Research - Let's look at spelling

Peer reviewed article

Dr Lorraine Beveridge and Jane Lieschke share a passion for the orthography, morphology and etymology of the English language that they are excited to share with teachers and students.

Disclaimer:The views expressed in this paper are the views of the authors and not necessarily those of their employer, the New South Wales Department of Education.


We work in a shared space supporting schools in literacy. Most schools in which we currently work and have taught in, use spelling text books and commercial programs to teach spelling in a structured and sequential way, based on the work of Gentry (1982) and development stage theory, which outlines that spelling is learned in a defined set of developmental stages. However, emerging research suggests that the acquisition of spelling competence is not a sequential process of hierarchically ordered sub-skills demonstrated in linear stages, building towards writing competence (Daffern, 2016a; Adoniou, 2016). Rather, students use a broad range of spelling skills recursively as the need arises for them to communicate effectively, based on the overlapping waves theory of spelling acquisition (Siegler, 1996). It is not our intent to discuss the vagaries of the ubiquitous practice of using spelling texts and commercial programs to teach spelling in this paper. We wish to raise awareness that the quality texts that teachers use in their literacy classrooms, and the words that students use in their own writing, are incredibly powerful tools to teach spelling in context, drawing on the reciprocity of the reading-writing connection. Explicit teaching is necessary in order to ensure that students develop a deep knowledge and understanding of this complex aspect of literacy (NSW Department of Education, 2016c). The English K-10 Syllabus and the National Literacy Learning Progression (NLLP) (ACARA, 2018), outline what good spelling looks like in practice, drawing on student work samples as evidence to scaffold teachers in identifying what students can do and providing suggestions for where to next in their spelling instruction. These resources work in tandem to support teachers in teaching spelling, as a tool for writing, in the writing process.


The four forms of spelling knowledge

Spelling is a tool for writing, and when we spell words, we draw on the four forms of spelling knowledge, these being:

  • Phonology - how words sound
  • Visual - how words look
  • Morphology - parts within words that signify meaning, grammar
  • Etymology - the historical, cultural origin of words.

English is said to be a morphophonemic language because it represents information at both the phonological and morphological level. Applying phonological information is essential for early reading and writing acquisition. We start by teaching spelling through drawing on students’ growing phonological knowledge, and as they progress through the grades, students increasingly draw on other forms spelling knowledge. Phonology is but one part of the spelling story. In addition to phonology, students draw on their visual spelling skills, morphology and etymology in order the build their orthographic skills.

The process of developing spelling knowledge is a recursive one. For example, during a recent primary English lesson, we were talking and writing about students’ future career aspirations, linked to the current class text, ‘Mechanica: a Beginner’s Field Guide’ by Lance Balchin, a picture book for older readers, which the class enjoy.


Figure 1: Balchin (2016)

Students were keen to write their draft, and eager to record their thoughts on the whiteboards. This particular class clearly understand that the purpose of writing is to convey meaning to the reader and were not ‘hung up’, worrying about correct spelling in their first draft. They have a deep, shared understanding of the importance of drafting in the writing process, and know that before they achieve their penultimate writing sample, they will write and polish many drafts. Writing is a work in progress. The  students’ miscues (Figure 2 below) show them  drawing  on a range of spelling knowledge, including phonology (actor, zoo keeper, designer), morphology  (keeper, photographer), etymology (Olympian), and demonstrated growing orthographic knowledge, for example, doubling the final consonant before adding the suffix, ‘er’ (swimmer).  They are engaged in and excited by the writing process and see writing as an opportunity to share the ideas that they are passionate about.

Spelling with students

Figure 2: Evidence of emerging spelling knowledge

As students’ progress through the grades, and write more complex words, sentences and stories to an increasingly wider audience, they draw on a range of spelling knowledge as most of the words in English are not phonetically regular.  Students require explicit instruction in a range of spelling knowledge in order to understand how words work. They need to know how to spell them correctly, as orthographic knowledge (correct spelling) is a highly valued skill in society (Crystal, 2012; Daffern, 2016a; Adoniou, 2016). As they move into primary, students’ alphabetic knowledge no longer suffices to satisfy their growing hunger for words. It is estimated that by about Year 3, around 75% of words that students encounter in texts are not phonetically regular, so students need to draw on all four forms of spelling knowledge to read and write words (Carlisle, 2010).

