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Teaching spelling by using phonics at Key Stage one and into Key Stage two.

INTENT.  Spelling is an area identified as one that needs improving in our school. We are aware that printed lists and children learning spellings weekly is doing little to address this although parents like supporting home learning in this way. We have trialled other spellings schemes but have to see the impact we consider is acceptable for our children. Teaching by spelling rules carries a high cognitive load and children frequently do well in tests but are unable to remember or apply the correct spellings beyond this or in other work.

McGuinness has analysed the complete spelling code for the English language to find that “it could be reduced to 176 common spellings for the 44 sounds in English. This is sufficient to cover about 90% of all words in print.” (SRS Teacher’s Handbook by Nevola, 2007)

“Our brains do the work for us… Once the structure of the spelling code is set up visually, numerous features and patterns come to light. The only active memorization required is to learn the 40+ phonemes (sounds) in the language and their spellings. Spelling alternatives for each phoneme can be mastered through controlled exposure and varied repetition… Use of these patterns can dramatically speed up learning while reducing memory load, and is essential for setting up a sequence of instruction.”
(Diane McGuinness, p59, Early Reading Instruction, MIT Press 2004)

In light of this, we have used the 44 phonemes and cross-referenced them to words in line with the National Curriculum’s spelling rules. For example, the word ‘outrageous’ could be taught under the Year 3/4 spelling rule of adding the suffix -ous. However, via a phoneme-centred approach as suggested by McGuinness, the word ‘outrageous’ could appear in multiple places throughout the spelling curriculum: under the /aʊ/ sound (here spelt ‘ou’); the /e‍ɪ/ sound (here spelt with the split digraph ‘a-e’); and the /dʒ/ sound (here spelt ‘ge’). Drawing attention to the suffix in this word but not making it the main focus means that other words with the suffix -ous would appear throughout different weeks rather than all at once. This regular exposure to the same word – but through different phoneme lenses – provides a good opportunity for retrieval practice.

Fiona Nevola, the founder of SRS, advises that “word and spelling patterns must be introduced in sequence from simple to complex, and from common to rare. The teaching is incremental: building up knowledge in careful steps.” (2007)

We believe these ideas should be reflected in a spelling programme in order for it to be successful. The children’s learning in KS1 should be built on in KS2, not taught using an entirely new approach.




Highlight sound (phoneme) and sort into grid- Send words home.

At the start of the lesson, children are introduced to the sound of the week and are given a list of words containing that sound. e.g. in Year 3 they may encounter only five graphemes for the phoneme /i:/ – they will build on this each year by recapping previous years’ graphemes and learning new ones. They must then identify the sound of the week, highlight it and sort the words into the correct grapheme. This activity can be used to draw attention to any patterns that may occur, e.g. ‘y’ at the end of a word making an /i:/ sound; ‘ei’ occurring after ‘c’ making a /s/ sound. As an extension, children could find their own words to add to the grid.


Partner test-In pairs, children test each other on the spellings for the week and highlight those they cannot yet spell. Through direct instruction, they learn how to analyse those words and identify their ‘tricky’ parts.  Mnemonics, patterns, etc.


Sound buttons-Using their knowledge of phonics, children identify the individual phonemes in each word. This can be done as a whole-class activity which children can then do independently with their chosen words (from above.). This is also a good opportunity to link to etymology for specific words if relevant.


Sound-sort grid - Children are given a blank version of the grid from Monday’s lesson showing the graphemes for that week’s sound. Read the words aloud and the children must write them in the correct section of the grid.


Test - This spelling test and can be adapted to whatever best suits your class. (e.g. partners testing each other on their individual spellings, an adult reading out the whole list or dictation. Dictation is generally the most successful   

e.g  1. There is a piece of dust on the ceiling.
      2. I guarantee you will win forty pounds.




The impact of this policy is a rapid improvement in the accurate spelling skills of our children and the knowledge and ability to select ‘best bet’ spelling rules when unsure.