Daunted by teaching children their ‘there’ from their ‘they’re’?
Spelling might feel scary, but it’s possible to make the process easier! This guide supports your child’s language development with tips on spelling rules, how to avoid misspellings, and enjoyable ways to improve their spelling.
What is spelling?
Spelling is using letters to form words according to an accepted standard. Put simply, spelling transcribes the spoken word into the written word.
In the past, fewer people could read and write. This led to a variety of spellings for the same word. William Caxton helped standardise English with the introduction of the printing press because publishing books required one form of English to be settled upon. Over time, greater access to books meant people became aware of accepted forms of English versus regional dialects. English became ‘standardised’, meaning that there was an accepted way to spell words.
It is this conventional writing system that is taught in schools across the UK. Spelling also refers to a person’s ability to spell words and is part of a wider written language system known as orthography.
Orthography has 3 key features:
- Punctuation and grammar
Orthography helps readers ‘decode’ writing. In school, children will be taught spelling first and gradually learn other orthographic features as their spelling advances.#
Why does spelling matter?
Exasperated learners might ask, “What’s the point? Why does spelling matter?”
Yet the importance of spelling cannot be understated. Put simply, spelling is an essential means of communication. Bad spelling can change the meaning of a word completely e.g., confusing stationary (still) and stationery (office supplies). Poor spelling in the workplace or job interviews can give the impression of incompetence and affects how others perceive you.
Why learn proper spelling when a spellchecker can do it for me?
Even in the digital age, AI tools and spell checkers haven’t eliminated the need to spell. Spell checkers can still make mistakes and may not recognise regional variations of words.
More importantly, good spelling skills improve your child’s ability to read and write. Spelling unlocks freedom of expression, allowing them to express themselves creatively in stories or personal writing, and reading will become more enjoyable when they recognise correctly spelled words.
If your child is discouraged by spelling mistakes, remind them that spelling is challenging. English contains many words that don’t look like how they sound. However, learning how to spell is a crucial part of language development and boosts children’s confidence in school.
We may take the skill of reading and writing for granted. Yet, 16% of UK adults are functionally illiterate, meaning they lack the basic literacy needed for most jobs and everyday situations. Unsurprisingly, this leads to becoming stuck in low-income jobs and has a negative effect on self-esteem and mental health. That’s why it’s crucial to prioritise spelling in your child’s early years.
The good news is that there is a system for spelling — you just have to follow the rules!
Common English language spelling rules
Though other languages are more consistent, British spellings do have a pattern. While there are always exceptions, it is best to start with the common spelling rules to give your child a solid grounding. Diving into the many irregularities of English language will overwhelm and confuse them!
Keep these basics in mind:
- Nearly every word contains at least one vowel (a, e, i, o, u).
- A syllable is at least one vowel e.g., there is one syllable in ‘cat’ and two syllables in ‘monkey’.
- The letter ‘c’ is soft before an e, i, or y (centipede, circle, cycle) and hard before everything else e.g., cat, cloud.
- Likewise, ‘g’ is soft before e, i, or y (gerbil, giant, gym) and hard the rest of the time (gorilla, glass).
- Q is always followed by the letter ‘u’ (queen, quiz).
- Double ‘f’, ‘l’, and ‘s’ after words with one syllable/vowel (stiff, spell, pass)
- The sound ‘k’ at the end of a word is spelled ‘ck’ in short vowels (sack) and ‘k’ in everything else (silk).
- People’s names and place names are always capitalised e.g., ‘Scotland’ instead of ‘scotland’.
- A silent ‘e’ is added to words that end in ‘v’ (have, gave).
- ‘J’ is spelled ‘dge’ after a short vowel (hedge, fridge, bridge).
British and American English
Keep an eye on American spelling in your child’s homework. American English is more phonetic than British English and it’s easy to get caught out (even adults are guilty here!).
British English words ending in ‘our’ like ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’ drop the ‘u’ in American English to become ‘color’ and ‘flavor’. British English doubles ‘l’s in words that end with a vowel e.g. travelled vs traveled and English word ends with ‘ogue’ are simplified to ‘og’ e.g., catalogue vs catalog.
At what age should a child be able to spell?
Every child learns at a different pace, but most children can recognise letter sounds and spoken words by 4 or 5 and spell simple words by 6 or 7.
Typically, children can spell their own name by 3 years old. Teaching your child to spell their own name is a great way to motivate them to learn and solidifies a sense of identity.
Here are some tips to help them spell their name:
- Write your child’s name on their pictures
- Label their belongings with their name
- Draw their name in giant letters with chalk on the pavement or patio
- Draw their name in sand at the beach
- Sound out the individual letters as you write
- Show them their name in capital letters first
Should I teach upper or lowercase letters first?
We suggest teaching your child to write their name using capitals (upper case) first. The reason for this is that small children haven’t developed fine motor skills yet. This means they’ll struggle to form lowercase letters correctly. If incorrect formations become ingrained, they’ll be hard to unlearn later.
How is spelling taught at school?
