Spelling: tracking back to move forward

    Published: 17 October 2019
    Spelling SOS


    Despite a greater focus on spelling in schools, some children are still at risk of not making the expected standard because of gaps in their spelling knowledge. It seems that some pupils still struggle to retain and apply what has been taught, especially the content of the Y5/6 spelling expectations. Often, these children do not have the firm foundations of the previous year groups’ spelling content on which to build. Additionally, they do not seem to see any analogies between words, or patterns that appear across words, but instead, they view each word as a new and unique entity. Conversely, we can all think of children who just know how to spell a word after first exposure to it - they even seem able to spell words they have never met before.  One might question whether these children are visual learners with a phenomenal memory for individual words or whether they have actually got a very efficient scheme for sorting, grouping and storing words in their long term memory. With thousands of words to assimilate and remember, perhaps all children need to be taught the most efficient way to organise their spelling knowledge ready for access ‘on demand’.

    In order to support children with this knowledge organisation, it is imperative that spelling lessons are not simply given over to practising sets of words, as is often the case. Instead, time must be prioritised to teach the patterns, conventions and rules so that children can apply this knowledge to new words.  Once an original GPC (grapheme phoneme correspondence) has been learned for the 44 sounds in the English language, learners will be shown alternative ways to represent these sounds in spelling.  New learning should build on prior learning. For example, children have learnt ‘ee’ for feel but now learn that some words are spelt with ‘ea’ like cream.  Attention should be drawn to patterns and analogies so that children can best predict which version to use. For example, ea often follows an r or t or precedes an m e.g. scream, dream, team or tease.

    Likewise, connections to existing knowledge should be supported by reminding children of what they already know. For example, if children are secure with the Y1 knowledge that the digraph ‘oy’ is found at the end of syllables such as boy or toy but that the same phoneme is spelt ‘oi’ when in the middle of a syllable like join and boil, they can also spell annoy or destroy as well as embroiled or boiler. If a child can articulate this knowledge, there is a good chance that s/he can apply it to unfamiliar words and have a better chance of spelling them correctly. It is feasible that children who are confident spellers are creating a schema in their minds: new learning is assimilated and stored within the appropriate section. If a child is supported to remember the pattern or convention pertaining to a section, they have fewer facts to remember than if they are trying to remember each word individually. However, frequent recall of that pattern is essential to build this into the long term memory and facilitate recall.

    Connection building should not stop with KS1 phonics. At a glance, the Y5/6 spelling list seems to be a random collection of unconnected words. They could be grouped according to theme, or grouped broadly into spelling patterns such as ‘words containing silent letters’, or simply given to children in batches of ten or so words at a time, for them to practise and learn. But can they be linked to prior learning in order to add to a child’s internalised spelling schema?

    Let’s take the first word on the list: accommodation. If you give children this word to learn, they may well remember it for a test on Friday. If you teach children a mnemonic for this such as ‘there is room for two c’s and two m’s in accommodation’ then they may well be able to recall the correct spelling of this word when they need it. But how often will they need it? Will the mnemonic be forgotten or muddled by the time the word is next employed? If however, you teach children that a consonant is generally doubled if it appears immediately after a short vowel (such as the short a and first o in accommodation) then a pupil will not only know how to spell this word, but over twenty more that use this convention in the Y5/6 list alone, as well as hundreds of others that they use in their day to day writing.

    The ‘doubling after a short vowel’ convention is a handy trick to have up your sleeve.  It’s also one that many primary pupils seem oblivious to, as I tend to see lack of doubling (and sometimes doubling where it is not required) as a common spelling issue across key stage 2. The words affected range from two syllable words ending in -y such as happy or in –le such as middle, to adding suffixes for words such as dropped or swimming, all the way through to multi-syllabic words such as disappeared or opportunity. When questioned, many children are unable to articulate the ‘rule’ of doubling and yet this is something that is taught in reception (less, puff, ill) and Y1 (puppy/ jelly vs baby/ lady) and then again in Y2 (where you need to be able to decide whether to double up in jungle or puddle, jumping or skipping). It stands to reason that regular revisiting of this convention would consolidate prior knowledge and give children a much firmer foundation on which to add the Year 5/6 statutory words that follow.

    Clearly, to know whether to double a consonant or not is an essential piece of knowledge and that is why these conventions are introduced in KS1. The same must be said of spelling statements pertaining to the various –le endings or the addition of suffixes. However, many spelling schemes seem to ignore (or at best give scant notice to) the very first statement in each national curriculum spelling appendix, which clearly states that children should revise work done in previous years. At the head of the Y3/4 programme of study for example, it advises: Revision of work from years 1 and 2. Pay special attention to the rules for adding suffixes. In general, most schemes focus on age related expectations, assuming prior teaching has been retained for good. However, if you have a child in Y6 who is still spelling hopeful with a double l or families with a y, then the chances are that he or she has forgotten all about the Y2 programme of study from four years ago. Hence my initial point about tracking back to build on prior learning and providing opportunities for spaced recall of that learning. Indeed, for some children, the Y2 programme of study may have eluded them altogether. Many of the suffixes such as –ment, -less or –ness are requirements for children working at the greater depth standard, so there is a good chance that some children may have been working on earlier spelling priorities or trying to secure early phonics at the time, and have never really been taught these conventions.

    The 2019 GPS paper has once again had a heavy focus on words from the Y3/4 programme of study, thus reinforcing the idea that prior learning needs to be revisited. However, if children have gaps in spelling knowledge pertaining to the Y2 programme of study, then even tracking back to Y3/4 may not be enough.  There are few words that rely solely on one KS2 spelling pattern. For example, although the word thoughtful was included with reference to the Y5/6 spelling words containing the letter string –ough, children will also need to know the Y2 teaching of adding the suffix –ful. Similarly, the mark scheme refers to the Y3/4 suffix knowledge –ous for the word generous but children will also need to know about the soft g (/dʒ/) from Y2.  As the Y2 spelling programme of study seems to form the bedrock of spelling in KS2, it is wise to allow time to revisit it as much as possible during the first term of each year. For a full analysis of the 2019 spelling paper, please see the attached document:



    To conclude, a systematic shoring up of the foundations of spelling knowledge, aided by strategies to secure retention will help children with gaps in their spelling. The first step is the identification of the gaps to enable tracking back to prior learning. The following ‘track back’ documents from HFL are designed to show teachers how the spelling statements link and build, thus aiding planning and differentiation. Click on the respective image for further information.

















    Last year, HFL began a research project with 18 schools that was designed to close gaps in spelling for KS2 children. Pupils from participating schools made, on average, 13 months of progress in spelling age during the 8-week project, which has involved 85 pupils to date. If you would like to know more about joining the next rounds of the Spelling SOS KS2 Project to further support children in your school who are struggling with spelling, visit our projects page or read more about the project.

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