Environment print

Figure 3: Student drawing on environmental print as an authoritative spelling source.

English K-6 Syllabus focus on spelling

We can see evidence of the privileging of phonological skills in the early grades in the English K-10 syllabus document. While the outcomes for Stages 1 to 3 are quite similar, the content points provide the depth of learning to support students to deepen their spelling knowledge, skills and understanding. Spelling falls under Objective A in the English syllabus, which relates to communicating ‘through speaking, listening, reading, writing, viewing and representing’. In Early Stage 1, sound-based spelling approaches dominate. There is an emphasis on the constrained skills, those skills which students usually master early as a basis for further literacy learning. Letter- sound knowledge is a highly constrained skill. Constrained skills are those reading skills, like phonemic awareness, which are learned quickly and once mastered, do not usually need to be further addressed (Paris, 2005). Students are learning to hear, then read and write sounds to make words.

Early reader

Figure 4: Early reader demonstrating growing knowledge of the alphabetic principle

More than half of the content dot points in Early Stage 1 in the English K-10 syllabus relate specifically to phonology and approximately a quarter relate to morphology (p.40). The remaining content points relate to known words in addition to high frequency and sight words, those words that make up more than half of all words in print, many of which cannot be blended or segmented (Adoniou, 2016). Through early writing, students make connections between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters), providing opportunities to practise and apply their growing awareness of language and how it works. It is tricky terrain trying to decipher students’ early independent writing attempts. However, it is important that we try hard to do so because by seeking to understand students’ intended written messages, we are valuing their work, and encouraging them to produce further writing. By also providing opportunities for students to read their written messages to others, we are teaching them to ‘make meaning through language’ in their texts, the key underpinning of our English K-10 Syllabus (p.24).

In Stage 1 (S1), there are thirteen spelling content dot points. The skills build on the phonology and morphology introduced in ES1 to include increasingly specific dot points relating to morphology in S1. For example, ‘recognise common prefixes and suffixes and how they change a word’s meaning’ (English K-10 Syllabus, p.63). In S1, students are using their knowledge of letter-sound correspondence and combining their growing awareness of regular spelling patterns and sight words, to create texts. Etymology is introduced in the content dot points of Stage 1, demonstrating the importance of knowing how English has been influenced by other languages from around the world and the necessity for teachers to explicitly teach this knowledge to students, to support both spelling and vocabulary development. The history of English is a high interest historical narrative that should be shared. The NLLP sub-element of Spelling provides detail to support the teaching of this content in the classroom. It offers specific observable behaviours that we can look for in work samples to determine student progress. To support effective knowledge integration, students should be exposed to explicit and systematic teaching by way of the modelled, guided and independent teaching outlined in the teaching and learning cycle (NSW Department of Education, 2016a). The Gradual Release of Responsibility model provides a framework for supporting students through its four interrelated components:

  • Modelled – ‘I do’
  • Guided – ‘We do’
  • Collaborative – ‘You do’ (in pairs or small groups)
  • Independent – ‘You do’ (alone)

(Pearson & Gallagher, 1983; Bengisu & Ates, 2016)

In Stage 2, students move from using their visual knowledge to spell familiar words, to developing a range of strategies to support them in spelling less familiar words. There is a focus on spelling rules while also investigations into regular and irregular spelling patterns. The use of context to support spelling is also recognised, particularly in relation to the use of homophones. There is a continued focus in the syllabus on the value of students’ understanding the etymology of words to continually deepen their spelling knowledge and build their love of the English language. At the completion of Stage 3, we are aiming for students to draw on a variety of strategies that are based on the four forms of spelling knowledge when creating texts.

In summary, spelling instruction in Early Stage 1 begins with a strong phonological focus which Stage 1 then builds upon this while moving towards an emphasis on morphology and the introduction of etymology. Stage 2 emphasises the development of a broad range of strategies for students to use when creating texts and Stage 3 brings all prior learning into practice through the use of integrated strategies that draw on all four forms of spelling knowledge. This is evidenced in the table below:

Four forms of spelling knowledge

Table 1: Syllabus content dot points referencing the four forms of spelling knowledge

Table 1 above shows that phonological, visual and morphological spelling skills are referred to across all syllabus stages K-6. Etymology is a focus from S1 onwards, demonstrating the importance of integrating all forms of spelling knowledge from an early age.

