S1 E23 - How Do I Tackle Spelling in the Early Years?

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Hi everyone. Welcome to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. My name is Jocelyn Seamer, and I'm recording this episode from Tasmania, Australia. On the lands of the Palawa people.

For the longest time, we have treated reading and spelling as separate entities, with a phonics program dealing with words for reading and a separate program dealing with words for spelling. We may also have had a third program for handwriting, giving our students three separate areas of content to focus on in their learning. Some students will be just fine with this. They have no learning issues, have great memories and take it all in their stride. But for many students, this mishmash of content just led to confusion and years of being at school with very little learning taking place. This approach also did not work with what the research tells us about how spelling develops.

Fundamentally, spelling is about learning how words work. When it comes to building that understanding, there are four areas of knowledge to build. That's phonology (how sounds work), orthography (what the conventions or rules of the written language are), morphology (how to understand and work with the smallest units of meaning), and etymology (how the history and origins of a word influence spelling and use). All of these factors are important for students to develop over time, but not all are tackled in equal measure in the early years of school.

Today's topic
In this episode, I'm going to share some key findings from theory and research when it comes to spelling, evaluate a common practice in spelling instruction, and then go on to suggest instructional practices that are a more efficient and effective alternative based on the research and my own experience as a teacher, school leader, and tutor of students with a learning difficulty. You can find a reference list for this episode at the bottom of the show notes.

Let's begin with a quick trip around the research, and I have to tell you that as a teacher, I sometimes have imposter syndrome. When it comes to looking at research, I have my go-to books written by respected researchers such as Louisa Moats, Stanislas Dehaene, Mark Seidenberg, Steve Graham, and David Kilpatrick. I also include an examination of meta-analysis in my reading, which is where researchers have a good look at a number of research trials altogether to determine what they find collectively, as well as individual studies that help me to build my understanding of practice and what is most likely to support student development. This doesn't make me an expert in research, but it does help me continually build my knowledge. 

Jocelyn's journey.
If you are listening to this podcast and thinking, "Wow, Jocelyn, you must be a superwoman. There's no way I could do all that",  please banish that thought from your head immediately. When I worked in school full-time, there was no way that I had the time or head space to think about instruction this deeply and do this kind of reading. It wasn't until after I wasn't in a school-based role that I was able to even entertain the idea of reading deeply. And as for that imposter monster that visits us all, telling us that we aren't nearly qualified or experienced enough to dare talk about research-informed practice. Well, that monster comes to us all.

When I was finalizing my book 'Reading Success in the Early Primary Years', and I was working with Pam Snow from LaTrobe University to dot the i's and cross the t's, I expressed this uncertainty to her. She graciously reminded me that we all experience these moments of doubt (even her). The way that I got through this was to remind myself that you all need the support that I can offer way more than I need to feel like an expert.

When it comes to leaders and teachers, you can frame your purpose in a similar way. Your students need strong instruction in reading and writing much more than they need you to feel or be perfect. So on that note, let's dive into some key points of research that can help frame our decisions about early years spelling. As I've mentioned, you can find the reference list for this episode, including links to the two open-access papers that I'm referring to.

The first meta-analysis that I want to share with you is by Galuschka et al. from 2020. This meta-analysis included 34 controlled trials, had a focus on students with dyslexia and other difficulties. I often look at studies that specifically examine the impacts of interventions on students with difficulties because my goal is that every single resource we produce, whether it is a physical book that you have delivered or a digital resource in The Resource Room membership, helps you make Tier One instruction as inclusive as humanly possible.

Galuschka et al. found that approaches to spelling instruction that included phonics, orthography, or the rules of spelling and morphology, all had a moderate to high impact. However, the effectiveness of memorization strategies was not able to be established.

So WHAT do I teach?
The question for early years teachers is then, what do I teach? In this paper, the authors identified that there are many theoretical models and significant research findings that support teaching phonics before morphology or focusing on orthographic considerations. They also discussed that simple phoneme-grapheme correspondences were not sufficient for students to master spelling. As such, the recommendation in this 2020 paper was that we should begin to teach students about orthographic conventions (or spelling rules) and morphology as soon as students have the basics of phonics mastered. This suggestion is seen in practice in both our Reading Success in Action series and the first book in our Spelling Success in Action series.

So HOW do I teach?
We've examined the what and a rough timing of when, but what about the how? Galuschka et al. share the observation that students need to know about how a word sounds, how a word is constructed, and what a word means in order to learn to spell it. This provides a nice connection to Linnea Ehri's phases of site word learning that also identifies these three critical components. So what does this mean? It means that we can find a connection between learning to read and learning to spell.

