The simple magic of learning to spell


Your child has picked up a book, understood what they’ve read and now, in the third part of our literacy series, it’s time to help with spelling

Who needs spelling? Isn’t that what spell-check is for? Well despite advances in technology, there is still a need for children to learn to spell in order to write and convey their thoughts. Spelling is essential for written communication.

Many people will remember the Friday spelling test: learning lists and lists of words, only to write them down and have your classmates correct them – gold star optional.

The problem with this method is that being good at memorising lists of words is no guarantee that a child will be able to reproduce the same words at a later date. There are many reasons why children struggle with spellings.

Break it up and sound it out

There is an over-reliance on using sound for spelling. The English spelling system has different letter combinations for different sounds, for example, food, rude, through, move, suit, so clearly asking children to “break it up and sound it out” is an unsafe way of trying to assist a struggling speller. So what can be done?

Using your eyes to your advantage

As adults, we rely on how a word looks to decide whether it is correct or not. Therefore we should be getting children to look intently at words and examine how they are put together.

Words should be grouped together because the look the same, for example, cone, done, gone, money, not because they sound the same.

Everybody’s different

Children move through different stages in the development of spelling skills. Not all children move through these phases at the same rate.

Many will not “catch” spelling and these must be taught in a rational and systematic way.

Look, cover, write, check

Children are given the look/cover/write/ check strategy in school to help them learn. This strategy involves children looking intently at words, writing them from memory and then checking their own attempts. This strategy can be very effective.

Improving spelling in 10 minutes a day

Before you start, remember your role should be one of helper. Be encouraging and positive about having a go. Take away the fear of being wrong. Mistakes are helpful.

Consistency is everything. Five or 10 minutes a night, every night should be the aim. Once or twice a week is of little benefit.Be aware of your child’s attention span and do not continue past this threshold.

It is important that you relax with your child and that each spelling session is enjoyable. If you find that tension is rising, it is best to abandon the session.

How do you check the spelling of something? Do you spell it out loud or do you write it down to see how it looks? Spelling ought to be a written activity.

Talk to your child’s teacher. Find out what strategy is in use in the classroom and how you may implement it at home.

Be aware that the objective is to put these words into long-term memory. “Knowing” them at home at night is no guarantee that they will always be remembered. Do not look upon spelling as being an all-or-nothing activity. The child may have five letters correct out of six, so give praise for doing something right. Accept that progress may be slow.

How you can help

Find out what strategy is being used in school and follow it step-by-step.

For example, if you are using the look/cover/write/check strategy, which is used in many schools, you should:

Discuss the words before your child starts learning them.

Look for words within words or parts that are already known, for example, there’s a cat in scatter.

Talk about the “bits” she or he knows already. For example, when learning to spell “laugh”, your child usually doesn’t have a problem with the “la”. Ask your child to close his/her eyes and picture these two letters.

Have your child focus on the difficult “bits”. Take the word “laugh” again. Because of the sound we give the letters “ugh”, it is here that a problem may arise. As there is no hidden word to help, a mnemonic (memory aid) such as “U Got Honey” may help get the word into long-term memory. If the child can create his or her own mnemonic, so much the better as it will be more meaningful.

Look how the letters are put together.

Cover the words and call them out when the child is ready to write them.

Make sure that when you call out spellings to your child, s/he must write them down from memory. Spelling is a written, not an oral skill.

Check the words. Look at your child’s attempts and praise the efforts.

At this stage, don’t tell your child how she or he has done. Your child should always check his/her own attempt to see if they are correct or not. Your child then should tell you how she or he did. Examine any word that may be incorrect and talk about the parts that may be correct, before discussing the wrong bits. If, for example, your child has written “gril” for girl, the effort is more than 50 per cent correct.

Can you picture the “bad bit(s)” and so help to get the word into long-term memory? For example, in writing “minit” for minute, can your child see that there is a “nut” in the word?