Let’s talk about sight words

Some teachers and education source books use the terms ‘high frequency words’ and ‘sight words’ synonymously. However they are not the same. High frequency words can be phonetically regular, meaning that they can be blended and/ or segmented. They are those words which occur frequently in reading and writing. Juxtaposed to this, sight words cannot be easily blended and/ or segmented, and need to be recognised on sight. Sight words originate from a particular time and place in the history of the English language and the way they are spelt is a reminder of this. Students need to know both high frequency words and sight words to become fluent readers and writers, as it is estimated that high frequency words and sight words constitute about half of the words that we encounter in texts (Adoniou, 2016). Sight words and high frequency words need to be taught explicitly alongside letter sounds when teaching reading and writing in the early years (Konza, 2010; Ehri, 1997; Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998).

Explicit teaching

Figure 5: Explicit teaching of sight words and high frequency words


When we use morphemic knowledge to spell words, we are drawing on meaning cues. Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning within a word. Words can consist of only one morpheme, or can be made up of multiple morphemes. Root words and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) are the most common types of morphemes that make up our words in English. For example, to draw on morphological knowledge to teach the word ‘disappointment’, teachers would isolate the root word ‘appoint’, which is a French word, meaning ‘to arrange or resolve’.  The Latin prefix, ‘dis’ means ‘lack of’ or ‘not’. The Latin suffix, ‘ment’ denotes an action, and changes a verb to a noun, in this case from ‘disappoint’, to ‘disappointment’.

When students understand how words are constructed from morphemes, their spelling and vocabulary improves (Apel et al. 2013; Siegel, 2008; Adoniou, 2016). Reliance on phonological knowledge alone can be problematic for students when attempting to spell unfamiliar words. For example, when only using phonology, students may write ‘walkt’ to indicate the past tense of ‘walk’. However, being able to draw on the morphemic knowledge that the suffix ‘-ed’ indicates past tense, they would be able to correctly add ‘-ed’ instead of the ‘t’ that they hear when they say the word. It has been suggested that morphemes, rather than syllables, could be a more effective tool for students to use when spelling an unknown word (Apel et al. 2013; Siegel, 2008; Adoniou, 2016, Daffern, 2016a). This is because syllables break words down into isolated sound parts, rather than morphemes, which are meaningful units of a word. Morphemes generally retain their spelling, even when pronunciation changes, such as in the words ‘sign’ and ‘signal’.

Etymology in English

Spelling in the English language is not random as many people think, but a system based on morphology (units of meaning) with a captivating etymological history. Etymology is defined as ‘the historical and cultural origin of words’ (Daffern, 2016b, p.22). Familiarity with the origin of words provide useful clues as to how to correctly spell them. We will now outline a brief summary of the English language.

Following the Roman exodus from Britain around 55 CE (Common Era), when Celtic languages predominated, the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jute Germanic tribes contributed simple, practical words to English; like parts of the body, household items and food words. Next, the missionaries brought their Latin words to the English language. Latin was regarded as the language of Christianity. Words like ‘martyr’, ‘bishop’, and ‘font’ were integrated into English at that time, as was the Bible. Next, the Vikings invaded England from C8 - C11 and added words that described their warrior traditions and invasions of England; including ‘ransack’, ‘drag’, ‘thrust’ and ‘die’, helping to further shape the English language.  These were but a few of the words attributed to the Vikings at that time.

A significant historic event that impacted the evolution of English was the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. William the Conqueror and his Norman warriors brought with them a plethora of French words. French was regarded as the language of power and their additions to the language reflected this, including ‘judge’, ‘jury’, ‘justice’ and ‘evidence’. Latin was the language of the church however in contrast, the commoners spoke Anglo-Saxon. English farmers contributed words like ‘pig’, ‘sheep’, ‘cow’, and ‘swine’, whereas the upper classes, who chose to speak French, preferred the terms ‘beef’, ‘mutton’ and ‘pork’. Although Anglo-Saxon and French merged to form the basis of the English language we use today, many words have held their French traditions and spelling. French words continue to dominate restaurant menus to this day. It is estimated that the Norman conquest of England contributed 10 000 French words into English. Following the 100 Years’ War (1337- 1453), England took back the language of power from the French, reflected in words like ‘army’, ‘navy’ and ‘soldier’, entering the language (OpenLearn, 2012).

William Shakespeare is credited with contributing over 2000 words and phrases to the English language. Through his plentiful plays and poetry, he widely demonstrated to the world the capacity of the English language to engage the emotions.