What about students who DON'T have reading difficulties?
But what about students who don't have reading difficulty? What does the research say about them? Graham and Santangelo completed a meta-analysis in 2014, examining 53 studies that involved over 6,000 students from kindergarten to year 12. Most of the studies included whole cohorts of students, not just those with difficulties. They found that formal spelling instruction led to superior results than spelling is the caught approach where we give kids things to do and expect them just to pick up spelling.

While the studies used a range of instructional practices, the authors of this paper outlined three components.

1. Teaching students how to spell specific words.
2. Using skills, rules, and strategies to spell unknown words.
3. Connecting and extending knowledge through word study, this would include morphology.

This meta-analysis found that formal spelling instructions supported the development of a range of areas, including phonological awareness and reading generally, and that students taught to spell formally were more likely to transfer correct spelling to their writing at text level. While there was no guarantee that this correct transfer would occur in every single case, there was enough transfer seen to make the formal instruction worthwhile.

They also found that more spelling instruction was better than less spelling instruction, which led me to take these notes. "Therefore, five days per week is better than two." And this was prompted by the question that I'm often asked about how many times a week we should be conducting spelling lessons in phonics and word-level reading.

Interestingly, this paper stated that there is research to support both 'spelling as caught' and 'spelling as taught' approaches, but that formal spelling instruction leads to much better outcomes. I don't really think that's a surprise to any of us. After all, children have been learning to read and write through balanced literacy practices for years. The problem is that not nearly enough of them have been doing so.  What this tells us is that the balanced literacy ideas around immersing children in rich language experiences will work for some, but we don't only teach some of our students, we teach them all.

Look, say, cover, write, check.
A common practice in spelling has been one of 'look, say, cover, write, check'. I'd like to unpack this practice and discuss which bits of it might be okay and which might have students missing the learning mark.

Let's look at the look part. When I'm teaching, I have a saying; "There is no copying in this classroom." Now, that is a sweeping generalization, but I don't like to give children words and sentences to copy. It's not their work, and it doesn't engage them in using the critical skills of segmenting and recalling phoneme-grapheme correspondences that are needed to independently write. I'd say that the look, in 'look, say cover, write, check' isn't ideal. When children look and copy, they aren't fully engaging with the word and are more than likely trying to memorize the letter string than think about the word structure.

The next part of the model is, say. This one is actually good. We've already heard in this episode that a student needs to know about a word's orthographic structure, how it is pronounced, and what it means in order to learn how to spell or read it. So the say part here, at least, is good. However, when a student is independently completing 'look, say, cover, write, check' on their own, it's the step that I would guess is most often skipped.

From here, we have cover. Covering is good. It means that a student isn't directly copying the word, however, used in the context of this structure, where the structure of the word isn't examined at all, the student is more than likely just giving themselves a split second to rehearse the names of that string of letters rather than providing the necessary forgetting time that would lead to strong retention in memory.

This brings us to write. Writing words, in general, is great. It means that students are engaging in a multisensory activity and are producing words, not just reading them. But again, if we are just writing letter strings without thought for the phonological or orthographic structure of a word, we aren't getting it done.

The last part is check, I like the check part. The check step provides feedback, which we know is important for learning to occur. So check is good. We can see that 'look, say, cover, write, check' isn't all bad, but it's not exactly good either. So if our standard practices aren't cutting the mustard, they aren't getting the job done to a high level. What should we have students do?

What should we have students do?
The first thing to do in making sure that early-year students are developing strong spelling is to teach them to connect phonemes and graphemes. In his book Reading In the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene reminds us that this is essential for spelling as well as many other skills. In Chapter Nine of 'Best Practices in Writing Instruction', edited by Graham, MacArthur and Hebert, Alves and colleagues describe the acquiring of the alphabetic principle as a landmark in spelling development. They then ask us to ensure that students are developing phonemic awareness, as this is the basis for any further spelling development.

What does this mean for all teachers, but specifically early years teachers? Teach robust phonics lessons that include building automatic phoneme-grapheme correspondences both ways, not just for recognizing but also for recalling and include word-level reading and spelling every day. While we do this, it's important to closely monitor student development as segmenting words into phonemes is a major stumbling block for many students, it must be overcome if students are to progress to word level proficiency and beyond.

But of course, spelling does not end in phonics. There are those other areas of word study to consider: orthography, morphology and etymology. How do they influence how we manage early-years spelling? We've already heard from Galuschka et al. that these other areas should enter into the picture once the foundations of phonics are established, but that doesn't mean that early-year students need to be immersed in a world of morphology, spelling rules, and romps through Etymon-line.