Spelling is an integral part of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence.
Most children will be introduced to spelling through phonics, a method of teaching children to read using sound. Children develop phonics skills by linking spoken language with written language. When ‘sounding out’ words, children break words into smaller sounds or syllables which teaches them that letters represent different sounds.
Learning the relationship between letters and sounds in order to form words is a fundamental part of spelling. Children start to see sound patterns within words instead of a meaningless string of letters.
Children’s first attempts at spelling are ‘phonetically plausible’ versions of words. This may lead to spelling mistakes like ‘pursen’ instead of ‘person’ until they learn the correct spelling.
This isn’t something to worry about because most people read words better than they spell. As they develop their language skills, children learn the correct spellings of words. In Key Stage 2, children build on previous spelling progress while learning new word lists and exceptions. They’ll also learn spelling rules that include prefixes and suffixes i.e. word ends like -tious, -ence, and -cious.
Irregular forms and exceptions
Once they’ve learned common spelling rules, children are taught exception words and irregular forms. Exception words don’t follow regular spelling rules. Unfortunately, unlike other languages, English spelling has many irregularities.
Examples of common exceptions in Key Stage 1:
- there, their, and they’re
Examples of common exceptions in Key Stage 2:
English spelling can be hard, but learning about spelling rules and irregularities will help children decode new words and boost their literacy skills. As their language skills develop, they will become fluent readers capable of understanding complex written information. They’ll also experience the joy of clearly communicating their thoughts and ideas!
Learn the most commonly misspelled words
A good strategy to improve your child’s spelling is learning commonly misspelled words. Misspelling words as children is a part of learning, but if errors are left unchecked bad spelling will trip them up later in life. They could be marked down in exams for poor spelling or lose credibility in a professional context.
Give them a helping hand by studying the English words they struggle with.
‘It’s’, ‘two’, ‘frightened’, and ‘sometimes’ are words that young spellers often stumble over. Increasingly their familiarity with complex or irregular words will reduce the likelihood of misspelling words and boost their confidence in the classroom.
You can buy posters of the 100 most misspelled words to pin on the wall. Ask your child which words they struggle with. Get them to spell tricky words by saying them out loud and writing them down; studies show that a combination of reading and writing improves spelling.
Here are some fun ways to remember difficult words:
- Because: Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants.
- Friend: I will be your friEND until the END.
- There: Ask children who mix up ‘there’ and ‘their’ to think about going HERE or THERE.
- Wednesday: We Do Not Eat Sandwiches on Wednesday
- Weird: ‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ but some spellings are weird!
What is the best way to learn spelling?
Patience, practice, and consistency are key to learning how to spell. English is a tricky language so you might need to motivate your child to learn new words. The following techniques should help, and always remember to praise their effort!
Dolch words make up roughly 75% of words in English children’s books. Teaching your child high-frequency words in English will automatically increase their fluency and spelling ability. An excellent book to read at home is The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss which contains every word on the Dolch list.
Familiarity with correctly spelled words improves your child’s spelling ability by adding the words to their long-term memory. Pick books that contain words your child frequently misspells to increase their awareness of the correct form.
Write by hand
Writing by hand is another way to store tricky words in their long-term memory. However, his might be challenging for a child who struggles with handwriting.
Spell mousetrap with three letters: C-A-T!
Spelling games and riddles are a great way to engage children with letters and words. Alternatively, group spelling bees or playing ‘hangman’ are fun ways for children to flex their spelling skills without feeling bored.
Mnemonic devices are memory aids that help children learn how to spell by weaving a story around a word. Mnemonics can become ‘cheatsheets’ for long, complex words. For example, Silly Ants In Dresses (said) or People Eat Orange Peel Like Elephants (people).
How to teach spelling to dyslexic children
Dyslexia is a learning difference that makes it harder to read, write, and spell. Dyslexia affects how the brain processes languages, and visual and auditory input. Dyslexia does not affect a person’s intelligence (Albert Einstein is a notable example).
However, children with dyslexia will fall behind their classmates if they aren’t given support early on. That’s why it’s so important to recognise signs of dyslexia to help your child reach their full potential.
So, how do you know if your child has dyslexia?
Signs to look out for include:
- Written work that’s significantly poorer than oral speech
- Messy work full of scribbled-out words and misspellings
- Confusing similar letters like ‘b’ and ‘d’
- Poor pencil grip
- Reliance on phonetic spelling
- Slow reading progress and no expression while reading
- Find blending letters together challenging
- Misses out words when reading or fails to recognise familiar words
- Loses the thread of a story
Dyslexia can also affect numeracy skills and timekeeping, from telling the time to poor personal organisation. Behavioural signs include work avoidance, a ‘dreamy’, distracted disposition due to concentration difficulties, and tiredness.
Check British Dyslexia Association for more signs and next steps.
More teaching resources
Pair this post on spelling with our guide to phonics and study tips. With the right techniques and a consistent study strategy, you’ll see your child’s spelling come on leaps and bounds. They’ll be a word whizz in no time!