StarSpell 3 Spelling Guide - How spelling works

This Guide aims to demystify how spelling is learned. It shows smart ways to help learners, both using StarSpell and with activities away from the computer. All the practice in the Guide is based on actual classroom experience

How spelling works

A full spelling programme

The complete experience of learning to spell has many components, some broad, some carefully focused on detail.

An essential component of learning to spell is real writing - writing for many purposes and for different audiences. It is through writing that knowledge of spelling is both developed and put to use. In writing the learner crafts and drafts and edits (referring as needed to word-bank, dictionary or spell-checker). This broad area of spelling experience is essential.

Just as essential is attention to all the fine details of words, which is where StarSpell fits in. It contributes to the detailed, close study of the mechanisms of spelling. That study has two strands:

1. Direct teaching of what to learn, and ways in which to learn it.

2. Generous and varied practice to consolidate that learning.

StarSpell is a resource for both strands.

A balanced spelling diet

Learning to spell involves a balance of three approaches. This Guide calls them Listen & Build, Look & Learn and Work within Words. These labels were coined as catchy descriptors to help learners understand their own learning methods, offering them a handle on the learning strategies they will be employing.

So, learning to spell has three ingredients. As with any balanced diet, each ingredient makes its own vital contribution. Furthermore, working on one doesn't mean we ignore the others.

The three approaches

· Listen & Build involves hearing the sounds that make up a word, and knowing how to write each sound.

· Look & Learn involves looking at a word and remembering what is seen.

· Work within Words involves understanding how words work: spelling rules, origins of words, families of words, etc.

There are other names for these approaches. So you will recognise that StarSpell's Listen & Build covers phonics, Look & Learn relies on visual memorisation and Work within Words takes learners into the area of language study. There are various other traditional descriptions, such as "sounding it out", "learning word lists or spelling lists", and "learning spelling rules". These familiar terms are rather less helpful because they refer to only part of the whole approach.

The three approaches are later described in detail. Here is a brief summary of each.

Listen & Build: summary

When using the Listen & Build approach, spellers learn to say the word, hear its sounds, and build it.

Learning how to do this includes the following tasks:

· Firstly, gaining a basic awareness of the way words are made up of separate sounds

· Learning the letter-sound matches, that is, learning the "code" that specifies which letter (or pair/group of letters) stands for which sound; that is one important part of phonics

· Learning the other important part of phonics, phonic skills: how to blend these letter-sound matches in reading, and how to build them, in spelling

· Learning about syllables, and how to build syllables into words.

Look & Learn: summary

When using the Look & Learn approach, spellers learn to examine the word, and "photo" it in their memory.

Learning how to do this includes the following tasks:

· Practising the Look-Cover-Write-Check routine, known for short as LCWC

· Developing a sense of "what looks wrong"

· Hooking the spellings of words to mnemonics.

Work within Words: summary

When using the Work within Words approach, spellers learn to consider the meaning of the word and its parts; and how these affect spelling.

Learning how to do this includes the following tasks:

· Learning about parts of words that add meaning, such as the …ing ending, etc.

· Learning spelling rules

· Discovering "word families"

· Learning about word origins.

The three approaches work together

This Guide will show you how the three approaches, Listen & Build, Look & Learn and Work within Words, sit together throughout the journey to competent spelling.

At the same time, they will explain in much more detail how to go about those tasks that belong to each approach.

But before that, we tell the story of how spelling develops. It lists and describes the different stages of development in their typical order.

StarSpell's structure explains how to find your way around StarSpell.

You may delve a little further into learning to spell by reading The trouble with spelling, or go straight to A route to competent spelling.

The Trouble with Spelling

Learning to spell can sometimes feel overwhelming, a task too big, too hit-and-miss.

And indeed there are genuine reasons for this sensation:

1. Spelling is not one single skill, but several skills.

2. The English spelling system truly is quite complicated.

For that first reason, we clarify things by identifying the skills as three clusters, Listen & Build, Look & Learn and Work within Words. Their very names help learners understand the skills they need.

To address the second reason, StarSpell provides built-in support through the way its lists are organised. Furthermore, it directly targets the problem through specific activities.

The Complexities of English Spelling

The English spelling system is quite complicated.

To begin with, it's actually not one system, but two: a sounds system and a word-parts system.

