Getting more mileage out of the Y5/6 spelling list

    Published: 15 January 2019

    Every teacher will tell you that teaching time is precious – too often we feel that there is just not enough of it to cover everything that we want our children to know. Therefore, any tricks on how teaching time can be maximised must surely be welcomed; especially when these tricks relate to the massive task that is teaching the spellings on the year 5/6 word lists.

    Firstly, let’s remind ourselves of the expectation as outlined in the KS2 writing TAF for EXS:

    The pupil can spell correctly most words from the year 5 / year 6 spelling list, and use a dictionary to check the spelling of uncommon or more ambitious vocabulary.

    The important word to note here is ‘most’. We do not expect the children to be able to spell all of the words – and indeed, we might find ourselves questioning when they would find it necessary to be able to spell some of the more unusual words on those lists. Still, there are many words on the list that I’m sure we would agree it would be helpful for an upper KS2 pupil to master in order to have the language needed to write for a range of purposes and audiences. For example, it would be amiss to focus on teaching the children the skills of persuasive writing without supporting them to master the spelling of the word ‘persuade’. Likewise, a study of ancient civilisations would seem to be a little wanting if the opportunity to teach the spelling of the word ‘ancient’ were missed. Indeed, a broad and balanced curriculum is an excellent access point for teaching many of the words on the Y5/6 list.

    There are other opportunist access points to be aware of; many of the words in the Y5/6 incorporate spelling patterns taught in the main body of the PoS. To offer just one example, the spelling pattern ‘ous’ features in the following words from the list: marvellous and mischievous. Therefore, when you are revisiting this Y3/4 spelling statement in Y5/6, make sure that you throw these words into the mix.

    Beyond this, what else can you do to ensure that you are maximising your teaching time in this area?  Morphology may provide an answer. A fairly light understanding of morphology can support a year 5/6 teacher to see that there are words within the list that offer more scope for teaching an understanding of spelling than others. It is these words that we need to tease out and exploit. My message here is simple: in order to get more mileage out of your spelling teaching, move away from seeing words in isolation. Instead, see them as doorways into wider word learning.

    Let’s take an example:

    ‘Accommodate’ is a good example of a word that, through close study, will open up opportunities to encounter more words (and master the spelling of them).

    The word ‘accommodate’ contains some easily recognisable affixes, namely, the prefixes ‘ac’ and ‘com’, and the suffix, ‘ate’. Strip these away and you are left with the root word ‘mode’ (in the example ‘accommodate’, the ‘e’ is omitted when the vowel suffix is added). As an avid reader and general word-enthusiast, I can think off the top of my head of many words that contain that very same root word. If I weren’t the wordy type, I may still be able to muster up a few examples, or I may turn to a fantastic website to help me: membean (click on ‘root trees’. Here you can type in a root word, or find it in the list, and then bring up a list of words featuring this root word). Most importantly however, I would want to ensure that the word I am focusing on offers enough new words for exploration that are within the children’s potential range and scope for use.

    ‘Accommodate’ once again comes up trumps because it shares its root with words such as, modesty, modern, immodest, moderation – all of which I can imagine being of some use and interest to year 5/6 writers.

    So, after modelling to the children how to strip back the focus word to its root (hopefully the children will be able to spot the affixes with ease – perhaps by referring to the prefix/suffix wall charts that I advocated the use of in a previous blog – Chop, Change, Double), I would draw their attention to the spelling and meaning of the root word (transport/means/manner). I would then record this root word several times in a linear fashion on the board e.g.





    Next, I would provide child-appropriate definitions (or clues) for words that share the same root word, trying to emphasis the semantic thread that ties the words together e.g.


    If you behaved in a manner that wasn’t particularly boastful, or over-confident, you might be described as _____ (modest)


    If a house were decorated in a very fashionable manner, it might be described as ________ (modern)

    When the children offer the correct word, I would model tacking the correct affixes to the root, making amendments e.g. removing the ‘e’/doubling the final consonant when adding vowel suffixes.

    When we have completed the list, I would encourage the children to offer their observations. This might involve comments about common suffixes or prefixes; I would urge the children to speculate on the meaning of the root word – can this meaning be threaded across all the words in the list? Can they add any words to the list that share the same root and may share a similar meaning?

    If you happen to be using a word that changes the pronunciation of the root word across its various manifestations, then all the better. This can help the children to take an important leap in their understanding of spelling conventions: that words with common meanings often share common spelling patterns (this is an important step in supporting children to make spelling decisions based not only on what words sounds like, but what they mean).

    A good example from the list to exemplify this point is the word ‘average’. The root word is ‘ver’, meaning ‘truth’. Other words sharing similar meanings, and using the same root (and that may hold some relevance to our young writers and readers), are ‘verify’ and ‘verdict’. In each case, the root is pronounced differently. A child well-versed in this type of exploration might be able to articulate that despite the different pronunciation, the spelling of the root remains the same, as all the words share the same meaning, which is about getting to the truth of the matter. And so, we stumble upon a revelation of the English spelling system: meaning, and fidelity to the root word, often trumps phonetic compliance when it comes to the agreed spelling of many of our polysyllabic words.

    This approach supports with word and spelling acquisition in several ways: firstly, it helps the children to see the underlying building blocks of polysyllabic words (beyond compound words, most polysyllabic words are made up of commonly encountered affixes, all of which are very predictable in their spelling); secondly, it helps to reinforce the skill of applying suffixes (a skill that cannot be practised enough in my experience!); thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – it helps to nurture an inquisitiveness about words and spelling patterns, that will ultimately set them upon a path of spelling enquiry, rather than spelling learning drudgery.

    After working in this way to explore several juicy words from the Y5/6 spelling list, you may see that children begin to struggle to see words at face value. Instead, they become drawn to words within the words. My litmus test for this burgeoning inquisitiveness is when you present the children with a fairly innocuous word from the spelling list: secretary, and the children instantly see that there are hidden depths to explore. No longer do they see a list of arbitrary letters, instead they see a ‘secret’, and they want to know more!

    Other words from the Y5/6 word list that you might choose to explore:

    convenience (search root word ‘ven’)

    apparent (search root word ‘par’)

    according (search root word ‘cord’)

    Morphological knowledge can do more than support with spelling acquisition. Read Sabrina Wright’s blog to reflect on how morphology can support with reading development: Vocabulary Development using Morphology.

    If you would like to think more about how teaching of spelling can be made more effective in Year 5 and 6, please join us at our forthcoming training day on March 12th 2019: Year 5 and 6 spelling: the fine detail and application.

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