Sounds & Syllables Teaching Sequence

“I quit school in the sixth grade because of pneumonia. Not because I had it, but because I couldn’t spell it.” 
Rocky Graziano


I posted a brief sequence for teaching the upper key stage 2 statutory spellings in lists here. (And you can find the lower key stage 2 list here.) In this post I want to flesh out the sequence a little. You can download a PDF that captures the sequence in a neat infographic at the bottom of the post.

Teaching spelling doesn’t have to be complex. Your children can be spelling multisyllable words in no time at all through a simple sequence of five steps.

  1. use a spelling voice
  2. snip into syllables
  3. segment into sounds
  4. target tricky spellings
  5. lock in spellings


These easy-to-learn steps can be applied to any word in the English language, and the same basic sequence (with a few minor adjustments) can be used when teaching new spellings, when practising spellings or when trying out a spelling while independently writing. It’s a sequence every teacher, no matter the age and ability of the students with whom they, should have in their toolkit. And it’s a sequence every student should know so that they can indepdently attempt any spelling with confidence.


Step 1: Use a Spelling Voice

We all over pronounce Wednesday as wed|nez|day to help children remember its spelling. We instinctively know that the starting point for good spelling is clear pronunciation. Over pronouncing using a ‘spelling voice’ emphasises each sound within the word, making the task of selecting the right spelling a little easier. When over pronouncing words focus on three areas.

Clear, crisp consonants. We often take linguistic shortcuts with consonants to say words quickly and easily. The consonant shortcuts we take might change from person to person, accent to accent, but we all do it to a greater or lesser degree. One of the more common shortcuts is the use of the glottal stop . Make a small coughing sound at the back of your throat; that’s the glottal stop. It’s often used to replace consonant sounds like the /t/ in kettle. (Watch a 2 minute video on the glottal stop here.) Pronouncing that /t/ more clearly using a spelling voice will make it more likely for the student to get to the correct spelling.

And in some individuals and some accents, consonant sounds have shifted completely. Many children I work with, for example, are more like to pronounce the <th> spelling in teeth as /f/. And of course, this increases the likelihood of the word being spelled as teef. In a similar fashion, I often see fount for found. Clearly pronouncing those consonants is key to spelling them correctly.

Over enunciate schwas. A schwa is the /uh/ sound in along, mountain, doctor and select. It is a linguistic short cut that allows to speak words more quickly – saying these sounds fully requires more stretching and shaping of the muscles and would result in serious jaw ache if you tried to sustain it in every day speech. The major difficulty with the schwa in spelling is that it is represented by a large number of spellings: <a>, <ai>, <or> and <e> in our examples,  alongside a good twenty or so more fairly common spellings. It’s no wonder that students make a lot of spelling errors with schwas. Over pronouncing mountain as mountayn gets us closer to the correct spelling by ruling out many of the possible spellings

Pronounce elided sounds and syllables. Elision is where speech sounds are not typically pronounced in words. Common examples include the /n/ sound in government or the /h/ sound in vehicle. A spelling voice would  clearly say the /n/ and /h/ sounds respectively. Sometimes whole syllables are elided. The word library is commonly pronounced with two syllables as lie|bree. Again, a spelling voice would clearly say the elided syllable, so lie|bra|ree. Over pronouncing typically elided sounds means that each spelling within a word is clearly represented in its pronunciation, and is therefore more likely to be represented in spelling. I usually present elided sounds as greyed out in a spelling: lib|ra|ry.

(None of this is to say that we shouldn’t value the range of accents in our classrooms, nor that we should communicate that any one accent is superior to another. And clearly a spelling voice as I have described it is not an accent that anyone speaks.)


Step 2: Snip into Syllables

A syllable is a single beat in word which contains a vowel sound (and may or may not have preceding and following consonants). The word unhappy has three syllables un|ha|ppy with the vowel sounds /u/, /a/ and /ee/ respectively. There are tedious rules about where to snip words into syllables, but ignore them. Where you divide the syllables doesn’t really matter (as long as each syllable contains a single vowel sound). The purpose of snipping into syllables is to break down words into smaller chunks. Working memory is limited (perhaps only being able to hold 3 or 4 items), so the more sounds students are working with at any one time, the more chance of overloading working memory and mistakes being made.

