Adoniou on What Teachers Should Know About Spelling

Fundamental to an understanding of spelling as a ‘teachable’ skill is the knowledge that English spelling “is not pathological, it is based on principles and does a reasonably good job of applying them” (Kessler and Treiman, 2003, p. 271). Spelling is a linguistic skill (Arndt and Foorman, 2010; Masterson and Apel, 2010) that reflects the complex history of the English language. Beginning as a Germanic language, English has accepted words and grammatical structures from many languages – from the languages of those who conquered England as well as the languages of those England conquered. It has been equally generous in adopting the spelling patterns from those other languages, rather than applying the original Germanic sound/symbol relationships. The result is an alphabetic orthography but not a phonetically regular language. This means that you cannot accurately predict how to pronounce most English words simply by looking at the spelling, nor can you spell most words accurately just through hearing them pronounced.

English is the most irregular of the alphabetic languages (Devonshire and Fluck, 2010) with a phonological consistency of only 12 percent. By Year 5 (10–11-year-olds), children encounter more than 27 new words each day that cannot be decoded using phonological strategies (Mann and Singson, 2003). English is linguistically categorised as a morphophonemic language, that is words are constructed through representations of both their sounds and meaning. The history and meaning of words are important aids to spelling. An effective speller draws upon the entire rich linguistic tapestry of a word to spell it correctly. The threads of this tapestry can be identified as phonological knowledge (including phonemic awareness), orthographic knowledge, morphological knowledge (which includes semantic knowledge), etymological knowledge and visual knowledge (Apel et al., 2004a, b; Henry, 1989; Masterson and Apel, 2010).

Phonological knowledge. The majority of spelling programmes in schools focus on one particular kind of linguistic knowledge, phonological knowledge (Devonshire and Fluck, 2010; Johnston, 2001). These programmes are based on the understanding that English is a phonetic language, one where sounds map neatly and predictably onto sounds, which it is not. The phonology of English is the most complex and challenging of the knowledge ‘sets’ for learning to spell, yet it forms the bulk of most spelling programmes for young learners. Programmes for low achieving spellers also focus primarily on building phonological skills. Henry (1989, p. 135) concludes low performers in spelling are not able “to figure out the underlying structure” of words, and they are heavily reliant on the belief that symbols have consistently matching sounds and lack any other strategies for tackling words. As a consequence, with only phonological skills, these students are very constrained in their efforts to spell words (Henry, 1989). Often, they have had little other teaching in spelling other than basal phonological skills. They are driven by what Templeton and Morris (1999, p. 105) call ‘an alphabetic expectation’. Apel et al. (2004a) claim that a preoccupation in the research on the phonological component of spelling has resulted in this preoccupation with the teaching of phonics. Hilte and Reitsma (2011, p. 334) further suggest that exclusive attention to phonological knowledge in the classroom may actually “loosen the connection with meaning” for the children, resulting in learners who lack “flexible, strategic and efficient problem-solving repertoires” (Gerber, 1985, p. 40). As Devonshire and Fluck observe, “if children are only taught phonics for the first two years of formal schooling they will use it as a favoured strategy … even when they may be capable of using more appropriate strategies” (Devonshire and Fluck, 2010, p. 370). It is thus important for teachers to understand that phonological skills are only one part of the spelling knowledge repertoire. Additionally, general misapprehensions of the phonetics of English (see Burton, 2011, for an account of phonetic knowledge for teaching phonics) result in teachers being unable to make accurate use of phonologically based instructional programmes. This lack of nuanced knowledge can result in inaccurate teaching, as recounted later in this article in the account of beginning teachers’ practices.

Orthographic knowledge. Alongside phonological knowledge, students must have orthographic knowledge, that is, understanding which letter sequences are both possible and plausible in English. Given that English does not have a consistent match between phonemes and graphemes, deciding which graphemes to use is an important part of orthographic knowledge. Orthographic knowledge also includes knowing the generalised graphemic conventions, for example consonants generally are not doubled after long vowel sounds. Orthography is an important part of learning to spell; it helps reduce the numerous possibilities of spelling a word when relying on phonological knowledge alone and substantially reduces the margin for error. To teach orthographic knowledge, teachers themselves must be cognisant of the multiple possible graphemic representations of phonemes (how might this sound look when it is written?) as well as why there are multiple possibilities (linked to etymological knowledge about English – see later). In addition, teachers must know that spelling is an orthographical representation of oral language, and this helps explain many of the apparent inconsistencies in phoneme/grapheme matches. All English accents use the same orthography, so our words sound different when we speak, but we use the same spellings when we write. This further complicates the teaching of English phonology as commercial phonics programmes cannot account for regional, national and international differences in accents.

Morphological knowledge. Morphological knowledge involves understanding the morphemes in words. Morphemes are the parts of the word that carry meaning, for example bird/s where ‘s’ marks the plural. Roots, base words, suffixes and prefixes are all morphemes, and when added to a root word (morpheme), they can create new meaning, for example un-happy, or change the word class, for example teacher. Compound words are also built from morphemes. If you understand that breakfast means to break a fast after a night of not eating, you are more likely to spell it ‘breakfast’ than ‘brekfast’. Understanding how words can be built this way not only improves spelling but also increases children’s vocabulary, both their comprehension of new words when reading and the composition of new and appropriate words when writing (Biemiller, 2003). Very young children demonstrate an understanding of morphology in words (Mann and Singson, 2003). For example, many beginning writers will correctly write ‘dogs’ rather than ‘dogz’, showing an awareness of morphology with the use of the plural marker ‘s’ rather than opting for the phonologically correct ‘z’. Unlike English phonemes, morphemes are quite regular in English, remaining consistent in graphology even when phonology changes, for example jumped (t), loved (d), hated (id), or cats (s) and dogs(z). When we understand morphemes in words, then words considered to have irregular spelling (by which we usually mean you cannot sound them out) we find have very regular morphemic constructions. For example, magician is magic + ian where ‘ian’ is the suffix that changes the object (magic) into a person (magician) (Nunes et al., 2006). Other examples of this same morphemic construction include ‘electrician’, ‘physician’ and ‘technician’. As such, morphological knowledge often steps in when phonological knowledge misleads. Nunes et al. (2006) conclude morphological knowledge is the least understood and least exploited spelling knowledge. Children are not innately aware of most morphemes in words, indeed most adults are not (Adams and Henry, 1997; Mann and Singson, 2003; Washburn et al., 2011) and so must be taught morphological knowledge in order to utilise it when spelling. Carlisle (2003) further observes “leaving morphological analysis to be discovered by students on their own means that those who are not inherently linguistically savvy are likely to be left behind by their peers in the development of vocabulary, word reading and comprehension and spelling” (Carlisle, 2003, p. 312).

Etymological knowledge. English is a polyglot language (Henry, 1989), one that has drawn its spelling patterns from many other languages. Understanding word origin provides ‘problem-solving clues’ to phonological, orthographic and morphological components of words (Henry, 1989). Relationships between sound and symbol, which initially seem obscure, are often situated in
the origin of the word.

Visual knowledge. The look of a word is an important contributive knowledge to successful spelling. Apel et al. (2004a, b, p. 646) describe this visual knowledge as building a repertoire of “mental orthographic images” that makes spelling more fluent and automated. As such, multiple exposures to words in meaningful contexts are crucial to learning to spell. However, the visual alone is an inefficient strategy for learning spelling as it tasks the learner with committing each individual word to a memory bank, and there are many words that do not provide a memorable or distinctive visual pattern.


Adoniou, M. (2014). What should teachers know about spelling? Literacy, 48(3), 144-154. || Link


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