Or in writing “shur” for sure, could you make up a mnemonic to help: Santa Usually Rushes Everywhere.

Use plastic letters to highlight the “bad bits” ask him/her to trace over the letters and then write it and check it again

The two most important elements of this strategy are looking and checking. If they are not fully adhered to, then the strategy won’t be effective.

How do I know my child is improving?

Progress is best seen in your child’s free writing in their copybook.

Are your child’s mistakes getting better? Do the attempts make sense? If the answer is yes, you are seeing some real progress.

What if I am not a good speller?

No problem. Use a dictionary together. Talk about what you do if you don’t know a spelling. A spell-checker may be of use. Be careful, at times spell-checkers don’t help.

The longer-term plan

When children see that they can improve they become more responsible. They must continue to rely on a visual approach to learning words.

However, this new visual strategy may not yet be integrated to the point that the speller automatically recognises what looks right. You can help them with this.

Keep putting spelling in context. Avoid isolated lists.

Encourage your child to look for familiar letter strings – our, colour, favourite, four, your, etc.

Use billboards, signs, advertisements that you see. Keep looking for words in words.

Keep looking for “hidden” words in words. There is a nut in minute or there is a tree in every street. Use mnemonics for tricky words. Examples include:

–separate: there is a rat in separate

–who: Wally hates onions

–hospital: there is a spit in hospital

–family: father and mother, I love you

–accommodation: two children and two mothers looking for a place to stay

Build on what your child knows:




Associate names and letter strings with words: O’Brien with friend; Staunton with aunt; Coughlin with cough; Enda with calendar; Mary with grammar, etc.

Keep looking at the type of spelling mistake rather than the number of mistakes. Consider if it is a better mistake than the last attempt?Make spelling fun.

Games and activities

Spot the difference pictures

Games such as Pictureka, Upwords, Bananagrams and Boggle are great resources

Shannon’s Game:Give your child the first letter of a word and they must get the second, third, etc (b - - - - -).

This is a better game than Hangman as your child must get the letters in sequence (ba - - - -) (bas - - -) (bask - -).

Letter-fill:give your child the first and last letters and get him or her to come up with as many words as they can (b - - d) bead/band/bold, etc. Give them a set time in which to do this activity.

Computer softwaresuch as Wordshark and Starspell can be a good resource.

Useful websites,;;;;

Rewards and motivation: How to use them well

Rewards are all the rage. Should all parents be toting sticker charts as suggested by the spate of ultra-nanny-tantrums-from-hell TV programmes?

Or does a weekly trip to McDonalds as a reward for doing your homework get the right result?

If you’re trying to encourage your reluctant child to put in some extra work with you after school, are rewards a good idea? Will they work?

Psychologists suggest that it is useful to consider the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Rewards provided by another are extrinsic (from the outside). They are provided in recognition of an act, such as doing your homework, and to encourage its repetition.

Extrinsic rewards can be useful when used sparingly (like the carrot of a chocolate bar during a tired Friday evening big-shop), but there is a risk that with overuse they lose their power.

They also do not have to cost anything, as often the most powerful reward is the time and undivided attention of parents.

Alternatively, intrinsic motivation (from the inside) is when children want to do well for themselves, for their own internal satisfaction.

This sounds great, but instilling intrinsic motivation in your children, like most good things, takes time.

Key to this are the messages parents give to their children: We love you. Dad is delighted with your colouring. School is very important. You tried so hard, I am really proud of you. That behaviour is not nice. Wow, you did it all by yourself, let’s both go and walk the dog together.

Extrinsic rewards, used sparingly, are useful as a short-term measure to get you over a hump, or to help a behaviour become automatic or internalised.

However, the ultimate aim is to get to the point where the concrete reward is replaced by the child’s personal motivation of doing well and feeling good.


* Next week, the final part in the series Maths

This series is compiled by Louise Holdenand Gráinne Faller

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