build on the last ‘good’ bit of learning and address the needs of all of the children in their class through either whole class, group or one to one sessions.

    More detail about this approach can be found in the following blog: Steps to Spelling: track back to leap forward.

    Though the teachers from the case study school felt more confident about how children learn to spell, about the different routes children may take into spelling and how to address the needs of differing children in their class,  there still seemed to be groups of pupils who seemed to be frustratingly resistant to making progress. 

    This got us thinking about those pupils who, despite having their spelling gaps identified and targeted, were still struggling, and what could be done to improve their trajectory towards EXS in writing.  In order for these pupils to have a more positive relationship with spelling, be more enthusiastic, confident spellers with an increased understanding and knowledge of it, something different had to be considered. Even though the way they had always been taught to spell had worked for many, it just wasn’t working for all of the children all of the time - for whatever reason they were not making connections to prior learning, and remembering what they had been taught.

    After a great deal of reading about the science of our memory, and discussions with teachers and colleagues, some key questions seemed worth considering:

    1. How does the way our memory works relate to/hinder the learning of spelling?
    2. How can the science of the memory be used to adapt the teaching of spelling to help our ‘struggling spellers’?  

    Some suggestions to addressing the above questions were discussed in detail in a previous blog: The Missing Piece: making spelling stick.  A summary of the approaches suggested can be found below:

    • simplify lessons to enable children to focus on the concept rather than games/investigations;
    • deepen teachers’ subject knowledge and skills in order for them to build upon pupils’ prior learning effectively, and support retrieval of prior learning;
    • implement a teaching sequence as it will ensure there is a focus on a particular aspect when teaching  e.g.  review, teach, practise, apply ;
    • help pupils to develop their memory by explicitly linking new learning to prior learning/making connections;
    • avoid having the ‘traditional’ once a week spelling test that only assesses words that the children have learned that week.  Instead, use tests (pop quizzes) as retrieval practice to go over previously learned words regularly;
    • explicitly model application of spellings learned during shared writing; 
    • plan opportunities for pupils to apply their learning in independent writing across the curriculum.

    It was from this, and the initial small scale study at Oakmere Primary School that the SOS spelling KS2 project was designed.  We decided upon a two pronged approach that focuses on both supporting groups of pupils who are at risk of not achieving the expected standard in writing due to spelling, whilst also providing teachers with an approach for planning and teaching spelling in line with age-related expectations.  The first strand develops teachers’ subject knowledge through gap analysis in order for them to be able to identify misconceptions accurately, and prioritise key learning areas to focus on for individuals.  This strand also focuses on memory strategies in order to support pupils to securely store their learning in their long-term memory, so that they can then access and apply this learning in independent writing.  The second strand supports teachers’ understanding of the different routes children might take into spelling; how to implement and manage a teaching sequence that meets the varying needs of their class, and reviews prior learning; making connections for pupils and building on the last ‘good’ bit of learning for them.

    During the trials, five schools were asked to work with four children over a 6-8 week period, offering a 1:1 session for each child per week, and 4 additional sessions with either a TA, peer or independently.  The additional sessions focused solely on  memory strategies.  In addition to this, teachers were asked to implement a whole class spelling approach.  Following the trials over the summer term, we can now present our early findings. 

    Gains in spelling age (for most children):

    Of the 20 children who took part in the summer trials (6-8 week period), 15 children made gains in their spelling age of between 4 months and 13 months, and 3 made gains of 3 months. Out of the number of pupils who made 4 months-plus progress in spelling over the 6-8 week period, 11 children made 6 months or over.

    Data was gained using the GL British Spelling Test Series.

    Steps to spelling data

    It did not work for a small number of children:

    Our trials helped us to refine our understanding of whom this project really helped. Two children did not make more than 8 weeks progress in their spelling age following the project. Much of our discussion following these trials have focused on what it was about these particular children that meant that they did not benefit from the project. As is often the case, each child prompted a different theory, but factors we have considered are as follows:

    • pupil selection – in some cases, pupils’ spelling was a barrier but not the only/most significant barrier to learning at that particular time.
    • consistent delivery by a key individual (class teacher) – in some cases, other adults delivered sessions or assessments where they had not attended training.  Fidelity to the programme appears to be a key factor.

    All of these considerations have enabled us to better support schools in selecting pupils who are most likely to make gains as a result of the methods used in the project.

