Spelling guidelines

These spelling conventions and guidelines can help you refine your teaching approaches. Learn about some common recurring mistakes children make when learning words, and how find simple ways they can correct them.

Phoneme position

  • The position of a phoneme in a word can rule out certain graphemes that can work with it. The 'ai' and 'oi' spellings don't occur at the end of English words or immediately before suffixes. Instead, the 'ay' and 'oy' spellings are used in these positions (e.g. 'play', 'played', 'playing', 'playful', 'joy', 'joyful', 'enjoying', 'enjoyment').
  • In other positions, the /ai/ sound is most often spelled 'ai' or a- consonant- vowel, as in 'rain', 'date' and 'bacon'. The same principle applies in choosing between 'oi' and 'oy' ('oy' is used at the end of a word or immediately before a suffix, and 'oi' is used elsewhere. There is no other spelling for this phoneme.
  • When you are first teaching this, simply pronounce the relevant vowel sounds for children (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/; /ai/, /ee/, /igh/, /oa/ and /oo/). Later the terms 'long' and 'short' can be useful when children need to form more general concepts about spelling patterns.

The 'w special' and sound conventions

  • When an /o/ sound follows a /w/ sound, it is frequently spelt with the letter 'a' (e.g. 'was', 'wallet', 'want', 'wash', 'watch', 'wander'). This is often referred to as the 'w special'. This extends to many words where the /w/ sound comes from the 'qu' grapheme (e.g. 'quarrel', 'quantity', 'squad', 'squash').
  • When an /ur/ sound follows the letter 'w' (but not 'qu') it is usually spelt 'or' (e.g. 'word', 'worm', 'work', 'worship', 'worth'). The important exception is 'were'.
  • An /or/ sound before an /l/ sound is frequently spelled with the letter 'a' (e.g. 'all', 'ball', 'call', 'always').

Words ending in 'v'

English words do not end in the letter 'v' unless they are abbreviations (e.g. 'rev'). If a word ends in a /v/ sound, e must be added after the v in the spelling (e.g. 'give', 'have', 'live', 'love', 'above').

This may seem confusing, because it suggests that the vowels should have their 'long' sounds (as in 'alive', 'save' and 'stove') but in fact there are very few words in the 'give'/'have' category (i.e. words with short vowels). They are mostly common words and are quickly learned.

Using elisions

  • Examples of elisions (sometimes known as contractions) include, 'I'm', 'let's' and 'can't'.
  • Children usually find them easy to spell, but can struggle to know where to put the apostrophe.
  • Teach them that it marks the place where letters are omitted.

The 'their' and 'there' confusion

  • Confusions are common between 'their' and 'there' and can persist unless appropriate teaching is given.
  • 'There' is related in meaning and spelling to 'here' and 'where' (all are concerned with place).
  • 'Their 'is related in meaning (plural person) and spelling to 'they' and 'them'.
  • To avoid confusing children, it is advisable not to teach 'there' and 'their' at the same time because they sound very similar. Secure the understanding of one of them before teaching the other.
  • An additional problem with the word 'their' is its unusual letter order. However, if children know that 'they', 'them' and 'their' share the same first three letters, they are less likely to misspell 'their' as 'thier'.

The schwa sound

  • Giving vowel graphemes their full value in reading can help with the spelling of the schwa sound.
  • If children initially sound out the word 'important' using a clear /a/ sound in the last syllable, this will help them to remember to spell the schwa sound in that syllable with the letter 'a' rather than with any other vowel letter.
  • In deciding whether to use 'ant' or 'ent', 'ance' or 'ence' at the end of a word, consider whether there is a related word where the vowel sound is more clearly pronounced.
  • When deciding between 'occupant' or 'occupent' the related word 'occupation' shows that the vowel letter must be 'a'. Another example is 'residance' or 'residence', where the word 'residential' shows that the letter must be 'e'.

The 'i' before 'e' except after 'c' rule

This rule is not worth teaching as it only applies to words where the 'ie' or 'ei' stands for a clear /ee/ sound. Unless children fully understand this, words such as 'sufficient', 'veil' and 'their' look like exceptions. There are so few words where the 'ei' spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter 'c' that it is easier to learn the specific words:

  • 'receive'
  • 'conceive'
  • 'perceive
  • 'ceiling'
  • 'deceive' (and the related words 'receipt', 'conceit', 'deceit').