Helping children spell

Vivian Cook .
How children learn words

How do English children develop the ability to spell? It seems a frightening and daunting task, particularly to parents who can't remember how they did it themselves and don't know how to help the child.

The first general point is to remember that children go through a series of stages in developing spelling, rather than getting the whole system at once. People have described these stages in many ways over the years but the most generally used system is the one proposed by Uta Frith, adapted here.

The first stage is when children get an appreciation of words and signs as wholes, most obviously now through brand-names like McDonalds and Coca-Cola. The child knows what the sign means even if they don't know what reading is about. Children in this pre-writing stage may produce scribble that gradually approximate to actual letters. This stage seems to be universal for all children.

The next stage is based on sounds. Children connect letters and sounds so that they can link the letters in 'dog' to the sounds 'd', 'o' and 'g'. This stage depends on them knowing sounds of English – you can't see a relationship between 'n' and a nasal sound in 'van' if you don't know there's an 'n' sound. It is also bound up with letter-names – many children use the letters in the own names as written on their paintings etc as a key entry point to spelling. It has even been suggested that the more letters a child has in their first name the better they learn to spell as it gives them a broader jumping off point.

Stages in developing Englsh Spelling

The third stage, which we can call pattern-based, is the jump to seeing spelling as visual combinations of letters in their own right, not just as a code to pronunciation. English abounds in purely visual rules: why is the same sound spelled 'ch' at the beginning of words 'cheap' but as 'tch' at the end 'match'? Why are there 'silent letters' in 'sign', 'bite' and 'ought'? Many English words are remembered as visual wholes, not only oddities like 'yacht' or 'colonel', but also frequent words like 'the' and 'for'.

In particular children have problems with the fact that English spelling is often kept the same despite differences in pronunciation. One example is the past tense 'ed' ending which is spelled in the same way in 'liked', 'stayed' and 'waited' but pronounced in three ways as 't', 'd' and 'id'. It’s the meaning of pastness that unites them not the common sounds.

Children's development then relates to these developmental stages. Some children may not have an awareness of sounds and so find the sounds stage impossible to master. Others may be perfectly competent at the sounds stage but unable to take the step to the pattern-based stage of looking at spelling visually without relying on sounds – something crucial to rapid silent reading.

So what can parents do to get children through these stages with as little problem as possible? The first thing is to recognise in general that there are stages: you can't expect a child dealing with a Coca-Cola sign to take on the concept of silent letters. Have expectations of children suitable for their stage.

So far as sounds are concerned, raising the child's awareness of the sounds of English can only help. Even at the age of 9, children still have problems in separating out the sounds of speech – try asking them to say 'jam' without the first sound or 'fork' without the last sound.

But also the sounds that they are taught in school go with the letters may not be those present in their own speech. For instance children in Essex often spell 'wall' as 'wow' and 'teeth' as 'tef', showing a widespread modern British accent in which 'l' has come to be said 'w' and 'th' has become 'f'. It is worth seeing if the child's speech has any crucial differences from the accent used in school – children who are firmly told that the 'th' sound is not linked to 'f' is going to end up not believing their own ears.

It may be helpful to bring in the play element. As we have seen, letter-names are crucial to children's spelling development. Many of the mistakes they make are based on the use of the letter-name rather than the sound link, for example 'ran' as the spelling of 'rain'. This is the feature that has been exploited in text-messaging – 'c u l8r 4 t'. The letters themselves can provide a door to seeing how spelling works.

But also we should not forget spelling in English is not just linking sounds to words: it is remembering words as visual wholes. This is the aspect taken up by the Spelling Bees popular in the USA in which children compete to spell 'intertriginous' or 'xylophagous', adapted to Britain by the BBC as Hard Spell programme. While at this level this may be an extremely demanding task for exceptionally bright children, in a sense it works for everybody. If you can recognise and spell the most frequent 100 words as one-offs about 45% of anything you write will be correct. Mastering say 100 words one at a time is not a big task but can have a big pay-off.

Spelling is then a system that is mastered in stages. Children can be helped by looking at the task systematically, not just by adults correcting their mistakes one at a time. And spelling can be fun, as car-owners proclaim with 'P5 CHO', house-owners with 'Llamedos' (say it backwards) or fish and chip shops with puns like 'A Salt and Battered'.