Spelling homework is the bugbear of many parents and children. It’s like eating green vegetables: we don’t always want to do it, but it’s good for us and we need to do it often. But is revising for spelling tests the only way? Are there other ways parents can support their child with the complex world of becoming a ‘better speller’? Well, the answer is yes, and you’ll be glad to hear there are myriad ways to success.
Spelling accurately is an important part of primary education and is of course part of the SATS tests that check how well your child is performing at the early stages of their education. If you’ve ever seen a Year 6 SATS spelling test, you might even have questioned if you had mistakenly seen a GCSE spelling test (which thankfully, isn’t even a thing!). Children are expected to learn complex spellings and apply them to their writing – but how can you help with this?
Grammar rules can help children decode patterns and meanings, and if your child likes to learn in this way, it might be a good method for improving their spelling. For example, a deeper understanding of prefixes and suffixes can help children to break down meaning and also to remember segments of words. Splitting words this way can be done visually with a pencil, or even cut out and jumbled/reassembled on the kitchen table.
Spelling rules can’t always help, though. Common exception words are words that are frequent flyers in our vocabulary but do not fit the patterns we apply to spelling. It is worth getting together a list of common exceptions and regularly reviewing it with your child. Spotting these words together in signs and leaflets etc can also reinforce these spellings for future use, too.
Dyslexia and a range of other neurodivergence or special educational needs can impact how quickly and accurately children pick up spellings. If you notice a pattern in their mistakes (frequently replacing a particular letter with an incorrect letter, or always leaving out a particular letter or sound) then it might be worth discussing this with their teacher or an educational specialist. There may be a quick fix, or it might start a conversation around how they can be better supported to make academic progress.
Fortunately, there are many paths to spelling success. Learning spellings by rote is one tried and tested method that could be what works for your child. Learning by rote is a commonly practised technique and rests on the premise that repeated revisiting of information ensures recall becomes faster and more accurate over time.
To learn spellings this way, you could try:
Using visuals at home: post-it notes of spellings being learned can be placed around the house (on the bathroom mirror, for example) for regular revision, but this only works if children are motivated to see, read, cover, spell and check independently.
Scheduling it in: have a fixed time when you test your child on their spellings. It might be over cereal at breakfast or even on the school run. This can be a good way of regular practise for children that are not motivated to practise independently.
I often get asked for a ‘quick fix’ and although there really isn’t one, reading is my top tip – one with no downside whatsoever! Reading often (and a range of material: wonderful fiction, fun magazines, posters at the doctor’s surgery, subtitles -with the sound off! - on Netflix) is the best way to improve spelling accuracy and a deeper understanding, albeit subconsciously, of spelling. Reading brings everything together and gives it meaning. Spelling well is meaningless if words cannot be used accurately in communication.
The most important thing to remember about ‘learning to spell’ is that children will master this, with effort or not, when they are ready. Some will find learning spellings thrilling and will love competing with themselves. Others might find it sucks the joy out of their writing. As adults we can best foster children’s spelling confidence by supporting, encouraging and engaging with their lifelong love of learning.
Holly King-Mand, widely known as the nation’s favourite English teacher, taught thousands of children online during the pandemic and has become both an expert in vibrant online learning and a passionate literacy campaigner. You can find out more about Holly’s Classroom on Instagram, Facebook and at www.hollysclassroom.com.