When splitting a word into its syllables follow these 3 mini-steps. I’m snipping up the word computer to demonstrate.

  1. Say the word in your spelling voice with a small gap between each syllable: com pu ter
  2. Draw vertical syllable separators to mark the syllable boundaries. I like to have students use mini-whiteboards to do this. You’ll need one fewer separator then you have syllables like so:      |           |
  3. Check you have the correct number of separators by pointing to each gap in turn and saying the syllables once more clearly. For some students, writing one fewer separator than there are syllables will be the most challenging part of the whole process.

Whether you snip archive into ar|chive or arch|ive doesn’t matter one jot (although arc|hive is not a valid split as it snips the /k/ spelling <ch> between two syllables). Go with whichever sounds more natural and don’t fret if your students make a different choice. Personally, ar|chive sounds more natural to me.

There are two exceptions to splitting syllables in the most natural way: to preserve morphology and when syllables are elided.

Preserving morphology. The most natural way of snipping farming into its two syllables to my ears is as far|ming but this doesn’t preserve the morphology; snipping as farm|ing does. But it’s not always worth preserving morphology, however. If I were spelling vertical in year 3, I’d snip it as the natural sounding ver|ti|cal. Preserving the morphemes as vert|ic|al makes no sense if they are not morphemes I plan on teaching any time soon. For those interested, <vert> comes from the Latin root vertere meaning ‘to turn’, and both <ic> and <al> are common adjective forming suffixes.

Isolating elided syllables. The most natural way of snipping the word average is a|ve|rage. However, snipping it as av|e|rage isolates the the elision into the second syllable; we can pronounce the first and third syllables and end up with the common pronunciation av|rij.


Step 3: Segment into Sounds

Now that we’ve successfully snipped our word into syllables, we can focus our attention on representing the sounds in each syllable in turn. Use these 4 mini-steps. Again I’m using the word computer to demonstrate.

  1. Say the first syllable using your spelling voice.
  2. In turn, clearly say the sounds in the syllable – /c/ /o/ /m/ and draw a horizontal line for each sound as you say it in the space for the first syllable: _ _ _ |       |
  3. Now Say the sounds once more, this time writing the spelling of each sound (no letter names) as you say it: c o m |       |
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 for each syllable in the word: c o m | p u | t er

Once I’ve had children using the system for a while, and especially for stronger spellers, I might miss out adding sound buttons in step 3 and move directly onto writing the spelling of each sound in step 4.

There simply isn’t the the time to unpick the subtleties of representing sounds with spellings in this blog post; the important thing is that you understand your school’s phonics system and can apply it. You are neither use nor ornament in the teaching of spelling if you cannot segment a word correctly into its constituant spellings or say its speech sounds correctly.

Handling split digraphs can be a little tricky. Below is a slideshow of the word arrive being constructed the Sounds & Syllables way. Note that the <e> in the digraph <a-e> does not have its own sound button: doing so would indicate that the syllable <rrive> has 4 sounds which is most certainly does not. Also note, that I draw an arrow at the same time as writing <i>. It is just confusing to write the <e> before the <v>. Drawing the arrow directly after writing <a> is little reminder to add the <e> at the end of the word.


Step 4: Target Tricky Spellings

If a child has used steps 1 through 3 to spell a challenging word, they may well have made an error. A weaker speller may, for example, have spelled jacket as j a |k i t. Traditional wisdom would say that the word is spelled incorrectly (and, of course, it is). However, if we examine more closely, of the 5 within-word spellings, 3 are spelled correctly. We need to focus the child’s attention on the 2 spellings that are not correct. These are the parts if the word that will improve the child’s spelling.

