A Step at a Time

Synthetic Phonics

Learning to Spell

Learning to spell is definitely more difficult than learning to read. This is mainly due to the complexity of the English language, which has so many different spellings for the same sound. For example, the sound 'or' can be represented by the following spellings: 'aw', 'au', 'oar', 'our', 'oor', 'al' and 'ar' (after a 'w').

So, even if a child has the above sound/spelling knowledge, they will still need to know which particular sound spelling they should use for each individual word.

Many words will need to be learnt on an individual basis; however, there are many 'rules' or generalisations that can help a child to pick the correct spelling. For example, if the child was spelling a word ending in the 'or' sound you could rule out using the spelling 'au'. This is because some letters are just not commonly found at the end of a word. Those letters are: 'u', 'i', 'j', 'v' and 'q'.

For a further example, consider another word such as: 'boy'. The sound 'oi' can be represented by either the 'oi' or 'oy' spellings. We know that the letter 'i' is not commonly found at the end of a word, so what spelling is it likely to be?

So whilst our language is complex, we can simplify it by understanding a little more about what is likely (or not likely) to happen.

There are many different methods that are used to teach children to spell and most of those methods are discussed below.


Segmenting is a learnt skill. When you segment you break apart a word into its individual spoken sounds. For example, 'cat' segmented would be: c-a-t. Like everything else in life, some children will find it difficult to master whilst others will take to it like ducks to water.

Segmenting allows a child to get the sound spellings in the correct order, therefore they are unlikely to mix up letters e.g. spelling 'like': 'lkie'. It takes the guessing out of spelling and the child doesn't have to rely on just their visual memory for recall.

The skill of segmenting spoken words can be learnt (by preschoolers) quite informally in play through parental role modelling, playing with words and games. To begin with the child will be learning to isolate the initial sound as it is the easiest. The child will probably find that the ending sound will be the next sound that they can hear. Then lastly, the most difficult sound/s to hear, the middle sound/s.

Please see our Teaching Preschool Children page and also the games to the right for some activity ideas. If you wish to teach segmenting more formally please see the example of a segmenting lesson to the left.

Learning the Sounds and 'Rules' of the Language

In order to use segmenting and to understand our language better, it is helpful for a child to know all of the sounds (and their spellings) and the generalised 'rules' of our language. Obviously there is no point in a child segmenting a word and then not knowing what letters or combination of letters make that sound!

If you choose to teach your child the sounds and rules of the language, how you do it is completely up to you. You do not need to spend any money if you don't wish to (or can't afford to), it is a question of what you prefer and how much time you have available.

To get an idea of the sounds of our language, you could visit 'The Sounds of the English Language' page or see Debbie Hepplewhite's alphabetic code overview through the Reading Reform. If you are interested in understanding some of the spelling 'rules', you could visit this website.

You could simply teach your child a sound every few days (ensuring that you revise the sounds that they do know as well). Then make some word lists for the child to practice spelling, using both their known sounds and their new sound. A site that will help you to make word lists is this site.

Word Patterns

It is common with mixed methods teaching for children to be taught more about the sounds and 'rules' of our language by using word family (analogy phonics) activities, rhyming or looking at patterns in general. If you are after some more information, activities and worksheets on word families you could visit this site.

Different Methods Used to Memorise the Spelling of Words

Look, Cover, Write and Check Method

Many teachers like children to use the Look, Cover, Write and Check method. This method relies on the child's visual memory to recall the correct spelling. To use this method the child needs to look at the word they must spell, then cover it with their hand and write the word. Once they have finished writing the word they should lift their hand and check to see if the word is spelt correctly.


Mnemonics is generally used for those words that are seen as particularly tricky. Mnemonics uses the initial letter of each word in a sentence/caption to spell out a word. For example, the word 'because' could be remembered by memorising the saying: 'Big elephants can always understand small elephants'.

Say it as it Sounds

A trick for spelling words such as 'Wednesday', 'button' or in fact any irregular word where we pronounce it differently to how it is written, is for the child to say the word how it should be pronounced. For example, Wednesday should be pronounced: 'W-e-d-n-e-s-d-ay', 'button' should be pronounced: 'b-u-tt-o-n'.

Visual Prompts

This is a concept that I am personally playing with at the moment. More information and resources will be on the website very soon.

As previously discussed, one of the most difficult things about spelling is that many sounds can be represented by different spellings. With visual prompts any word that a child is having difficulty deciding on the correct sound spelling for should become relatively easy to learn. They will simply be reminded of which spelling to use by a visual prompt.


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The Different Types of Phonics

Different Methods to Teach Literacy

The Sounds of the English Language

Learning to Spell

Spelling Rules

Literacy Curriculums

Free Online Games

My Personal Preference

Teaching Preschool Children

Re-teaching Struggling Students

Homeschooled Children

Links and Extra Information

Printable Worksheets and Resources


Segmenting Games

Please find below a few simple games that you can play with your young child/ren to teach segmenting (and general phonological and phonemic awareness) skills to get you started.

* Play 'I Spy' using the letter sound not the letter name.

* Whilst driving in the car get the child to say a word - it could be an object or animal that they can see or just a random word. Once the child has said the word, you need to say it back to them, but segment it e.g. the child says: 'tree', you respond: 't-r-ee'. The roles can also be reversed.

* Using magnetic letters or letters written on card, spell a word. You could also use this opportunity to help the child spell the word. Once the word has been spelt, get the child to shut their eyes. Now steal a 'sound'. If you wish you can use a puppet - a puppet whose sneaky character takes sounds. Once you have stolen a sound it is up to the child to work out what sound is missing by using their segmenting skills.

* In a cloth bag put a range of different objects. The game is for the child to put their hand into the bag and to grasp an object. Before the object is taken out of the bag, it must be named. Ensure that the child segments the word before they pull it out e.g. if it was a pen, they need to say: 'p-e-n'. Alternatively, for beginners, they could just isolate the initial sound of the object.



A Segmenting Lesson

To formally teach a young child to segment to spell you could start by choosing a range of three letter words which can be easy illustrated. Then print off (or draw) a picture for each one.

Place one of the pictures in front of the child. For this example we will say it is a dog. Ask the child whilst pointing to the picture: "What is this?" : "a dog" they will answer. "What is the first sound you can hear in dog?" For a start you might also like to emphasize the first sound: 'd-og' for them. Encourage them to say the word slowly. Remember that most children will need quite a bit of help to begin with.

Once the child has isolated the first sound they can either write that sound on a piece of paper or use some other medium such as a magnetic letter.

Now get them to say the name of the pictured animal/object again: "dog", and then come back down to what they have written (or constructed) for them to sound out their first sound (d___) and listen for the next sound. Give them lots of help and encouragement, for example: 'dog' : 'd__', 'dog': 'd__'.

Once they have isolated the second sound get them to write it down: (do_). Simply repeat the process for the next sound.

Remember to support them even if you end up almost giving them each sound. There is no rush to be independent and it is better that they learn positively rather than struggle.

If you would like to see a video clip of children being taught to segment, please watch the fifth video to the right on this website.