Teaching children strategies for learning to spell words is incredibly important and providing lots of rehearsal opportunities is vital if words that have been learned are going to be transferred into long term memory rather than just forgotten. However, doing these things still doesn't mean that children will automatically start correctly spelling the words that they have learned in their own writing.
As with learning words and rehearsing words, we have to explicitly teach children how to apply their spelling knowledge in their own independent writing, they need to remember to access that knowledge and know how to go about doing it in a systematic way. It simply isn't something that children always automatically figure out for themselves.
Children can't build their confidence in applying words they have learnt to spell if they aren't given opportunities to use those words in their own writing. It is really difficult to plan lessons and then try, as an afterthought, to squeeze in opportunities to use the words that have been learned in spelling lessons. Whilst planning, consider having out on the table a list of words from the current spelling unit (and any phonics learning from the week for children still working on phonics). It is then possible to spot opportunities as they arise (without too much extra mental effort) and make notes on planning about which words could fit in nicely in different places. On some occasions, it can be really tricky to fit the words into what the children are learning in other areas of the curriculum. If this happens, it could be worth questioning whether these are the right words to be learning at this time.
Lessons that involve children doing any writing at all provide opportunities to apply spellings. In addition, role play areas can be used (with a bit of adaption they can work brilliantly in KS2 as well) to give great opportunities for writing (labels, posters, leaflets, form filling, lists, receipts, postcards, letters, factsheets, etc etc etc). Writing areas in the classroom can also give opportunities. If you have a selection of fun writing task cards available for children to use independently, you can easily add a couple of new tasks that will involve children using specific words you are learning. If you add these to the pack of cards, children may also choose to come back and revisit them over time which will further reinforce learning. These tasks can also make great independent activities during guided reading sessions. In addition, if you challenge children to take responsibility for trying to use words they have learned during spelling sessions, they will often find opportunities that you might not otherwise have thought of.
In shared writing, model the thought processes involved in trying to spell words. Follow a clear routine such as Route to spelling. Ask yourself whether you already know how to spell the word (children often miss this vital step out and skip straight to guessing words that they know perfectly well) and show that if you do remember a word that you have learned successfully in spelling sessions, you can quickly recall it and get it right. At other times pretend that you don't recall the word perfectly and instead follow the other steps in the routine: saying it out loud, soundtalking it, putting in the phonically regular bits, thinking about the tricky bits and recalling what you learned during spelling sessions about those tricky bits.
Concentrate on modelling a balance between thinking carefully about words that have been learned whilst also emphasising that children shouldn't get bogged down in spelling and that the content of their writing is vitally important. Model making bold word choices and not being limited if you don't know how to spell particular words (or are pretending that you don't). "Ooh, I love that word. It really builds up strong pictures in my head. I don't think I can figure out how to spell it perfectly because it isn't one we've learned yet so I'll come back and check it properly when I proofread because right now the ideas are flowing and I want to get them down."
Children need to clearly know:
- What they are expected to spell correctly in lessons.
- What they are not expected to spell correctly in lessons (e.g. words that they can't reasonably be expected to know or work out independently).
- What they are expected to do in order to 'Have a go' at spelling words that they don't yet know.
- When and how to get help from other children or adults.
- When and how to help other children who ask for help with a particular spelling.
- How important correct spellings are compared with other aspects of writing - this may well vary from lesson to lesson.
The first 'Need to know' planning unit includes ideas for setting up expectations for spelling at the start of the year.
Some children will need a lot of training and reinforcement to apply spelling effectively. Some, especially those who were late learning phonics for one reason or another, have often become so used to randomly guessing how to spell words that they find it very difficult to stop guessing (often wrongly) even very simple words that they have learned effectively and could easily get right. Other children are so convinced that getting spellings wrong is a terrible thing that they can be very reluctant to write and will ask someone else how to spell every single word. Others, who have a natural spelling ability, have never really had to figure out spellings so when they encounter (as eventually everyone does) words which are outside their experience, they don't know how to start trying to crack them.
The solution for all these children is to train them to see spelling words in their own writing as a process that they can learn and that they can continue to learn from. It helps to have clear expectations that if a child wants help from an adult or another child, they must first have gone through the steps of the spelling routine on a whiteboard or scrap paper or a spelling journal. Therefore, when they do ask for help, instead of it being an admission of failure ("I can't spell it!), they can show their attempt and say, "I'm trying to spell 'people'. I think I've got the start and the end of the word right but I'm not sure the grapheme I used for the /ee/ sound is right. It doesn't look right. Can you help me?" Children are usually very keen to help other children and they quickly get the idea that they are only really helping other children when the child doing the asking has first gone through the process themselves and can show their attempts.
When a clear routine is in place that everyone in class can follow, it can make a huge difference to children's self esteem issues around spelling as they are no longer failing to spell words and having it done for them, they are taking responsibility for figuring out almost all of a word and simply asking for a specific piece of information. The other huge bonus is that it can free up a huge amount of teacher time that used to be spent telling/showing children how to spell words that they could have figured out for themselves.
Celebrating learning rather than just correct spellings
Encourage children, in plenaries or by looking back through books in spelling sessions to find examples of words that they have recently learned in spelling sessions and have successfully spelt correctly on their own. These could be colour coded or marked with a star or marked in keeping with the school's marking code. This should be celebrated. However, it should also be stressed that the most important thing in spelling (and in life) is not getting things right first time. Instead it is important to be learning new things and to understand that making mistakes is a fantastic opportunity to learn something new. Encourage children in plenaries to proudly share words that they got wrong but then noticed and corrected or that they had to think really hard over and maybe ask for help with a particular bit. Getting things right today gives us success today only. Having an attitude where we can get things wrong and learn from them is the recipe for ensuring ongoing success.