S3 Ep19 - How To Make Sure That Your Spelling Instruction Is Explicit

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Hello, hello and welcome to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast recorded here in Pataway, Burnie, the lands of the Palawa people. I'm Jocelyn and I'd like to start this episode with some words of encouragement.
So many teachers and leaders are way too hard on themselves. I'm going to bet that includes you. The very fact that you're listening to this podcast means that you want to do a great job for kids.
You're on the bus and you are prepared to take action to ensure that all students leave Primary School reading and writing. It's terrific and necessary that we strive for better, but remember that you have cognitive load too. Focus first on what matters most and on making sure that at-risk students, and those with additional needs, are prioritised, and all will be well in time.

Success is built in a series of small, impactful and sustainable steps, not in overturning everything in one day and making your team overwhelmed.

Every small adjustment you make to move practice closer to explicit teaching is a real gift to your students.

In today's episode of the podcast, I'd like to talk about what it looks like to make spelling instruction explicit. I've addressed spelling instruction here on the podcast before and have provided links to those episodes in the show notes on our website, but today I'd like to specifically discuss markers or indicators that we can use to evaluate spelling instruction, to make sure that it is truly explicit and serving the largest number of students possible.

When considering spelling instruction, there are two specific areas to explore. There's the what and the how.

When it comes to what we are teaching, we can think of this in a couple of ways. The first of these centers on knowledge. There are three types of knowledge. There's declarative knowledge, which is the stuff we know, the procedural knowledge, what we can do, and the third element of knowledge is knowing what to do when. This conditional knowledge is the difference between knowing that there are several ways to spell the phoneme k, but that a "ck" is used after a single short vowel.

Knowing that you can spell /k/ with a <c>, a <k> with the diagraphs <ck>, <qu> and <ch> is declarative knowledge.

Being able to write words with these patterns is procedural knowledge: we can do it.

Knowing that the <ck> comes after a single short vowel is conditional knowledge: knowing when to do what. Students need all three types of knowledge to be successful spellers.

So much spelling instruction has focused on procedural knowledge for such a long time. We gave children activities such as look, say, cover, write, check and rainbow writing, but didn't actively build their knowledge of how words work. So that's the first thing to consider in evaluating spelling practice in your school:

How are you building declarative knowledge when it comes to words?

If students are going to develop conditional knowledge about using the grapheme "ck", they need to know what a single short vowel is, not just have said a-e-i-o-u a few times in the classroom, but really know it when asked, unassisted.

Remember, doing and knowing are two different things.

And this brings us to the sticky question of rules. And I say sticky not because they're hard to learn and use, but because there are many, many opinions about their place in instruction.
To me, it's common sense to come to the conclusion that students are helped when they know how words work. Yes, there are the arguments about rules being ineffective because there are too many exceptions, but I think I might have to cover that in a different episode. The short version is that 96% of English spelling is logical (Moats, 2012) when we understand the layers of spelling knowledge, and many spelling features that we might think of as exceptions are actually perfectly logical.
Rules, or, more accurately, generalisations or conventions, do have a place. They help students understand how and why of words, but we don't want to have an approach to spelling that focuses on them exclusively.
That would be pretty boring and actually not that effective.
There needs to be, dare I say it, balance in the areas of instruction we focus on.

Three Interconnected and Specific Areas of Word Knowledge

This brings me to the next point, about the kinds of knowledge we need to help our students develop, and there are three specific areas of word knowledge: phonics, orthography and morphology.
There are interconnections between all three of these, but they are three broad categories that we can think about. When we read and spell, we use knowledge of all of these to help us. That's the crux of a multi-linguistic approach to reading and spelling.
It makes perfect sense to me that we draw knowledge of all of this to understand words and that we shouldn't focus on just one exclusively. So this is the next point of reflection when it comes to spelling instruction in schools,

Are we teaching students about all of these areas in an appropriate time and appropriate way?
Are we teaching phonics, orthography and morphology as we need to be?

The question then becomes,

When is it appropriate to teach what?

There are two competing perspectives on this. (Templeton, 2020)

One is Stage Theory that says students need to develop proficiency in one area of word knowledge before moving on. In this hierarchical approach, students would need to show themselves to be proficient with phonics before moving on to learning about spelling rules.

The other theory is called Repertoire or Wave Theory, which identifies broader overlapping phases through which a child focuses on learning. And this learning is aligned to the information they are most likely to use to engage with reading and spelling words at this stage of development. Repertoire Theory says that a child will access knowledge about how to spell a word based on how much knowledge they have and which area of knowledge is predominantly represented or important in a particular word. You'll find the references about all of this in the show notes.

Those supporting Stage Theory and Repertoire Theory generally agree on what needs to be taught, but differ in their perspective on how much and when.

This brings me to the how of thinking about spelling instruction. For this we can draw on several theories and sources of information, including Cognitive Load Theory, Information Processing Theory, evidence about explicit teaching, direct evidence from instructional research and what we see in how our students respond to instruction.