Louisa Moats reminds us that spelling is multi-linguistic in nature, there are lots of linguistic elements. It's probably not a good idea to get too focused on spelling rules. We need a little bit of that, but our students are better served by working with them on pattern recognition and developing insights into how our language is structured. But this isn't a choose-your-own-adventure affair. As with phonics, areas such as morphology need to be taught explicitly to make sure that all children learn what they need to. After all, this brings about the equitable, inclusive type of instruction that we are aiming for.

All of this is reflected in our newest teaching guide, 'Spelling Success in Action 1: Getting Started with Morphology and Spelling Conventions.' This book enables you to begin to help children develop knowledge of morphology and simple suffix in conventions without detracting from the major role that phonics plays in your early-years classroom. In the literature that outlines the morphemes and concepts that are most useful to different children at different ages, as well as the Australian curriculum, we have been able to provide you with guidance and lessons that you can use to deliver great appropriate whole class instruction to get your students on the road to proficient spelling, regardless of the phonics program, your school uses. Our lessons help you teach concepts explicitly in around 15 to 20 minutes, once a week or once a fortnight, and then embed them into your general word and text-level work.

Spelling Success in Action - Getting Started with Morphology (2)

If you are using Reading Success in Action Three for your students who are in that transitional phase between core phonics and full morphology instruction, (this often occurs around year two) we have lessons that correspond to the spelling and morphology detours found in that book also.

Tweaking the old look, say cover, write, check routine.
But what about the old 'look, say cover, write, check' routine? What can we do with that? Can it be salvaged? I think that with some tweaks, we can come up with a better practice routine to help students develop strong practice habits that will help consolidate learning.

The first step here is for you to teach using a really strong systematic synthetic phonics approach that includes both reading and spelling at word level every day, monitoring student learning closely, and filling gaps in learning as you go.

Then the students will be in the position to take full advantage of the practice opportunities you provide. An alternative to 'look, say, cover, write check' could be 'read, mark, spell and check' and you'll be able to find a download of this routine at the bottom of this post. 

1. Step one is to provide a list of words that contain correspondences that students know. You've already taught them. This might include single-syllable words, compound words or base words and suffixes depending on your student's point in their development.

2. Step two. Students read the word list aloud from top to bottom to an adult who can give feedback and redirect as necessary.

3. The third part of this is having the students identify the components of the words. So that could be the graphemes, the orthographic conventions you've been working on, or the morphemes by marking up the words.

4. Step four is to ask the adult to hide the word list. There's our cover, and read the words to the student one at a time with the student writing them. After each word, the adult shows the word to the student as immediate feedback. If the student incorrectly spells the word, the words are added to the bottom of the list so they can have a second try at the end.

5. Step number five is the student reads a list of words from bottom to top. This routine contains many of the elements of 'look, say, cover, write, check', such as having a list, looking at words, covering things up, and getting feedback. However, it does not allow for passive copying or students trying to memorize strings of letters.

In conclusion...
For many of us. We are already on the road to taking control of early years spelling. We have robust systematic phonics approaches in place, and we are starting to dabble in morphology and orthographic elements of spelling that are going to help take our students to the next level. 

I wish you the very best in your teaching endeavours and look forward to being of service to you as you help your students achieve even better results than they already are.

I'll see you in the next episode, everyone. Bye.



Alves, R.U., Limpo, T., Salas, N., & Joshi, R.M. (2019) Chapter 9: Handwriting and Spelling. In Graham, S., MacArthur, C.A., & Hebert, M. (ed) Best Practices in Writing Instruction. 3rd edition, The Guildford Press.

Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the Brain: The new Science of How We Read. Penguin Books.

Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory findings and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(2), 167–188. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://mimtsstac.org/ sites/default/files/Documents/Presentations/AnitaArcherWorkshops/January2014/ LearningtoReadWords.pdf

Galuschka, K., Görgen, R., Kalmar, J., Haberstroh, S., Schmalz, X., & Schulte-Körne, G. (2020). Effectiveness of spelling interventions for learners with dyslexia: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Educational Psychologist, 55(1), 1–20. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lakeheadu.ca/10.1080/00461520.2019.1659794

Graham, Steve & Santangelo, Tanya. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing. October, 2014. DOI: 27. 10.1007/s11145-014-9517-0.

Moats, L. C. (2020). Speech to print (3rd ed.). Paul Brooks Publishing.

Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2007) Writing Systems and Spelling Development. In Snowing, M.J. & Hulme, C. (ed) The Science of Reading: A Handbook. Blackwell Publishing.


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