How to choose a whole school spelling program

5 things to consider when choosing a whole school spelling programHow do you choose a whole school spelling program??

Let’s be honest, teaching spelling explicitly has kind of fallen out of fashion in recent years.
For a while there, we all got a little obsessive about writing composition. But word knowledge skills inform overall composition.
Some of these skill areas include;
sentence construction
linking, text structure
and last, but definitely not least… SPELLING.
Why is spelling so important?
Being able to spell automatically and fluently (without thinking and at speed) is essential for getting the job done.
If conscious attention is required for spelling, little working memory is left to remember what you wanted to say. Students who find spelling challenging will often reduce their vocabulary and use to words they can spell. This hinders their ability to show what they know.
For poor spellers, speed of handwriting can be significantly slowed as they labour over each word. They are often unable to re-read their own work, making comprehension, let alone editing impossible. Poor spelling affects almost all levels and stages of writing composition.
Some argue that in the age of spell checkers spelling skills aren’t needed, but spell check can only help you can get it to guess what you’re trying to write.
Spelling skills are required for fast and accurate expression and therefore, spelling is best thought of as a component of writing.
Many children struggle with spelling for a variety of reasons; having English as an additional language or dialect (EALD)
having dyslexia or dysgraphia
poor teaching
lack of access to literature
For these students, a more direct approach that breaks English code down is required for success. The difficulties weak spelling skills cause are not limited to school.
Entrance demands now placed on almost every applicant most often include some level of spelling skill;
CVs are often disregarded for spelling or grammar
mandatory English and Maths tests for entry-level jobs
entry exams for TAFE and apprenticeships etc.
Even if some feel spelling has become redundant, it seems the workforce does not agree.
Approaches to teaching spelling can be somewhat ad hoc within schools, with year levels using different programs. Sometimes individual teachers choose how and when they teach spelling.
It’s important we don’t leave any children behind when it comes to spelling proficiently. The best way to make sure there are no gaps left is by using an evidence-based whole school approach.
Ask yourself these 5 questions before you make a choice about how to conduct spelling teaching in your school and you’ll be on the right track.


1. Choose a program that follows a whole school progression.

This one is crucial. Teachers throughout the year levels need to be working systematically from the same program. Teachers need to know where their students have come from and where they are going next. A whole school progression that specifies the order to teach English patterns is critical. It doesn’t really matter which progression you follow, provided you have one and that it’s evidence-based.

Evidence shows that systematic, explicit teaching has significant positive effects on student learning.

2. Does the program teach phonics, morphology and etymology?

Also really important! English is morphophonemic, not phonetic as is often thought. This means our spelling system is informed by meaning, history and sounds, not just sounds. Students are often introduced to basic phonics early in their school life. Then they’re expected to absorb higher level spelling through exposure.
This can lead to a weak understanding of higher level phonic patterns such as ‘aw’ and ‘au’ making the /or/ sound. Failure to teach morphology and etymology leads to students being ‘stuck’ spelling phonetically.
For example, many people think the spelling of ‘two’ is a perfect example of how crazy and random English spelling is. It’s often taught as a ‘sight word’, a word that doesn’t make sense that you just have to memorise. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The ‘w’ in ‘two’ is a historical link to its relatives;
Students need to be explicitly taught about all the influences on English spelling.


3. Choose a program that gives teachers expert levels of word knowledge.

One of the main reasons teachers can be reluctant to teach something, even when they know it is of benefit to the students is lack of confidence or subject-specific knowledge.
Many primary trained teachers feel confident in the teaching of phonics, but far fewer teachers are confident in morphology and etymology.
While programs are great, they can neither replace nor act as a substitute for deep content knowledge of the teacher.
Whichever spelling program you choose for your school, make sure PD takes place around word level knowledge.
When teachers have in-depth word level knowledge, they are able to pass a full understanding of the influences on spelling to students.
Without it.. well, you cannot teach what you do not know.


4. Are students allowed to work at the level that is right for them?

Spelling programs need to have a clear progression, but this doesn’t mean that students should be forced to work at a particular level.
It’s important to assess where each student is and assign appropriate lists from that point. A simple way to achieve this is to pre-test. From there, teachers decide which patterns they are yet to learn.
This means that we don’t waste time teaching things they already know. We also don’t leave gaps at lower levels.
Flexible grouping can help with this. Teachers bring together groups that need to learn specific patterns during spelling instruction time.
This ensures each student is working on patterns they need to consolidate.


5. Choose a program that provides revision and repetition.

Most children will pick up spelling skills without too much trouble. However, for the bottom 20-40%, it will be much harder. In our eagerness to progress our students as fast as we possibly can, we sometimes rush the students through the curriculum. This can have disastrous consequences for at-risk students.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but assigning fewer words in lists and revising more often can increase the number of words a student can spell . Why? Because memory occurs better when there’s less overload.
Consolidating 8 words a week is better than attempting 20 and scoring 2. Reducing the number SPEEDS UP the rate of learning, and preserves the student’s self-esteem in the process. Kids are more likely to engage when their score is 8/8 rather than 2/20. Maintaining the child’s willingness to try is critical for success, especially for struggling students.
And the most important one for luck – choose a spelling program that is EVIDENCE-BASED.
And crucially…
Which ever program you choose, it must have the backing of scientific research.
NOT anecdotal evidence.
NOT case studies.
NOT story telling.
Hard. Scientific. Fact.


And the most important one for luck – MAKE SURE IT’S EVIDENCE-BASED. To make the biggest impact, it is important that which even program or approach you choose, that it has strong backing of scientific research into the best practices for teaching. See the Five-From-Five website, Learning Difficulties Australia website or the International Dyslexia Association website for details:

I hope these tips have given you a clearer understanding of how to go about choosing an online course for your school.

If you’d like help to choose your whole school spelling program, make a time for us to chat by clicking here:




You might also find my Free Individualised Education Program (IEP) template useful. 


Online Courses


Inspired Education Services has developed a number of research-based online courses. Some of our courses include:


Synthetic Phonics Course. 

Vocabulary Course.

Phonics Word Lists.


Click the link above to visit the specific course page or click here to go to the online course page.

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