Beginning Teacher Tips: Setting Up A Spelling Programme

Setting Up A Spelling Programme

How do you set up a spelling programme? Now that’s a topic that could get you 50 different, passionate responses! Interestingly, it is also a topic that is not practically covered in many teacher training courses. This blog post explains some practical ideas for setting up a spelling programme because I know that is what I would have found useful when I was starting out.

Setting up a spelling programme
Some teachers suggest that a spelling list (give on Monday, test on Friday) is the way to go. Others are reconsidering this approach and looking at other ideas. Are you personally confused about setting up a spelling programme? I’ll discuss how I have used spelling lists and tests, extended students past The Essential List, taught spelling rules, and other approaches to learning spelling in the classroom.

Please note: If you are strongly opposed to the use of spelling lists, take a deep breath and then scroll on down to the paragraph titled “Teaching the Spelling Rules and how words work.” Nothing to see here.


Using Lists and Tests in your Spelling Programme

In my spelling programme, I tested students on the Essential Spelling lists. The Essential Spelling Lists from the New Zealand Council of Educational Research (NZCER) are lists of words children use most often in their writing. These lists are referred to in documents and resources provided to schools by the New Zealand Ministry of Education. They are also referred to in the NZ Literacy Progressions for Writing (see below). There are seven lists plus an additional list of commonly misspelt words (a quick google search will find these lists).

Spelling in the NZ Literacy Progressions:

The Essential Spelling List is used as part of the spelling requirements of the NZ Literacy Progressions for writing.
By the end of year three, students should be using their visual memory to spell personal vocabulary and high-frequency words (e.g., many words from essential lists 1–4 and some from list 5 and list 6).
By the end of year four, students should be using their visual memory to help them spell personal vocabulary and high-frequency words correctly (the high-frequency words include most words from essential lists 1–4 and many from essential lists 5–7.
Also, by the end of year six, students should be correctly spelling all high-frequency words used in their writing.

What does research say about using spelling lists?

Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014) compared over 30 studies on spelling and found that formal spelling instruction (including giving a list of spelling words for students to learn) produces greater spelling gains than no spelling instruction. It also found that formal spelling instruction significantly impacts student phonological awareness, making new words easier to master in reading and writing. This means if you are wondering if there is any point in using spelling lists, this research says…YES!
The research also points out that pre-testing is an important part of this spelling approach – there is no point in teaching students the words that they can already spell. If you are going to use a spelling list, test the students and then create their individual spelling lists using the results of the pre-test.

My tips for using spelling lists and spelling testing:

Once again, these are simply my suggestions – take what you like and add it to your professional basket of knowledge.

Pre Testing

At the beginning of the year, test your students to see what list of words from The Essential List they need to begin on. There are a lot of words to test, so I would do this over a few days, stopping after each list to mark that section. When a student spells more than half of a list incorrectly, it’s time for them to stop. They can work quietly on another activity while you continue testing the other students.

List Creation

  • On a Monday, give each student a number of spelling words from their list. The number of words is up to you and based on your knowledge of your students. Personally I gave students five-seven words from their list, plus a few topic-specific words that fitted with whatever we were investigating in science, health or social studies.
  • Alternatively, you could also add words that students are regularly spelling incorrectly in their writing. If you know a student is passionate about ballet and writes about it often, it makes sense that they learn to spell that word ASAP!
  • In addition to using the words from the Essential Spelling list, I took the opportunity to highlight word families. For example, if the word “call” is on the list, you could also add the words “calling”, “called”, “caller”. You could also look at spelling patterns like “igh” in words. If a speller is learning “right”, then you could add “light”, “tight”, “might” and so on. This can help students with their phonemic awareness when they come to a word they aren’t sure how to spell. You can learn more about phonemic awareness here.

List Practice:

  • There are multiple options for the practising of these spelling words during the week. A common approach is sending the list home each night for homework testing. I still remember being sent home with a list of spelling words for my parents to test me on during the week. You will know if this approach suits your school, their policies around homework, and the students in your class.
  • Another approach is to get the students to practice their list of words within class time. I built spelling into my reading and literacy rotations each day. Students would use my spelling activities task cards to practise their spelling words in a variety of ways.

Our spelling activity task cards are designed to save you time while providing students with a range of fun and interactive ways to practice their spelling words. The best thing about these activity cards is they work with ANY spelling list, so they are perfect for differentiated learning. Save your time when setting up a spelling programme.