The tricky spellings will vary from child to child, and in an ideal world we’d address these errors individually. And one-to-one or small-group spelling sessions with weak spellers will make a world of difference. But classrooms of thirty children are not ideal worlds, and addressing a multitude of different spelling errors is not a viable option. Sure, in jacket, there are very few likely errors, but in a word like sufficient there are likely to be a wider variety of misspellings.

However, if you are teaching spelling with a whole class, you can predict easily address the most common errors. They are likely to fall into one of the following categories.

Doubled consonants. If only I had a pound for every time a child in my classroom had been planing a trip to the zoo, and stoping to see the babboons or something similar. Children spell double consonants as singles and single consonants as doubles. And spelling rules are difficult for weaker spellers learn, are rarely applied when writing independently and are broken far too frequently to make them worth spending too teaching time on.

Less common graphemes. Just how often are you are you going to spell /f/ as <ffe>. You might make a gaffe with a giraffe, but that’s about it.

Where there are many common spellings. I’m looking at you, vowels. Consonants are generally easier to spell as there are usually fewer common spelling choices from which to choose. If you want to spell /b/, then <b> or <bb> are the only two common spellings. But if you want to spell /or/, then <a>,<or>, <ar>, <aw>, <au>, <ore> are all common spelling options (and there are others besides). Sure, guess <or>, but there’s a good chance you’ll be wrong.

Schwas. Even with over pronunciation, schwas are likely to be the cause of much spelling woe.

Elision. If you’ve over pronounced elided sounds, there’s good chance that elided consonant sounds are spelled correctly (see above), but elided vowels will always be tricky.

If a child has made an attempt at word while writing  independently, ensure their attention is drawn to the part(s) misspelled, cover up their attempt, and let them make another attempt (or two or three). There’s no need to visually remember whole words à la Look Cover Write Check – just focus Jedi-style on those targeted tricky parts. How will they know which part is the misspelled tricky bit? Check a dictionary or ask. If it’s not possible to do either, then an attempt in the margin will signal where there attention needs to be focused when you next look through their work.


Step 5: Lock in Spellings

Lock in spellings by focusing on patterns, starting with clustering, comparing and contrasting sounds before exploring simple conventions and then moving into morphology.

Cluster, compare and contrast. If you are spelling the word guess with a class of children, the most likely tricky bit is the less common <gu> spelling of /g/. Lock the spelling in by clustering and comparing it with words with the same spelling: guest, guard, guide, guilt, guitar, guile, and disguise.

And if you are spelling passion, the trickiest part is very likely the <ssi> spelling of <sh>. You might cluster it with mission, discussion, expression, mission and impression. And you might contrast this cluster with decision, division, version, vision, invasion and explosion, noting the similar <si> spelling and perhaps and notice that it is representing /zh/ and not /sh/.

Explore convention. Some spellings are more likely because of longstanding conventions. We can cluster and compare words that share these conventions. The /v/ sound, for example, is almost always spelled <v> at the start of a word as in vet, van, vowel, view and voice, and <ve> at the end of a word – love, give, have, move, motive and explosive. And the /ur/ sound is often spelled /or/ after <w>, so work, world, worth, worm, worse and worship.

Understand morphology. We might delve deeper into the spelling of morphemes. When spelling famous, we might cluster and contrast words containing the <ous> suffix, examining the preceding sound-spelling patterns /ee/ spelled <i>, and /sh/ spelled <ci> or <ti>.


Or we might examine the Latin root vertere (to turn) and its twin spellings of <vers(e)> and <vert>. We might explore how the shared spelling indicates a shared meaning between all of these words.


Sounds & Syllables Training

If you have found this blog post useful and want use the approach in your school, I can train your staff on the Sounds & Syllables approach to teaching spelling. It covers all of the above and much more than I can squeeze into this single post, with plenty of opportunity to try out your newly acquired spelling skills, reflect, ask questions and delve deeper into the teaching of English spelling.

To inquire about training, please use the contact form.


Free Sounds & Syllables Quick Guide

To download a simple guide to the Sounds & Syllables teaching sequence, click on the image below. It should open up as a hi-res PDF in a new tab.

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