English spelling! Do I really have to teach it?

Discovering the alphabetic principle appears to be the key to learning to read (Backman, 1983; Bradley and Bryant, 1978), with the emerging appreciation of the relationship between speech and print, ‘one of the most remarkable discoveries of childhood.’ (Ehri, 1979:63). However, discerning the patterns of orthographic-phonological regularity is one of the primary challenges of learning to read English (Ziegler and Goswami, 2005) - a writing system which sacrifices phoneme explicitness for morphological transparency thus complicating the orthography (more here). English has over a dozen vowel sounds but only five standard vowel letters meaning these single letters have to represent up to three sounds with some additional assistance from consonants (‘y’ and ‘w’). This does not mean that English spelling is chaotic (Rayner et al., 2012) but that the surrounding consonants have a greater influence over the vowel phoneme (Kessler and Treiman, 2001). Eye movement experiments (Ashby et al., 2006) indicate that skilled readers are indeed sensitive to vowel contexts and can utilise the parafovea to glean phonological vowel information (more on eye movements here).

English, like all alphabetic systems, values economy in letter usage, meaning the mapping of multiple sounds to one letter. Furthermore, English is morphophonemic with letters indicating morphological as well as phonological information with the spelling of phonemes often dependent on the word’s morphology (Perfetti, 2003). This has made learning to read English a far more complex task than learning to read alphabetic systems which are more transparent, like Spanish and Italian which have far fewer vowel sounds.

And if we think learning to read English is complex, then learning to spell it may seem nigh on impossible. So maybe we just don’t bother and leave it all to chance accepting that there are good spellers and poor spellers and most of us somewhere in between. Interestingly, that is an option…

Treiman and Kessler (2006) argue that much of the spelling skill required to write English words accurately may be naturally absorbed through regular exposure to the letter patterns as children read. This statistical learning (Saffran et al., 1996) occurs despite no conscious intent to acquire the skill and builds knowledge of graphotactic patterns of the reader’s writing system, with more frequent patterns spelled more accurately (Kessler et al., 2013). Treiman (2018) contends that the whole language approach to literacy instruction was founded on these assumptions: that children will naturally learn the graphotactic patterns in written words and the links between spellings and linguistic units through regular reading rather than through direct instruction. That let us all off the hook. All we had to do was ensure our children read a great deal and that would directly ensure they spelled well.

However, if this were the case then all rapacious readers would be great spellers, and this is clearly not true. Graham and Santangelo’s (2014) research indicated that spelling improved more effectively through specific instruction rather than through a reliance on the natural absorption associated with statistical learning. Part of the issue with the natural learning approach is the assumption that when reading, children pay attention to the spelling of words. Younger children are often attending to the story rather than the spelling (Justice et al., 2008) with older children attending to the ideas being expressed in the text thereby limiting attention on letter patterns. Treiman (2018) suggests that providing children with structured occasions to analyse spellings in addition to reading is a more effective strategy to improve spelling. But what structure?

Traditionally, structured spelling instruction has been based on the notion that the spelling rules of English have so many exceptions that it is more efficient for learners to memorise whole words rather than the patterns of letters. This resulted in lists of words being learned by pupils with words often selected for curriculum relevance rather than spelling pattern or linguistic forms. This resulted in a reliance on rote memorisation of the word (particularly words with more complex patterns) to acquire the spelling rather than attention to the letter patterns. Dixon (1991;1993) highlighted the inefficiency of memorisation as a strategy for spelling acquisition positing that ignoring the letters in a word when learning to spell was the equivalent of ignoring the numbers when calculating multi-digit subtraction.

The Johnston and Watson (2004) Clackmannanshire study found that the teaching of SSP resulted in substantial progress in spelling acquisition as well as comprehension. This aligned with the conclusions of the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) that systematic phonics instruction, particularly in the early years, improved spelling. The longer-term benefits of SSP on spelling proficiency found by Johnston et al. (2012) were reinforced by Suggate’s (2014) meta-analysis of long-term outcomes of phonics instruction that found clear evidence for benefits to spelling. Treiman (2018) asserts that the most effective strategy for improving children’s spelling performance is to focus on the skill directly rather than trusting that general learning abilities will transfer to spelling. Likewise, McArthur and Catsles (2017) maintain that interventions that attend directly to the issue at hand are more likely to benefit the learner rather than those that focus on other skills. Systematic phonics instruction, with the exclusive intent of articulating links between sounds and spelling draws learners’ attention to spelling in a structured manner thereby directing learners’ attention to the patterns rather than the intrinsic knowledge acquisition associated with statistical learning. This may be the reason, Treiman (2018) suggests, for the strong research associations between phonics instruction and improvements in spelling.

