Spelling is a complex skill and an important part of writing. Good spelling is also a social expectation and contributes to clear communication of a written message.

Spelling requires students to draw on a range of knowledge about the English language. This knowledge includes:

  • phonological knowledge - knowledge of the sound structure of language
  • orthographical knowledge - knowledge of the system of written symbols used to represent spoken language
  • morphemic knowledge - knowledge of the smallest parts of words that carry meaning
  • etymological knowledge - knowledge of the origins of words (Oakley & Fellowes, 2016, p.6)

Phonological knowledge

Phonological knowledge refers to knowledge about the sounds in language. It is an important part of learning to write (and read). As part of learning to spell, students need to develop phonological awareness, that is, the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate syllables, rhymes and individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.

In order to spell words, students use this phonological knowledge to segment each word into smaller units, such as syllables, phonemes or onset and rime, and accurately match these to appropriate letters or letter combinations (graphemes). Another important part of phonological knowledge development is the ability to understand that sentences comprise words, and to hear and identify the separate words in sentences. For more information, see Phonological Awareness.

Orthographical knowledge

Orthographical knowledge is the awareness of the symbols (letters or groups of letters) used to represent the individual sounds of spoken language in written form. To spell fluently, students also need to know the rules about how written letters are arranged in English. Beginning writers will need to understand the alphabetic principle, that is, that spoken language can be recorded in written language by using alphabet letters (graphemes). The 26 letters of the English language are used to represent the phonemes of words.  A grapheme can comprise one or more letters. The main ones include:

  • single letter graphemes, b as in banana, c as in cat or city
  • double letter graphemes, ee as in feet, oo as in book
  • double consonant graphemes, bb as in bubble, ss as in miss
  • digraphs – two different letters representing a phoneme, sh as in sheep, ir as in bird
  • consonant clusters, gl as in glow, scr as in scratch
  • trigraphs – three different letters representing a phoneme, igh as in night, dge as in judge

English orthography follows a highly regular system of patterns. Even though some sounds can be represented by a variety of different letters or letter combinations, these are regular and fixed (Westwood, 2014). For more information about graphemes, see Phonics. 

Morphemic knowledge

Morphemes are the smallest parts of words that carry meaning. Morphemic knowledge involves understanding how morphemes can be used to form words. The spelling of longer words requires students to identify and put together the necessary morphemes. There are two types of morphemes – free morphemes and bound morphemes.
Free morphemes are those that can stand alone as separate words (play as in playing, friend as in unfriendly).

Bound morphemes are not words themselves and cannot occur independently. When added to words, bound morphemes can change the meaning of words or create new words. Bound morphemes include prefixes (e.g. re-, dis- trans-) which are added to the beginning of words and suffixes (e.g. -able, -les, -ly) which are added to the end of words. Some suffixes can change the number (singular/plural as in dish/ dishes) or tense (present/past as in play/plays/played) of a word. Morphological knowledge plays a strong role in determining the spelling of many words in English. For more information, see Word Morphology.

Etymological knowledge

Etymological knowledge refers to how the history and origins of words relates to their meaning and spelling. Many words in modern English come from or have their roots in other languages, particularly Latin and Greek. For example, the Greek word, graph (write) is the root or stem of the family of words such as graphics, autograph, and photography. Knowing about the origin of these words is helpful to students when learning to spell them.

Teaching spelling

One of the key goals of teaching spelling is to support students to develop the knowledges required (see above) as well as flexible and efficient strategies that they can draw upon when learning to spell unfamiliar words. While most students will develop some strategies for themselves, these are often not sufficient to meet all their spelling needs.

The teacher’s role, therefore, is to extend the repertoire of strategies students have at their disposal. Some of these other strategies might include: “look, say, cover, write, check’, spelling by analogy (for example, knowing how to spell ball facilitates the spelling of fall, call, tall) or using mnemonics (memory aids, for example, the principal is my pal) and other resources such as dictionaries and spell checkers.

The ability to spell does not develop naturally. Like reading and writing, it needs to be taught explicitly. Based on the assessment of children’s writing and reading, teachers can build a profile of the knowledge and strategies being used by students. In modelled, shared, interactive and guided writing contexts, then, teachers can demonstrate ways to work out how to spell words, how to use various resources to help with spelling, and how to proofread or check spelling. Students can observe and listen to the teacher, as a model of a proficient writer, as she uses the knowledge and strategies necessary to problem solve the spelling of familiar and unfamiliar words.

