The missing piece: making spelling stick

    Published: 22 April 2018

    Following on from my recent blog about a whole school approach to teaching spelling at Oakmere Primary School, I have been considering those pupils who, despite having their spelling gaps identified and targeted, are still struggling.  One of the class teachers at this school, felt the lack of progress may be due to individual factors that influence the effectiveness of their learning.  By no means am I about to say that these factors are simple to unpick, and all sorts of factors such as a ‘learner’s motivation and beliefs about their own ability might influence the effectiveness of learning’ (Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, 2017). However, I find myself coming back again and again to it being about the memory and how our brains work.

    About 12 years ago, the Headteacher I worked for recommended that I read a book called ‘The Brains Behind It by Alistair Smith.’   I found myself intrigued by this book as it guided me through the development cycle of the brain and how this can help or hinder learning.  At the time, I had not applied what I was reading specifically to the learning of spelling.  However, earlier this year, I was lucky enough to sit in on a workshop delivered by Clare Sealy at ResearchED focusing on cognitive load theory (after Sweller), and this got the old cogs whirring again. During the workshop, I kept asking myself the following questions:

    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’?

    The message coming through to me, loud and clear, was that concepts need to be securely stored in a child’s long-term memory in order for them to access and apply these.  Given how fascinating, but complex our language system is, I’m not convinced this is a particularly simple task for spelling, but I don’t think it’s impossible!

    The national curriculum makes it clear that children in KS2 should continue to secure and build upon their developing spelling knowledge from KS1, but how much do the children really remember from KS1?  How effectively do we review and build on learning in spelling to ensure we are constantly make connections to support the children’s memory?  And how aware are we of how the brain processes information in order to not overload the working memory?

    I would argue that this is a fundamental aspect that is overlooked for many in the teaching of spelling, and this is where we need to be focusing our attention in order to make a difference to our ‘struggling spellers'.

    In Clare Sealy’s blog, ‘The Science of Memory and Forgetting: How to Beat "Summer Brain Drain" In Your Primary School’, she refers to four learning pitfalls that impact memory and learning and provides a solution for each of these pitfalls.  I have been considering three of these in relation to the teaching and learning of spelling:

    1. Remembering the wrong things

    Clare states, ’Our brains have to be selective; if we remembered everything going on at every moment we would become overwhelmed. The brain has evolved to prioritise the things we pay close attention to. Therefore, it’s important to avoid planning lessons where a child’s focus is on the medium rather than the concept.’

    Open-ended investigations and games are often used in spelling lessons for children to explore a new concept for themselves. I think these do have their place in lessons, but sometimes the new game becomes the focus rather than ‘actual’ teaching of the new spelling concept.  Simplification of this and having a structured teaching sequence (review, teach, practise, apply) would be beneficial here.  In addition to this, having a small handful of games that the children know well, would mean teachers can repeat the games, but change the spelling concept being learned.  The children would then be freed up to focus in on the new learning rather than the rules of the game.

    2. Weak storage strength

    Clare states, ‘The brain makes the pragmatic decision to let memories fade unless they get used. It will assume we only want to store long-term memories that we actively retrieve.  A concept can make it into the learner’s long-term memory, but it won’t stay there without regular use… Ideally students should be asked to practice concepts at increasing intervals; a day later, a week later, a month later, 6 months later.’

    How can we apply this to spelling?  How can we ensure words, patterns and knowledge of spellings stick when there are 26 letters that create 44 phonemes; 144 combinations of these that form about half a million words in current use; 21 consonant letters that make 24 consonant sounds; 5 vowel letters that make 20 spoken vowel sounds and 96 spelling rules with many exceptions?

    We know in order to make the learning stick, it has to be retrieved many times.  Clare suggests, ‘testing before re-teaching… through small, frequent pop quizzes on a few concepts. The worry with over-testing is that it is stressful for children. However, these are not intended as big, high stakes tests like SATs, and they can be planned purely for making learning stronger – not for collecting data.’

