Educationalists once believed that children learned to spell by predominantly using their visual rote memory.  Consequently, when teaching spelling, students were forced to learn and remember word lists, then terrorized by weekly tests. For the vast majority of students, this is not the easiest way to learn to spell.  

Thankfully research has refuted this belief and largely changed this counter-productive practice.  We now know that although “orthographic” memory (recalling the look of a word or string of letters) is an important part of learning to spell, it is not the only part and, for most children, is it not the easiest way to learn to spell

The research of Charles Read and Edmund Henderson in 1971 revealed that learning to spell is not a matter of merely memorising the look of words or letter sequences, but of developing and applying knowledge of the phonic elements and letter-sound relationships (consonants, vowels, blends, and digraphs) as well as having linguistic understanding.  More recent research endorses this cognitive approach to teaching spelling whereby students are taught to coordinate several sources of word knowledge: phonological, orthographic, syntactic, and semantic.  In their guidelines for teaching spelling, Read and Henderson also identified the spelling stages that all students move through – outlined below.

What Do These Stages Mean for Teaching Spelling?  

As teachers, our job is to guide and support learners through these stages in systematic and engaging ways.  Practice makes permanent, and there should be plenty of examples and practice at each stage of students’ spelling journeys.  We must provide opportunities and carefully targeted learning activities for students to enhance their spelling ability through speaking, listening, reading, writing, singing, saying rhymes, drawing, playing games, and doing puzzles. 

To be effective as educationalists we must also employ deliberate acts of teaching – modelling, prompting, questioning, giving feedback, telling, explaining, and directing. 

How to Teach Spelling at Each Stage So Students Achieve Success

Pre-communicative Writing Stage

 Provide frequent opportunities and encourage and praise spontaneous experimentation with writing. 

Semi-phonetic stage

Develop children’s growing awareness of letter names and their sounds – encourage children to practise these sounds aloud.

Phonetic Spelling Stage

Consolidate sound-letter correspondences.  Teach children to listen for the sounds in words and show them how to represent these sounds with letters or letter combinations (phonemes and/or graphemes).  At this stage children often use a “one letter spells one sound” strategy for temporary spellings.

Transitional Spelling

Provide a print-rich environment with a wide range of interesting and engaging reading materials.  Read to children regularly and give them the opportunity to read, read, read.  Not only will this enhance reading ability, it will also promote students’ understanding of sounds and their letter combinations.  

Introduce children to all the phonic elements – consonants, vowels, blends, and digraphs: At the transition stage, children move from their reliance on phonology (sound) for representing words, to demonstrating an understanding of common letter patterns in words and the structure of words.  Examples of misspelling at this stage are goine for going, mite for might, bech for beach.

Integrated Stage

Support students’ spelling comprehension from phonetic (sound) to syllabic and morphemic (meaning) in words.  Introduce root words, common prefixes and suffixes, silent consonants, alternative spellings, and irregular spellings.  Teach patterns and generalizations (rules) for spelling, as well as how to use morphemic information in spelling.   

Correct Spelling Stage

Provide a range of authentic opportunities for students to practise and consolidate the knowledge and skills they have encountered in the previous stages – reading, writing, and speaking.  At this stage, a large number of learned words are accumulated, and examples of common spelling patterns are memorised.

As new words are learnt, analogy strategies are also used,  because they are linked in memory with words that share their patterns or rhymes.  By now students also recognize incorrect forms, and their generalizations about spelling and knowledge of exceptions are usually correct. Several sources of linguistic information about words are also employed – orthographic, phonological, morphological, and etymological.

Progression Through the Stages

Each stage takes time and the rate of progress varies from child to child.  Frustratingly too, (for student and teacher) movement is not always linear.  In students’ writing, there will often be examples from several stages, and mistakes will be made even after learning is consolidated.  For students between the ages of 5 to 10  ongoing observations are recommended to assess whether individual children are keeping abreast of well-established milestones of spelling development.

What the Spelling Stages Mean for Teaching Spelling

Although children advance through identifiable spelling stages, this does not mean that spelling develops inevitably without instruction.  The opposite is true.  For children to become confident and competent independent spellers (who integrate a range of skills and strategies within a growing vocabulary), the careful and deliberate teaching of spelling is essential. 

The Cross Spell Crosswords and Practise with Puzzles books, with their carefully targeted content provide valuable support for the teaching of spelling at each stage. The “What’s Next” page in each Learn to Spell book also details a range of interesting follow up consolidation and extension activities that can be completed after each puzzle.