Sounds system

Words are made up of letters which represent speech sounds; so we have a sounds, or phonemic, system (a phoneme being a speech sound).

We can define this system as a code, in which each sound of a spoken word is written ("encoded") as a letter or combination of letters (e.g. s, sh, aigh). Each written depiction of a sound is known as a grapheme.

Word-parts system

But words are also made up of word parts, or units of meaning, known as morphemes; so we also have a word-parts, or morphemic, system.

The word-parts (morphemic) system utilises certain word parts to change the meaning of a word; for instance:

· The ing as in hold + ing → holding

· The er as in cold + er → colder

· The un as in un + happy → unhappy.

The complexities within each system

As well as dealing with two systems running along together, English spellers have to cope with various complexities within each system.

First, the sounds system

This is intricate for three reasons:

1. Spoken English is made up of 48 sounds. But the alphabet has only 26 letters. Therefore, letters have to combine in partnerships and groups (e.g. or, aigh) to complete the required tally of 48.

2. Yet the number of letter-combinations goes way beyond the necessary 48. In fact, the 48 sounds are represented by some 220 letter-combinations (largely because English has evolved from several languages).

3. And finally (again, because English has evolved from several languages), the matches between sounds and letters are not totally consistent. On the one hand, some letters and letter-combinations can represent more than one sound (e.g. apple, acorn; now, snow). On the other hand, some sounds can be represented by more than one letter combination (e.g. show, chef, sure). (This aspect of the system is sometimes referred to as 'multiple mapping'.)

Second, the word-parts System

This is less intricate. Yet it does produce spelling flash points where meaningful word parts join, e.g. dance + ing → dancing; big + er→ bigger.

In general, these junctions are governed by learnable rules.

How StarSpell Tackles the Complexities of English Spelling

StarSpell has two key components to help learners grasp the English spelling system: StarSpell's organisation, and the StarSpell activities.

StarSpell's Organisation

StarSpell's organisation clarifies both facets of English spelling: the sounds system and the word-parts system.

The sounds system

Throughout StarSpell, the word list that deal with letter-sound matches are carefully graded, and each is helpfully labelled. Such thoughtful organisation supports phonic learning.

This organisation holds good for the three sections that comprise StarSpell:

· StarSpell Lists

· Phonics Lists

· Yr2 to KS3 Support.

These are explained further in StarSpell's structure.

The Phonics section begins with single letter-sound matches, then goes on to sounds represented by letter-combinations. Finally it covers alternative pronunciations and alternative spellings; that is, the aspect of the sounds-system we described above as 'multiple mappings'.[*]

The StarSpell Lists route follows StarSpell's own carefully graded phonic sequence.

The Yr2 to KS3 Support section has a term-based approach to support spelling. It also has lists of important words valuable for Key Stage 3 together with lists of curriculum subject-specific words

For more about list organisation in support of the sounds system, see Learning letter-sound matches in Early Phonics.

The word-parts system

Two of the three StarSpell sections are organised to include lists that support work on word parts: syllables and morphemes. The two sections, the StarSpell Lists and Yr2 to KS3 Support, are clearly signposted to take learners to their chosen area of word-part study.

For instance, in the StarSpell Lists, Prefixes Suffixes Roots is important, since it acts as a graded word-bank. It has lists covering word-parts for plurals, verb tenses and comparatives. In addition, it groups prefixes and suffixes as Old English, Latin or Greek, which brings home how spelling difficulty increases. Old English words are the easiest, Greek words the hardest. The lists for word roots help learners to understand word origins.

Yr2 to KS3 Support also gives several opportunities to investigate this aspect of learning to spell, organised in accordance with the DfE programme of work Support for Spelling.

Activities in StarSpell

The sounds system is comprehensively supported by a range of StarSpell activities, helping learners to:

· Gain a basic awareness of the way words are made up of separate sounds

· Learn letter-sound matches, comprising the "code" that specifies which letter (or combination of letters) stands for which sound

· Learn phonic skills: how to blend and build these letter-sound matches

· Learn about syllables, and how to build syllables into words.

The word-parts system is addressed through a range of StarSpell activities which help learners to:

· Learn about parts of words, such as the '-ing' ending, etc.

· Generalise spelling rules

· Discover 'word families'

· Learn about word origins.

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