Now, anecdotes are not robust evidence, to be sure, but I do think that there is a place for us to consider the response of our students to instruction, and use data and student growth indicators to evaluate our practices and approaches. We might think we're using a strong, evidence-informed approach to instruction, but if our students can't spell, it's not working.
If our students are reaching a certain point in their literacy development and stalling, questions need to be asked. It might not be the what of the teaching that needs addressing, it might be an aspect of the how that needs adjusting.
To dive a little deeper into that, have a listen to episode eight of season two of the podcast called Why Isn't my Tier One Instruction Working, and you may find some helpful information there.

So let's get back to our discussion of the method of spelling instruction and what we can reflect on here. The first thing I'd like to ask you to think about is the difference between explicit and intentional teaching. And there are a lot of claims about explicit teaching, every man and his dog is claiming that their approach is evidence-based and explicit, but we have to know what that really means, because intentional teaching and explicit teaching are not necessarily the same thing, even though many people use those terms interchangeably.
Intentional teaching means that we have the goal of students learning something. It's entirely possible to be intentional but not be explicit.
Explicit instruction means that we are applying Rosenshine's Principles (Rosenshine, 2012), something that we do in all aspects of the resources and programs that we create 

Strong, explicit instruction breaks content down into small chunks.
It introduces them directly, as in, it doesn't ask students to discover or find the learning themselves.

If your approach to spelling instruction begins with students examining passages, sentences or whole words, or even begins with the reading of a picture book, it's not explicit, it's analytical. Sure, there is the intention to teach a certain grapheme, rule or morpheme, but you're working from larger units to smaller, not just telling the student what they need to know and directing their attention to what they need to think about.

My reasoning here, and why I'm saying this, is related to what we know about attention and human memory.
That is, we can focus on one new thing at a time. If we're asking students to examine a passage to locate all of the words that contain A, or introducing four ways to spell the sound A at a time, how many new things are we actually asking students to think about? It's not one, it's many more than that. And right there, we are setting many students up to fail. We're asking them to sift through the information we're giving them to find the learning. Yes, there will be students who are just fine with such instruction and have done okay with an analytical approach. I'm not here to tell you that an analytical approach to spelling doesn't work, but there are many students who did just fine with a sight word program and leveled text from the first week of the Foundation year. That's not the point.

The point is that there are far too many students who go through the motions of an analytical, context-embedded approach to instruction, not actually learning what they need to. And if you don't believe me, look at your students and your data. These students reach year six and into secondary school still unsure about basic spelling.

Analytic VS Explicit Approaches

Research is a bit spotty on whether analytic or explicit and synthetic approaches work best for instruction.
Explicit approaches break things down into small units and teach students to put them together to read and spell words. These approaches have been shown to be more effective and there are studies that show that they are significantly more effective.
But equally, there are studies to show that there's not much difference between the two approaches, even though the explicit approach nudges ahead of the analytic.
So here I come back to Cognitive Load Theory, Information Processing Theory and my own experience, and to be reasonable and fair, I'm not a researcher, I'm not pretending to be. But I can comment on my own experience, and what I've seen in the schools I've worked in, the schools I now work with and the many, many, many students I have tutored to help them learn to read and spell when the classroom approaches have failed them.
When I ask teachers who is being served in classrooms where an analytical approach is being used, they'll tell me it's the top kids, the ones who learn reasonably easily. The strugglers get left behind, and that's the reason for this episode.

We're aiming for instruction for all, not just some, not just most. And if you're worried that all this explicit instruction might hurt your high flyers, have a listen to last week's episode.
The goal of explicit teaching is that tier one instruction is as inclusive and robust as humanly possible. Practice that does not support our at-risk students has no place in our schools. This idea is at the heart of every resource and program we create. This is at the heart of what equitable practice is all about.
So when it comes to the how of spelling instruction, we need to establish strong conceptual understanding and declarative knowledge right from the start. Now I can almost hear some listeners asking,

"But Jocelyn, you've included locating words with target morphemes from a passage in your work."

"You suggest that teachers provide instruction in morphology, phonics and orthography together. Why are you saying this?"

And that's true. I have included a task where students read a passage and find words in the morphology lessons inside The Resource Room and in our new program, Spelling Success in Action 2, that teaches about prefixes and suffixes.
The difference is that this activity comes after concepts have been explicitly introduced and practiced.
Students have been shown the morpheme, they know how to spell it, they've been told what it means and had time to review that knowledge. They have read words, broken them up into prefixes, bases and suffixes.
They have had at least two sessions of explicit teacher-led instruction at word and sentence level, first, to make sure that they have strong conceptual understandings.
It's not until that is established that students are given a passage to read and work with.

And in Spelling Success in Action 2, the level of complexity of those passages is adjusted to suit the needs of students, with careful thought given to ways students can put their new learning to work. Oh, and, students who need an extra hand get it through decoding support, larger text, more space between lines and the target words being underlined to optimise the intrinsic load of the task.

So yes to context embedded work, but only after concepts have been established in practice.