Learning to spell takes time. With many repeated opportunities to write for different purposes and audiences, students will learn more about how words work, what other authors do, and reflect on how the knowledge and strategies they are learning will support their own writing. If spelling knowledge and strategies are taught in isolation, they will not be as useful to students.
Students also need many opportunities to see and read print.

A classroom rich in environmental print and being involved in shared, guided and independent reading of a wide range of genres including fiction and non-fiction will allow students to notice, think about and recall what words look like. They will also learn about the possible letter combinations in English, the conventions of books and print, including concepts of word, letter and sentence, and the relationship between letters and sounds.

Good spellers also have a positive attitude to spelling. They display a curiosity about words, attempt unknown words and take care about spelling for publication. A classroom program that encourages risk-taking, promotes investigations of sounds and words, and gives spelling ‘real life’ significance will be supportive of the spelling development of all students.

Teaching the long 'e' sound in context

In this video, students work with their teacher to find examples of the long ‘e’ sound in ‘Remembering Lionsville’ by Bronwyn Bancroft. 


Priorities for teaching

Across the different stages of primary school, F-2, 3-4 and 5-6, teaching emphases will change according to the students’ stages of spelling development and spelling needs. In the early years, F-2, there is generally a focus on teaching phonic knowledge and visual strategies as this is what young writers try to use as they invent spelling at this stage. As students move through the middle and upper levels of primary school, the focus changes to the teaching and exploration of morphemic and etymological knowledge. This said, attention can be given to all the types of knowledge and the teaching of high frequency words, at each stage, depending on students’ needs.

Assessment of students’ spelling ability can take many forms. The analysis of students’ writing or a dictated writing task contributes to a rich profile of what each student can do, with errors giving insights into which knowledge and strategies students are drawing upon when problem solving an unfamiliar word. Talking with students during writing conferences can also provide further detail about knowledge and strategies being used. While spelling tests can be useful in providing standardised scores and spelling ages, it is vital to move beyond the score to consider the types of errors being made. This richer data will then be useful in designing differentiated learning programs in spelling.

Theory to Practice

Development stage theory

The most influential theory to impact the teaching of spelling is that of developmental stage theory. According to Gentry (1982, 2004), there are five stages of spelling development:

  1. pre-communicative/pre-phonetic stage: words are represented using strings of letters and symbols that do not relate to the sounds in words.
  2. semi-phonetic stage: students begin to represent some of the sounds in words, more often consonants or whole syllables, with plausible letters or letter combinations. This is usually the start of invented spelling.
  3. phonetic stage: every sound in words is represented by letters. Students show awareness of some letter-sound correspondences. Some students may stagnate at this stage if they do not learn to use other strategies beyond phonological knowledge.
  4. transitional stage: students begin to pay more attention to orthographical and morphemic knowledge, as well as spelling rules. More words are spelt conventionally.
  5. conventional spelling:  most words are spelt conventionally. Students control phonological, orthographical and morphemic knowledge needed and use a range of strategies.

This theory helps teachers to understand the typical pathway students will take as they learn to spell. It acknowledges that children’s spelling errors are not random but can reveal something about their thinking about spelling. It also encourages teachers to focus on individual student needs and development rather than a one-size-fits-all program.

Overlapping waves theory

Developmental stage theory suggests that students learn to spell in a neat, linear sequence. However, this is not the case. Overlapping waves theory (OWT) (Siegler, 1996), suggests that when learning to spell, students will typically be thinking in different ways and using multiple strategies to solve a problem at the same time. These different ways of thinking can coexist together and the frequency with which the students use different strategies will rise and fall over time. Students will gradually discard those strategies that are no longer useful to them as they learn more efficient and sophisticated strategies to meet their spelling needs (Oakley & Fellowes, 2016, p. 23).

Spelling and school success

Teaching spelling also supports reading and writing, and vice versa (Adoniou, 2016, p.11). Learning how words and language works contributes to vocabulary development. This, in turn, supports reading comprehension and enhances choices made when composing written texts. While it is acknowledged that spelling ability is not related to intelligence, poor spelling can affect performance across all areas of the school curriculum.


Adoniou, M. (2016). Spelling it out. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gentry, J.R. (1982). An analysis of developmental spelling in “GYNS AT WK”, The Reading Teacher, 36(2), 192-200.

Gentry, J.R. (2004). The science of spelling: the explicit specifics that make great readers and writers (and spellers), Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann.

Oakley, G. & Fellowes, J. (2016). A closer look at spelling in the primary classroom. Newtown, NSW.: PETAA.

Siegler, R.S. (1996). Emerging minds: the process of change in children’s thinking. NY.: Oxford University Press.

Westwood, P. (2014). Teaching spelling: exploring commonsense strategies and best practices. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.