    I can see how this could work really well for spelling, but I think the issue here for many of us, may be the deep knowledge of our spelling system, and the tracking back to prior learning in previous year groups that we have to retrieve in the first place.  How can we help pupils’ actively retrieve prior learning if we haven’t got it embedded into our memory ourselves? If I’m teaching ‘applying suffixes to root words ending in fer’ in Y6, what do I need to help the pupils retrieve that is linked to this from Y1-5?

    By no means am I suggesting that a teacher should hold the whole primary spelling curriculum in their head, and I am fully aware that with so many demands on teachers, tracking back may not be a priority that time allows, but I think it is vital we have this deep knowledge in order to help our ‘struggling spellers’ retrieve prior learning.   It was this thinking that prompted the creation of the Steps to Spelling document.This document can be used to aid teachers in tracking back to previous year groups as it enables them to see the journey back from KS2 spelling statements to the earliest phonics /spelling teaching. Below is an example of a Year 5/6 spelling statement that works its way back through the spelling statements within the NC to identify the preceding steps that would allow the year 5/6 learning to take place.  This could be used to design the initial ‘pop quizzes’.  It would save time for teachers as they wouldn’t need to trawl through the whole curriculum looking for prior linked learning.  It would also help to secure deeper subject knowledge for teachers and could be used to assess where a child is currently at for differentiation.


    See previous blog for more detail on this approach.

    3. The “use it or lose it” principle

    Clare states,’ Memories fade with time if they are not used…However, don’t despair! Memories might be fading but they are not gone forever. With a bit of prompting, they will be reawakened. It is very unlikely that you will need to reteach the concepts in the same detail as when they were first learned.’

    I think this relates directly to the previous pitfall and suggestions made.  However, with spelling, as the approach may not have already been used in school, I’m not sure reawakening will be enough.  I think that children will need certain aspects to be taught in detail again, and this is why, for me, the focus, and lion’s share of time will need to be on the review part of the spelling lesson for ‘struggling spellers’.

    Clare also states, ‘what makes these memories even stronger is if their recovery arrives out of the blue, in the middle of learning about something else.’ This is another aspect I feel needs to be focused on.  When we talk about the teaching of spelling, we often talk about the necessity for it to be taught in context; for pupils to apply their learning in independent writing and for spellings to be modelled by teachers during shared writing, but how strong is this practice in our own classrooms?  Just like the children, we are juggling so many things when teaching.  In the first instance, for this to happen more effectively, it has to become a priority, and opportunities for application and modelling of spelling have to be considered in advanced and is explicitly planned for.

    Summary of approaches discussed:

    - simplify lessons to enable children to focus on the concept rather than games/


    - 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


    The KS2 EEF document states, ‘there is limited high quality evidence about how to teach spelling, but it is clear that spelling should be actively taught rather than simply tested’. I’m hopeful that the days of handing out spelling lists once a week for testing without any direct spelling instruction are mostly behind us.  However, I think it is also clear that the science of memory needs to be considered very carefully when teaching spelling, and that constant revisiting of spelling needs to be consistently planned for.

    For me, what matters is that we enable pupils to develop strong spelling skills in order to have a good level of literacy and to communicate this effectively in the written form as they move on into their secondary schools. There is no denying the more fluent a child becomes in spelling (and handwriting) the more they are then cognitively freed up to focus on the composition, so this has to be a priority in my mind.  By understanding and applying the science of memory to our teaching, we may have found the missing jigsaw piece for our ‘struggling spellers’.

    With thanks to Oakmere School, Potters Bar, Herts.

    Look out for HfL’s new project to be launched in autumn 2018. The project will offer an opportunity to explore the approaches mentioned above in more detail, and will be outlined in further detail in the third part of this blog.

    Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. (2017) Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand. Available at… (Accessed 30th March 2018).

    Sealy, C. (2017) The Science of Memory and Forgetting: How to Beat "Summer Brain Drain" In Your Primary School. Available at:… (Accessed 30th March 2018)

    ‘Spelling SOS KS2 Project’

    If you would like to register an expression of interest for this training course, please contact course lead: Sabrina Wright we will then contact you when this course is available for booking so that you can secure yourself a place.


    Contact details

    Related Blogs

    Receive our latest posts direct to your inbox...