The English language consists of words from 100 different languages and has over 600,000 words! Wow! Who knew? This is because cross-cultural influences have had lasting effects on the English language, which helps to explain the reason for many of the spelling irregularities we see in the language today. This makes the prospect of trying to teach spelling to any child, let alone a struggling speller, a daunting task.

The National Curriculum recommends that a systematic phonics programme is used to teach spelling in Key Stage 1, and that it continues to underpin the teaching of spelling in Key Stage 2. This guidance seems reasonable as it is advice that has been followed by schools for a number of years following the publication of The Rose Report in 2009, which advocated that a systematic phonics programme is key to successful spelling (and reading). Research suggests that the majority of schools interpreted the advice to mean that teaching phonics to young children is all that is required in order to teach children to spell. But… (there is always a ‘but’) what about those children that struggle to grasp phonics (of which there are many)? Recent research acknowledges the importance of phonological knowledge for effective spellers, but only in addition to the acquisition of other elements of linguistic knowledge such as orthographic knowledge, morphological knowledge, etymological knowledge and visual knowledge. “What’s all that?” I hear you cry! Don’t worry, read on and I shall briefly explain these five key components.

  • Phonological knowledge – The mapping of units of sound to symbols (i.e. how spoken words translate to written words).
  • Orthographic knowledge – Understanding which letter sequences are possible and plausible i.e. matching spelling patterns with speech patterns.
  • Morphological knowledge – Understanding the parts of words that carry and change meaning (e.g. root words, prefixes, suffixes and so on).
  • Etymological knowledge – Understanding the clues provided by word origin (i.e. why do we have a ‘w’ in the word ‘two’? Because it originates from the Old Saxon word ‘twene’ which became ‘twain’ both of which mean ‘two’! Spot the pattern – two, twenty, twelve, twin, twix, between.
  • Visual knowledge – Building a bank of mental orthographic images – how the word looks!

It would therefore seem reasonable to assume that any ‘speller’ relying solely on phonological skills will be hampered in their labours to spell. Moreover, in many schools, phonics is not routinely taught past Year 2. As a result, if your child has not mastered phonics by then, they will not have been taught a structured systematic programme of phonics through to its conclusion. Unfortunately, these children are then left lacking in all areas deemed important for successful spelling. It seems pertinent at this point to note that children with specific learning difficulties, such as Dyslexia, often have trouble with the acquisition of phonological knowledge and awareness. It therefore seems logical that the history, patterns and meaning of words should be taught to those children to ensure that they have a bank of spelling techniques to use as required. Having five elements of linguistic knowledge to draw upon would surely be beneficial for any ‘speller’ by equipping them with a range of strategies.

So why do we need to master these five key elements of linguistic knowledge? Well, as previously mentioned, the English language is derived from many languages such as Latin, French and Greek. Consequently, many English phonemes (sounds) are represented in more than one way which makes learning to spell in English more difficult than in other languages such as Finnish, Spanish or Italian where you will find greater one to one correspondence between letters and sounds. The orthography in such languages is therefore quite basic, whilst the English orthography is rich and diverse with only 56% of its words predictable using phonological knowledge. This may explain why some view English spelling as illogical and confused, only to be learned through memorisation. Actually, taking the time to study the history of the English language does in fact provide enlightening information and logical reasons for the many spelling anomalies and enigmas that we come across every day. Quite simply, this is because spelling in English is governed by rules and patterns and it is estimated that, by applying these, 90% of words are predictable. The contrast therefore is staggering. If 56% of English words are predictable using phonological knowledge and 90% are predictable using spelling rules and patterns, it is clear that adopting one singular, phonetic based approach is unlikely to be the best pedagogical strategy.

For the learner, learning to spell can be a demanding and taxing exercise. However, to become proficient, children must learn the rules, patterns, meaning and irregularities of the English language through a systematic, developmental approach. This will ensure that spellers have a rich array of linguistic skills upon which to draw, which will be extremely empowering for struggling spellers and those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

From a teacher’s perspective, there is no doubt that teaching children to spell is equally challenging. The time has come for schools to adjust their way of thinking and understand that a phonological approach must be taught alongside other linguistic skills. Currently, this may be seen as a difficult task. The National Curriculum provides guidance to support the teaching of spelling which includes statutory word lists that are both challenging and uninspiring. As a result, many schools continue to send home a weekly list of abstract spellings despite their reputation, amongst teachers, of being a pointless and boring exercise with very little merit and no ultimate goal or wider context. Indeed, from experience I can vouch for the fact that this rote learning often fails to transfer to a child’s written work in class. As such, the scope for teachers to teach spellings in an exciting and interesting way can feel extremely limited.

Instead, features of spelling knowledge should be taught in context. This can be achieved, for example, by using the key texts being studied in literacy. This will ensure that we are not just teaching children an abstract list of words, but that we are using a meaningful list of words as a vessel to teach spelling strategies and techniques. English spelling is not crazy or illogical. Quite the opposite in fact – it is actually really fascinating. Children just need to be provided with opportunities to explore, and develop a passion for, our wonderful language.

Click here to listen to David Crystal on the subject of English spelling.


Nb. Gillian is currently working on developing a model spelling programme for primary aged children, which encompasses the five elements of linguistic knowledge and can be applied in a cross-curricular manner using the context of class texts.

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Adoniou, M. (2014) What should teachers know about spelling? Literacy UKLA. Vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 144-154.

Crystal, D. (2000) Child Language, Learning and Linguistics: 2nd Edition. London: Arnold.

Department for Education (2013) The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 1 and 2 framework document. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 1 May 2016].

Devonshire et all (2013) Spelling and reading development: The effect of teaching children multiple levels of representation in their orthography. Learning and Instruction. Vol. 25, pp. 85-94.

Devonshire, V. & Fluck, M. (2010) Spelling development: fine tuning, strategy use and capitalising connections between words. Learning and Instruction. Vol. 20, pp. 361-371.

Ott, P. (2007) How to Manage Spelling Successfully. Oxon: Routledge.

Rose, Sir J. (2009) Independent review of the primary curriculum: final report. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 1 May 2016].

Terban, M. (1998) The Scholastic Dictionary of Spelling. New York: Scholastic Inc.

The University of Michigan: How should spelling be taught? [Online]. Available from: (Accessed: 30th April 2016).