Yes, I advocate for the teaching of orthography and morphology in the early years alongside phonics, but not all at once. In consideration of Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 2011), Information Processing Theory and the Repertoire Theory, the ratios of these three areas alter over time.
The main focus in the early years is phonics, with some morphology layered in, to support students to read and spell multi-morphemic words. This doesn't happen, though, until students can blend and segment confidently.
Orthographic conventions are introduced alongside phonics, such as learning that we don't use "ai" at the end of a word, because English words don't end in "i", but the main focus is on learning how to use this grapheme to read and spell words. The convention is then revisited in year two and three to consolidate it.
We don't bring it all in at once and kind of throw it at the kids.
One of the reasons is that we need to provide targeted, specific opportunity for consolidation and some intensive review. This just can't happen when we introduce way too many new elements at a time.

Rosenshine's Principles include the need to break learning down into small parts and teach them until mastery before adding new knowledge. Asking students to learn about a new phoneme, a new morpheme and a new orthographic convention all at once is a recipe for overwhelm for many students.
This brings me to another issue relating to attention that I feel is important to discuss, and that is how we're directing student attention and guiding them through the learning process. Preparing some resources and sending students off to do activities is not providing sufficient guidance for strong student learning. It's also incredibly inefficient in terms of time and learning return on investment.
When we ask students to inquire for themselves or locate words in a passage and discover patterns, we're pretty much guaranteeing that a percentage of students are developing misconceptions or are only partly developing conceptual understandings, and when this happens, well, it's a massive missed opportunity for strong learning.

I want to share a scenario with you.

You bought a new house or you're in a new classroom and you need to turn the light on for the first time. You approach the panel of four switches not knowing which one of them is going to turn on the light. So you have a stab and you pick one and you go for it and you turn the lights on, and you may have had to turn three or four switches on to get there, but you got there and you know tickety-boo, that's okay, success criteria achieved: the lights are on. Except that eight years later, you're still not quite sure which light switch turns on which light,

And when we introduce too many concepts and we ask kids to figure it out, this is what we're doing to many of them. We're creating a light switch situation.

So what I'd like you to do is think about: how can you reduce or eliminate the light switch situation for your students?

So what can we do if we discover that there are elements of our spelling instruction that need to be tweaked? Well, tweak them.
I'm not saying throw out what you've got, but think about the elements of instruction, from this perspective.
Let's look at a breakdown of the elements of instruction that are included in a systematic, explicit approach to instruction that really responds to what we know about explicit teaching.


  1. Firstly, make sure that there is only one main learning focus at a time, not per day, but we're learning one thing, and once we start to get that, then we can move on.
  2. Ensure that students have the opportunity to both read and spell at word and sentence level in teacher-led lessons.
  3. Provide opportunity for students to apply new learning in the context of meaningful texts and passages, so that can be decodables in the early years or whatever's appropriate after that, after explicit introduction and practice.
  4. When introducing a new concept, adopt a direct, explicit approach that involves you just telling students what they're learning. Show them what they're learning, model how to use it, check that they've understood what you've taught by asking them to provide a response, and every student needs to respond, not just the ones with their hands up. We're looking for full participation in adult-led instruction as a must.
  5. Number five provide many opportunities to review and practice newly learned concepts and content for longer than you might think is necessary.
  6. Six, be clear on what content is most appropriate for what stages of learning to read and spell.

Begin with phonics, gently layering in inflectional morphemes and common spelling conventions once students are finding their feet with decoding and encoding.
Then transition out of phonics once the most common grapheme-phoneme correspondences have been learned, with an increasing focus on orthographic conventions and the most common derivational morphemes.
Finally, move to a focus on other derivational morphemes and Latin bases in upper primary and early secondary school.

In Conclusion

Teaching spelling in an explicit and impactful way is not about having the perfect program, but about knowing about the three areas of knowledge that we draw on when we read and spell words. We then need to align our teaching with an explicit approach that provides the most direct path to learning for our students.
Analytic, discovery and inquiry approaches to teaching students about critical patterns in written language simply leave too much to chance, and I think we have a responsibility to make sure that our tier one instruction is robust, inclusive and explicit, so that all children learn exactly what they need to right there in the classroom.

I wish you a lovely week ahead, lots of food for thought today, lots of questions, lots of discussions, I'm sure, but until next time, bye.

Previous Episodes of the Podcast about Spelling

How do I take spelling in the early years?

How can I kickstart my upper primary spelling improvement journey?

How can I teach spelling well when I don't feel like I know what I need to?


Moats, L. (2000). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.,

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–39.

Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive load theory. In J. P. Mestre & B. H. Ross (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education (pp. 37–76). Elsevier Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-387691-1.00002-8

Templeton, S. (2020). Stages, Phases, Repertoires, and Waves: Learning to Spell and Read Words. The Reading Teacher. 74. 10.1002/trtr.1951.

Looking for resources and training to help make your spelling instruction explicit? Join us inside The Resource Room!  

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