Improving Spelling when Writing

“Responsibility educates.”  Wendell Phillips

In my last post, The Seven Sins of Spelling, I wrote that the spelling strategies we employ need to have an impact where they matter most – on children’s writing. I’d go as far to say that what children do – what they think about, the strategies they draw upon and the tools they have available – during independent writing is as important as what goes on inside dedicated spelling lessons. After all, if children are spelling words correctly during spelling lessons (and during spelling tests, but that’s another blog post), but that doesn’t transfer to improved spelling in independent writing, then what are we doing it for?

It goes without saying that if children have been taught good spelling knowledge and processes during dedicated spelling lessons, then there is little to apply to independent writing, but this blog post doesn’t concern itself with how to teach spelling (I’ve written about that previously and will no doubt do so again). Rather it post outlines three simple but useful approaches I have found help to focus children on spelling as they write.

1. be up front

Teachers model the writing process often, and I’ve observed more than my fair share. In key stage one and in reception teacher modelling of spelling within the modelling of writing as a whole is fairly common place. But in key stage two I rarely see it happen at all. I suspect the reasons for the difference is threefold: first, lower down the school, phonics teaching tends to have a higher profile, teachers are perhaps better trained in breaking words down; second,  early writing tends to focus more on the minutia of transcription – the correct formation of letters, finger spaces, basic punctuation – and attention to spelling is part of that focus; and third, as younger children will generally compose less in a writing lesson than older children, then teachers of those children model less in any session, which allows them to focus in on those crucial building blocks of writing – teachers in key stage two are more likely to model several paragraphs then key stage one colleagues.

Of course, modelling spelling within wider writing sessions slows the writing process and takes more time. But if children don’t see teachers applying spelling strategies they have taught in discreet spelling lessons while modelling writing, then why should they when it’s their turn to write? When selecting words to model, there is always a balance to be struck. We cannot model the spelling of every word children might misspell – we’d likely end up doing little else. Rather focus in on three categories:  

    • the current spelling pattern being learned in spelling lessons – to revisit and reinforce application in writing;
    • challenging vocabulary words – those words from your modelled writing that you want children to be able to use in their writing. In a recent modelling session for me that included: desolate, derelict and apocalyptic;
    • common misspellings – those words that children really ought to be able spell but still trip over them (I’m looking at you, whent.)


  I find that using my Sounds & Syllables strategy within the writing itself gets a little messy, so I prefer to model tackling spellings beside or beneath the whiteboard or flipchart I’m writing on – available writing space usually dictates. I’m not going to go into my Sounds & Syllables approach in detail here (I’m available for training), but in brief I follow these simple steps:

    1. say the word clearly in a spelling voice: for derelict saying the schwa represented by the second <e> as /e/ and making sure I am clear and crisp with the final two sounds /k/ and /t/;
    2. snip the word into syllables and drawing syllable lines: for derelict counting three syllables on fingers and drawing two syllable lines
    3. spell each syllable in turn, saying the sounds at the same time as writing each spelling: resulting in de|re|lict;
    4. drawing attention to tricky spellings and drawing comparisons with known spellings where appropriate.


We want to make it clear to children that even good spellers think carefully about the spellings of challenging words, that it’s normal to break words down while writing, in the hope that this will encourage them to do this as they write.

2. under the line

As far as many children are concerned, one of the functions of the teacher during independent writing lessons is that of a walking dictionary. How do you spell…? is an all too frequent refrain in many classrooms. It’s tempting to provide children with the spelling. It’s quick. But resist! If children know that if they can’t spell a word, the teacher will do the work of figuring out the spelling for them, where is the incentive for them to learn it for themselves? Your response to this request is a simple one – break the word down yourself and then we’ll look at it together. Put the ball squarely in the child’s court, let them do the legwork and then help them to check their work. Shift the question from How do you spell…? to Could you please check…? Stick to your guns. They will soon learn that the quickest way to get help with spelling is to have a made attempt themselves first.

This is where strategy number 2 kicks in: under the line. At the start of a writing lesson, have children draw a horizontal line in their books three lines up from the bottom of the page. Under this line is where children will break down words to attempt their spellings before they commit them to the body of their writing. If children want to write a word and are unsure of the spelling, they break down the word below the line by snipping the word into syllables and then saying each sound as you write the spelling.

Recently, a year six child who struggles with spelling had used this approach to spell the word enigmatic. She brought me the spelling broken down beneath the line: e | n i d | m a | t i ck. So, how to respond? First, let’s praise what she has done well. She has broken the word correctly into four syllables and has the correct number of sounds in each syllable (the Sounds & Syllables spelling approach usually results in this being correct). She has 7 of the 9 spellings within the word correct. Feeding this back builds confidence; she is almost correct.

Now we can hone in on where she needs support.

The most puzzling misstep is substituting a <d> for a <g>. An unusual mistake and but with a clear origin, that well-trained spelling teacher would correctly evaluate in an instant. She is mishearing and mispronouncing the word, hearing /d/ instead of /g/. Say the word enigmatic quickly to yourself, at the speed someone might say it in normal conversation. The /g/ fades into the background as is not spoken clearly due to a process we call coarticulation, that in spoken words, the enunciation of a phoneme is affected by those around it (perhaps the subject for a further blog post). I asked her to say the word to me slowly and, sure enough, that’s the issue. The solution, say the word back to her in a clear spelling voice, focusing heavily on the /g/ sound. You can see the lightbulb go on. I have her repeat it back to me and she correctly changes the <d> to <g>.