Many of his famous works, for example ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate’ (Shakespeare, 1564-1616), have been absorbed into everyday English language that we use today. As with the revised King James Bible, many metaphors contained therein shape the ‘metaphor and morality’ (OpenLearn, 2012) that reflect how English is spoken and written today (British Council, 2011).

English scribes looked to ancient Latin and Greek words to describe new scientific discoveries as these were widely regarded as the academic languages. This practice continues today, for example the word ‘phishing’, related to stealing computer passwords, originates from the word ‘fishing’, meaning ‘waiting for something to be taken’. The ‘ph’ at the beginning of the word, instead of an ‘f’, is a Greek language feature, giving the new word technological kudos from an ancient language (OpenLearn, 2012; Adoniou, 2016). Other scientific and academic words that stem from Greek include android, philosophy, politics and technology.

The English began exploring the world, spreading their influence due to England’s growing global power and an accumulation of ‘loanwords’ (Crystal, 2011) flooding the language from other countries. From the Caribbean came the words ‘barbeque’, ‘canoe’, and ‘cannibal’. From India, ‘yoga’, ‘cummerbund’ and ‘bungalow’. From Africa, the words ‘voodoo’ and ‘zombie’ came to be added and from Australia, the words ‘nugget’, ‘walkabout’ and ‘boomerang’ were further colourful cultural additions to the English language.

The introduction of lexicographers and their production of dictionaries resulted in some standardisation of English spelling at last. Doctor Johnson authored, ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’, in 1755. This dictionary, although not the first, was widely regarded as influential, as was the first ‘Oxford Dictionary’ which was issued in instalments from 1884 to 1928 and was estimated to contain 42 000 entries (Wright, 2007).

The history of English in ten minutes’ by OpenLearn (11:20) takes a look at the history of the English language.

Waves of immigrants to England fed their hunger for words. As a taster, from America, we had 'cookies', and the language of capitalism including 'mergers' and 'downsizing'. The Germans added 'pretzels', and the Italians, 'pizza' and 'cannelloni'. The Americans adopted their own version of the English language with alternate words for a range of nouns and different spellings from standard English, for example 'color', 'theater', 'center' and word endings -ize instead of the standard English -ise. The differences in standard English and American English are widely attributed to Noah Webster of Webster's dictionary fame (1806), who believed that American English should be different from British English, demonstrating America's wish to be independent of Britain and the spelling of 'American English' words are claimed to be more closely linked to pronunciation (Crystal, 2012).

The introduction of the internet and emails from 1972, brought with it its own language, including 'download', 'toolbar', 'firewall' and a range of abbreviations including the ubiquitous 'IMHO' (in my humble opinion), 'UG2BK' (you've got to be kidding) and 'LOL', which commonly means laugh out loud, denoting humour, firstly in electronic communication but now adopted into everyday speech.

New words continue to be added to describe new inventions, creations and social trends in addition to the increasing inclusion of 'loanwords' from other languages. English has evolved through invasion, absorption and addition and has grown into a fully-fledged language, spoken by 1 500 million people across the globe. Many of the words and how they are spelt reflect where they come from and by teaching students the morphology and etymology of words, we are providing them with a range of spelling skills to draw on, and sharing the fascinating history of English, encouraging students to love language and use it well throughout life.

A brief timeline of the history of the English language summary can be seen below:

Timeline history of English Language (Adapted from Crystal, 2012)

Implications for teaching spelling

Teachers require a deep knowledge of the English language, including morphology and etymology, in order to teach spelling well to their students. (Carreker et al, 2010; Daffern, 2016a; Adoniou, 2016). An understanding of the metalanguage of spelling, as well as the ability to identify the specific spelling needs of students using student writing samples and drawing on the syllabus and NLLP, assists teachers in accurately identifying where students need to go next in their spelling development and how to get them there.

Teacher modelling of spelling strategies through the use of 'think-alouds' when writing, encourages students to incorporate these strategies into their own writing. Additionally, the availability of resources such as word walls and personal dictionaries assist students to locate correct forms of words to use in their writing when they need them. Many teachers use individual spelling diaries in their classrooms, in which students record new and unfamiliar words that they access when they wish to use them in their writing, fostering writing independence and use of correct forms of words.