However, Treiman and Kessler (2014) warn that phonics instruction is often only taught for two years, early in reading instruction, and covers only the simpler patterns of the writing system with a focus on decoding (reading) rather than spelling (writing); phonics programmes being seen very much as a reading development stratagem evidenced by the PSC (DfE, 2012) being a decoding, not an encoding, assessment Words that deviate from phonic rules are often taught as ‘tricky’ words required to be learned on sight assuming that because these words apparently disobey phonic rules, they do not follow any pattern. Treiman et al. (2014) maintain that many phonics programmes do not teach multiple spellings of the same sound together but isolate them for instruction thereby undermining graphotactics and many programmes are not proficient at teaching spellings where sounds vary as a result of a word’s morphological status. Treiman (2018), suggests that without additional morphological and graphotactic instruction (particularly beyond early instruction) phonics alone as a strategy for spelling acquisition is not comprehensive. Bowers and Bowers (2017) maintain that an understanding of morphology enhances representational quality by linking orthographic, phonological, and semantic information. Rastle (2018) agrees and asserts that the acquisition of morphological knowledge gifts significant advantages when mapping between spelling and meaning but notes that this manifests itself more acutely in older readers. Furthermore, with an emphasis on decoding and without an explicit and structured writing expectation within a phonics lesson the positive associations between improved spelling and handwriting (Bosse, 2015) may not become manifest.

Making time for more spelling instruction in schools where timetables are already concertinaed may ultimately be the dealbreaker. However, spelling excellence has far wider implications beyond accurate writing. The benefits of spelling proficiency are not solely related to encoding and effective writing but have significant benefits for reading proficiency. Perfetti (1992, 2007) maintained that a knowledge of the precise representation of a word (its exact spelling in other words) enabled the reader to quickly differentiate a target word from a similarly spelled word thereby developing lexical quality. Ouellette et al. (2017) confirmed that greater proficiency at spelling was directly correlated with higher reading rates. As lexical quality builds and words are identified more quickly this then frees cognitive resources to attend to the heavy cognitive demands of reading comprehension. When lexical quality is low much of the cognitive resource must be applied to word recognition, Effective spelling, Perfetti (1997) maintained, appeared to support reading more than it supported writing and had a significant beneficial effect on orthographic processing development (more here).

And it is not just about more spelling in the timetable. As teachers we need to ensure we have greater knowledge of our writing system. Although as Treiman (2018) suggests, teachers are likely to be excellent spellers and readers much of this understanding is implicit rather than explicit. Building our knowledge of patterns in the writing system and awareness of how to feedback to pupils regarding spelling may have significant effects on pupil outcomes - as Moats (2014) notes, much of this information is lacking in professional teacher preparation programmes.


  • English has a complex, deep orthography so the spellings are often complex.

  • Much of a child’s understanding of spelling patterns can be gleaned naturally from statistical learning whilst reading a lot - so ensure children read a lot. However, often when reading children are not attending to the letters and spelling patterns. With such a complex orthography it is essential to ensure children attend to spelling patterns so direct instruction is essential.

  • Spelling lists are inefficient as they rely upon memorisation of the whole word.

  • Systematic Phonics instruction inherently draws children’s attention to letter patterns but for effective spelling, as the code becomes more complex, an understanding of the following will help:

  1. Ensure children are explicitly aware that the same sound may have different spellings especially where sounds and spellings are taught discretely.

  2. Ensure encoding (writing) occurs regularly with an understanding of the importance of handwriting to effective spelling and regular spaced practice.

  3. Instruction of morphology and graphotactics especially for older readers.

  • Drawing attention to spelling patterns is essential for effective spelling instruction well beyond early reading instruction.

  • Spelling assists reading more than it assists writing.

  • Good spelling assists orthographic processing and enables readers to attend to meaning and ideas in texts.

  • Do not expect that your teacher training will have prepared you for understanding our writing system. You will probably have to do significant extra reading. There is a lot of help out there and some here: thereadingape.com