The <ck> spelling of /k/ at the end of the word is a different kettle of fish. It’s not a listening issue: she’s using a fairly common spelling of /k/. It’s a problem of orthography (the set of spelling conventions within a language). She is misapplying a common spelling pattern – that we typically spell /k/ as <ck> after as single vowel as in brick, chick, stick and thick. But this tends to occur at the end of single syllable root words. the word ending <ic> containing the spelling <c> that she needs is often a suffix that forms adjectives (but can also be found at the end of root words such panic and music) and is found at the end of multi-syllable words. So I quickly show her the words allergic, dramatic and horrific, drawing her attention the multi-syllabic nature of each word, and that they are all adjectives formed from nouns: allergy > allergic, drama to dramatic, horror > horrific. We compare this to enigma > enigmatic.

This all takes a minute or so out of the lesson, but it’s a minute well spent. She’s improved her pronunciation and understanding of the target word, and this will hopefully help to her remember the spelling next time.

There are times when you might not want children to ask you to check their under the line spelling attempts – perhaps you are guiding a group and don’t want to be interrupted. Key stage two children can use a dictionary to check their under the line spelling attempts; it cannot provide the feedback a teacher can, but children can at least see their errors and correct them. Or you might simply tell the children to use their unchecked below the line attempt in their writing. (It’s remarkable how often breaking the word down into Sounds & Syllables produces a correct spelling without it needing to be checked.) You can then check spelling attempts after the lesson, make corrections and feed back. But there’s an elephant in the room here.

The challenge with this strategy is that it relies upon children self-identifying a spelling difficulty. When writing, children often think the incorrect spelling of a word they have written is in fact correct, and so don’t think to break the word down beneath the line. Or, so focused are they on the content of their writing, they simply forget to consider spelling at all.

Two approaches are useful here.

First, find time during writing sessions to circulate as children are writing and place dots (no more than 3) next to incorrectly spelled words that I’d like children to break down beneath the line, prioritising those children who have are not using the under the line approach to identify spelling difficulties. You might be unable to dot around every child’s misspellings in a single lesson, so prioritise those children who aren’t using the under the line approach without prompting, but ‘dot’ everyone’s work over time.

Second, set the expectation that every child must break down at least three words (change the minimum number to suit) under the line during an independent writing session. At the end of the session, those who have not broken down at least three spellings, must read through their work, searching for the most likely misspellings (even should they believe their writing to be a masterpiece of flawless spelling) and break them down under the line. This ensures that children get into the habit of thinking about spelling as they write (or at the very least before the hand their work in).

Under the line puts the responsibility for correcting spelling firmly in the hands of children, having them, not you, do the hard work. It takes some time to create the culture shift, but the time and effort is worth the reward.

3. the deadly dozen

There are those spelling mistakes that are persistent, that no matter how frequently they are corrected in children’s work, persevere. Went, was, through, friend, believe, some, pretty and know are some of the worst offenders, but you’ll have your own bugbears, I’m sure. Part of the problem here is responsibility (the golden thread in this blog post). The children make these errors in their writing, and as the teacher mark the work, corrects them. Again it’s the teacher who is doing the hard work. If children know that misspellings will be corrected for them, the impetus isn’t on them to check and correct their own work. We need to shift that responsibility back to children.

The deadly dozen bookmark [fig.1] is useful here. Clock on the image to download a printable  PDF version. One one side of the bookmark is a basic Sounds & Syllables sequences, helpful for those schools using the approach to teach spelling, but the side of the bookmark of most interest here is the deadly dozen side. When looking through children’s writing, pay attention to common misspellings. These misspellings get written onto the bookmark, which lives in the child’s writing book as an aide memoir.


The key to making the deadly dozen bookmark a useful tool is careful word selection. You have space to write twelve words, so we are selecting those misspellings that are: 1. children really ought to be able to spell by now; 2. that. they are misspelling over time; 3. that appear frequently in their writing. What we are aiming to do is improve the ratio in writing of correct spellings to incorrect spellings.  There’s not much point writing words such as occupy, honour or abundant onto the bookmark – they are written so infrequently, they won’t make the slightest dint in that ratio.

If you notice a misspelling that meets our three selection criteria, write it on the bookmark. I would break the word into its Sounds & Syllables if working with children who had been taught the sequence. And I would write the misspelling in a different colour: so if a children was frequently writing went as whent, misspelling the spelling representing /w/ I’d write it as w e n t.

Now that the children have their deadly dozen bookmark tucked into the writing books, each child with their own targeted list of misspellings, they need to put it to good use as a proofreading tool. Before handing written work in, they should check it against the spellings on their bookmark and correct them. This shifts the responsibility for checking common misspelling from the teacher to the child. If a child should hand their work in and it is clear that misspellings have not been checked, smile and say ‘Check your deadly dozen before I read it, please.’

Once children are regularly checking their own writing for common misspellings, that focuses their attention, making it less likely that the will repeatedly keep misspelling them into the distant future.

And when a bookmark has been filled, simply staple another bookmark over the top, and start the process again. You will find that persistent misspellings might be end up being written on several bookmarks, but eventually with rigorous self-checking those common errors ought to be eradicated. Unfortunately, there will always be new misspellings to add to the bookmark, but hopefully those are slightly less common, slightly more challenging. Children should only check the bookmark at the top of the stapled set, but having others stapled to the bottom (or stored somewhere safely) means that teachers can check if past misspellings have been consigned the bin.

And there you have it, three simple yet effective strategies for improving children’s spelling during the writing process.

If you’d like to know more about the Sounds & Syllables approach to spelling, please click on the image below and get in touch to book training.

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