There exists a plethora of websites and apps to support teachers in teaching the various forms of spelling knowledge. The NSW Department of Education (2016b) website, 'Identifying patterns and syllables in words, morphemic knowledge', provides a range of strategies and current links of useful teacher and student spelling resources.

Other resources for teachers that may be useful to teach morphemic knowledge can be found at the following websites:

We thoroughly enjoyed discussing the title of Gentry's (1982) spelling paper, interestingly called 'Gnys at Wrk', and rose to the challenge of collaboratively viewing the title through a morphological lens. The meaning of the word 'genius' has become more nuanced over time. It is now regarded as meaning 'possessing exceptional natural ability'. The word once had a more mystical meaning (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018). It originates from Latin, and stems from the word 'genie', a type of spirit. The suffix 'ius' is thought to be used in a similar way to 'ious', which changes a noun to an adjective, and means 'made of' or 'belonging to', think luxurious, made of luxury; and gracious meaning full of grace. So, genius comes from the root word genie, a clever, spiritual creature. It is commonly used today as both a noun and an adjective. We decided that 'wrk' was a 'graphological pun', an example of Gentry's (1982) early phonetic spelling stage, a window into his work. We include this example to show how discussions about metalanguage leads to fascinating collaboration both in the classroom with students and outside the classroom with peers, moving everyone's spelling knowledge forward. Talking about morphology in spelling contributes to building a genuine and lasting love of language.

Adoniou (2016) provides a useful list of common English morphemes for teachers, including prefixes, suffixes (together called affixes) and root words. These are further examples of how to use morphemic knowledge to spell words (p.100-110). Additionally, she provides a series of useful questions for teachers to assist them in scaffolding students in drawing on the four forms of spelling knowledge to spell unknown words:

Student: How do you spell, 'direction'?

Teacher: What does the word mean?

  • Is it made of any morphemes? Can you see any meaningful parts in the word?
  • Is it from another language?
  • Are there any spelling rules in the word that might help join the morphemes together?
  • What sounds can you hear in that word? Can they help you to spell the word?
  • Look at the word? Have you seen it written that way?
  • What other words have the same etymological, morphological or orthological similarities to this word? Act- ion, elect- ion, select - ion. ..

(adapted from Adoniou, 2016, p.50-51)


It is vital that students are provided with frequent opportunities to see, and hear their teachers using and explaining the forms of spelling knowledge during class writing lessons, explicitly modelling for students how to spell words. Students benefit from targeted class time to consolidate their growing spelling skills through authentic writing tasks and interactions with quality texts. Students need to write every day including a variety of writing activities in a range of contexts, leading to the ultimate goal of becoming better spellers and writers. Increased time to write enhances students' spelling skills, at the same time increasing both their reading and writing performance (Beveridge, 1988). Student spelling skills do not improve through disconnected weekly spelling lists (or tests). It is also unlikely that students benefit much from commercial spelling programs that teach spelling out of context, in a sequential way, even though these practices are omnipresent in our education culture and have been the norm for a long time (Graham, Harris & Chambers, 2015; Graham, et al., 2012; Adoniou, 2016; Daffern 2016b; Beveridge, 1988). Spelling is a tool for writing and this is the best place to teach spelling, in the reading-writing classroom, not in a separate spelling lesson that often consists of drill and practice of words that have little significance for students (NSW Department of Education, 2003), separate from their current literacy learning.

Our English K-10 Syllabus, and the NLLP, are authoritative, useful sources that support teachers to plan, implement and assess the spelling skills that students demonstrate they have achieved in their writing, and move them forward in their learning. By using the quality texts that students enjoy in their class literacy programs, and the words that students use in their own writing to explicitly teach spelling, the words are meaningful to them and they have a personal incentive to learn to spell them. By basing classroom spelling programs on student spelling needs identified through their writing samples, the teaching of spelling is individualised and contextualised. There is a clear purpose for students to learn to spell, so they can use the words that they know and love in their writing and share it with the world. Students are learning to spell the words that are important to them, growing an enduring affection for the English language and its rich, fascinating history. Spelling is a tool for writing, and as such, students become better spellers by increasing the time that they spend actually writing.

Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

It will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;

Tear in eye your dress you'll tear.
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it?

Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,

Sword and sward, retain and Britain,
(Mind the latter, how it's written!)

(Abadi, 2017)


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How to cite this article – Beveridge, L & Lieschke, J. (2019). Let’s look at spelling. Scan 38(1).

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