    More than simply learning lists of words for a test:

    Ensuring pupils had several opportunities for retrieval practice to go over previously learned words over the 6-8 week period helped pupils to develop their memory of how to spell certain words.  This was evident in what the children were reporting back to us, ‘Usually I memorise a word and lose it but now I memorise a word, and I don’t lose it.  Now I’ve got the spelling stuck in my head.’ However, we were aware that simply learning words on a list wasn’t enough.  Pupils needed to be able to apply their learning in independent writing across the curriculum.  Children were set a daily task to apply the conventions they had learned to their independent writing; the conventions were taught explicitly and modelled to pupils during their weekly 1:1 session with their teacher.  Part of the weekly 1:1 session was used to discuss and analyse how words are spelt, and to consider how to remember these using strategies such as identifying tricky parts of words, syllabification, chunking etc.  This also was part of the pupils’ additional daily activities. 

    In addition to being able to remember how to spell the words they had been taught, the pupils were also able to articulate what they were doing when they were spelling words and why some words were wrong. Teachers reported to us that pupils appeared to be consciously thinking about their spelling when writing, and applying what they had learned in their independent writing. During pupil interviews pupils made comments such as, ‘I used to write the word straight away, but now I think about it.’ These outcomes have prompted us to develop a further strand on metacognition as part of the project.

    It is important to track back for the pupils and teachers:

    Tracking back to review prior learning and build on the last ‘good’ bit of learning was vital for moving the children on.  However, the teachers also reported that the process of becoming familiar with what pupils had been taught about spelling in earlier years had moved their ‘learning’ on too.  It enabled them to develop their own subject knowledge, confidence and understanding of the stages required in the teaching of spelling.  Following the study, teachers felt they were better equipped to address the needs of the children in their class/group.  They were more confident in accurately identifying the children’s strengths and next steps, and were also better equipped to address the gaps identified. Teachers need time, headspace and the opportunities to take part in activities that develop this deep and valuable understanding of prior learning: these are all things we try to offer on our launch day.

    Children enjoy it!

    We know from our own experiences of working with children and from our pupil interviews that children don’t always enjoy learning to spell.  For some, the challenge and complexity of it is enough to completely put them off.  This in turn often leads to pupils feeling like they are a ‘bad speller’, or that they ‘can’t spell’, and they often have very low self-esteem when it comes to spelling and writing.  Most notably, children who are ‘struggling spellers’ find it harder to focus on the composition of their writing as they are not cognitively freed up to do so.  Vocabulary choices are often more basic in order for them to avoid making spelling errors, and so the child almost becomes ‘stuck’ in this repeating cycle. Those that do focus on the composition over the transcription, often end up with pages and pages of spelling errors.  Either way, neither of these are the ideal scenario for the pupils involved.

    The impact on the pupils’ self-esteem during the project, was particularly relevant. The children especially enjoyed working 1:1 with the class teacher or in a group, and were able to recognise this as a positive factor, ‘I like working with just the teacher so the teacher can focus on what I need to do.’  The children found the strategies we suggested aided their memory of spelling certain words, and they then began to feel more confident about their ability to spell. Their self-esteem began to improve, and this seemed to be the start of a much more positive relationship with spelling and writing for these pupils.  One child beamed from ear to ear, when reporting to me that she now helped other children to spell when they were stuck, and other children reported that their spellings had improved in their writing and tests. Although this may seem a minor improvement in terms of outcomes, this quite possibly was the most significant improvement of all as pupils were now beginning to see themselves as spellers, and were more resilient as they felt armed with the strategies they needed to aide them.

    We acknowledge that we are in the early stages of our work, but with 18 schools and 90+ pupils launching whole-heartedly into the project last week, we look forward to developing our knowledge of how these techniques can help to raise standards in spelling, and to sharing these findings in the near future.

    We are currently taking expressions of interest for participation in our spring and summer projects. The project is open to both Herts and non-Herts schools. You will need to be able to attend three training sessions (whole day launch; twilight: half day final twilight) across the term at our base in Stevenage to participate in the project.

    Please click on the image below to express an interest on our project page or contact sabrina.wright@hertsforlearning.co.uk for more details.


    With thanks to the following schools for their participation in the summer trials:

    De Havilland Primary School, Hatfield

    Harwood Hill Primary School, Welwyn Garden City

    Pope Paul Primary School, Potters Bar

    St Catherine’s School, Hoddesdon

    Fairlands Primary School, Stevenage

    With special thanks to Oakmere Primary School, Potters Bar for their early involvement in the project.

    Contact details

    Latest blogs

    Receive our latest posts direct to your inbox...