  Spelling activities for any word list - spelling activity task cards

Spelling Testing

  • At the end of the week, test students on their spelling words. An easy way to do this is partner testing where pairs of students test each other on their words. Other teachers prefer to do this testing themselves – each to their own. If students get words wrong, they will need to practice them again. If they get them correct, move them on to the next words in that list the following Monday.
    • An important reminder: Ensure you check they have written the words correctly into their spelling notebook. The last thing you want is the embarrassment of a parent pointing out that they are learning an incorrectly spelt word.
  • To help with goal setting and to celebrate success, I recommend giving the student a copy of their Essential Spelling list e.g. list six, to glue into their book. As they successfully learn a word, they can tick it or highlight it. I think displaying and checking off one list at a time is better than giving the students the full list to check off – it can be a bit overwhelming!

What is next after the Essential Spelling Lists?

Once students have mastered the Essential Spelling Lists, they can look deeper into the English language and, in particular, the meaning and spelling of morphemes e.g. prefixes and suffixes and Greek and Latin roots.

I have two resources that explore prefixes, suffixes and Greek and Latin root words. Click on each image to see more.

Literacy skills activities & literacy resources.

Vocabulary Digital Task Cards Develop your students' ability to use context clues

Teaching the Spelling Rules and how words work

Another approach to teaching spelling is to explicitly teach the spelling rules. Literacy Online explains that “teachers need an understanding of the knowledge, strategies and awareness students require to become competent spellers. This involves knowledge of … spelling rules and conventions.”

As part of the Literacy Progressions for the End of Year Three, students should be “applying their growing knowledge of useful spelling rules (e.g., the rules relating to adding simple plural suffixes such as those in baby/babies and half/halves) and their growing knowledge of morphology (e.g., adding a d to hear to make heard)”.

There are some key rules that can be useful for students to learn and then, importantly, remember. As part of my literacy skills resources (Year 3-4, Year 5-6, Year 7-8) I look at the rules for making plurals and common prefixes and suffixes, including the rules for adding -ing. In my Year 7 and 8 Literacy Skills resource, I also look at Latin and Greek root words.
Below is a breakdown of the word work skills (including spelling rules and patterns) covered in our Literacy Skills resources.
Literacy skills activities - grammar and punctuation activities

Teaching students how to spell unfamiliar words

The New Zealand Literacy Progressions for Writing does not solely focus on how to spell the essential spelling lists. They also look at how to encode (spell) unfamiliar words by teaching students phonemic awareness, letter-sound relationships, spelling patterns and the morphological structure of written language. I know – that is a lot of big words. As a beginning teacher, I am hoping you learned about these concepts in your teacher training, but if not, it’s time to upskill.

I found a great resource on TKI called Sounds and Words which has a wealth of information about phonemic awareness, teaching sounds and words, the spelling patterns in English, and morphology.

Popular Spelling programmes you may like

There are also many programmes that look at teaching spelling explicitly beginning with sound to letter (Phoneme to Grapheme) through to the meaning and spelling of morphemes (e.g. root words and affixes). If you have a program or book you highly recommend, get in touch in the comments below and let me know!

A popular spelling program that many teachers swear by is from Joy Allcock. Her books Switched onto Spelling (for younger students) and Spelling Under Scrutiny (upper primary students and beyond) are very popular and look at developing phonemic awareness skills, sound-letter relationships, cracking the ‘code’ of written English, understanding common conventions of written English and developing proof-reading skills. For Year 1 she also has a program called “Sounds like Fun”.

Peter De Ath also has a popular spelling program called “You Can Spell” that looks at the characteristics of a good speller. The You Can Spell series includes eight books progressively introducing students to the 3770 most frequently used words in the English language and many spelling rules.

You could also check out Unlocking literacy by Marcia K. Henry. This looks at letter-sound correspondences, syllable patterns, and morpheme patterns. It also looks at topics such as English words, affixes, roots and combining forms, multi-syllabic words, and abstract concepts, consonant and vowel patterns, syllables, common spelling rules, prefixes and suffixes, roots, non-phonetic words, and contractions.

In the end, remember the research from the beginning of this blog post: some kind of spelling program is better than nothing! I thought I’d end with this humorous poem that looks at how tricky the English language really is. The poem is titled “The Chaos”.

Other blog posts in our beginning teachers series

Tips for beginning teachers sourced from teachers in New Zealand, Australia and around the world.

This post is to help beginning teachers to set up a reading program.

Effective Classroom Management teaching resource

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