An Inquiry into Spelling

ES Teachers Inquire into Spelling from YIS Academics on Vimeo.

During a recent staff meeting, teachers tried out some word sorting to figure out spelling patterns. We were investigating how we could use inquiry to teach spelling. There was a lot of conversation, collaboration and some good thoughts on how we construct rules about spelling patterns.

I’ve always been a good speller and an avid reader, and I’ve struggled with teaching spelling. My students love reading. I read to them. Students read individually. Some of them are voracious readers. Yet, in their writing, some of the kids still struggle with spelling. Why?

This year, one of our literacy focuses as an elementary school has been spelling. We’ve looked at how we currently teach spelling and whether it’s working. For me, I know that spelling through reading osmosis isn’t working. Student-selected words, studied and then tested, also doesn’t work. As a parent, I saw how spelling lists didn’t transfer into my daughter’s writing. So…

Research tells us that reading does play a role, but it doesn’t always make strong spellers. Spelling lists and spelling tests don’t often transfer to a student’s writing. As with reading and writing, students progress through developmental levels. According to Diane Snowball and Faye Bolton in Spelling K-8 Planning and Teaching and the First Steps program, students progress through defined spelling stages.

This year, in grade 5, I started the year with a spelling assessment from Words their Way that helped me target students’ developmental levels and pinpoint the part of the word where they were struggling. I liked the thoroughness of the assessment and have used it to structure a developmentally appropriate program. Students are grouped, depending on their spelling needs: a group works “within words.” Another works on “syllables and affixes,” for example.

Making up Rules for Spelling

As for the activities, we do, I’m still trying to flush it out. We have been playing with word sorting, just as the teachers tried at the staff meet (in the video above). In class, students sort words and figure out patterns and generalizations.  The words are focused on their  developmental level. Bolton and Snowball say that such a process like this, of guided inquiry, will facilitate children in attaining a real understanding of spelling.

What I’ve seen during our spelling inquiry time is enthusiasm, collaboration and students talking animatedly about words. They write the rules they’ve discovered in their notebooks and then discuss those rules with other groups–confirming them, debating them.

Sorting based on spelling patterns


I think I’m noticing less spelling errors, and students continue to write fairly prolifically–not hindered by the quest for perfect spelling. They seem aware that spelling does make a difference in published work and that words are important and interesting. Students look forward to word sorting and figuring out the word puzzle.

It’s been a journey this year, and I think we’re on the right track. We’d love to hear from you about your spelling programs and inquiries. How do you facilitate a spelling inquiry?

About kdceci

I am a grade 5 teacher in a PYP school in Chicago, Illinois, USA. From the US originally, I worked in Asia the last 13 years. I am passionate about inquiry-driven education, collaboration, and ensuring kids get to continue to be kids that play, create and think as long as they can. Outside of school, l love to write, read, hike, run, meditate and travel.
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14 Responses to An Inquiry into Spelling

  1. Beth says:

    I would really love to hear how this process progresses through the year, as we are constantly debating how to approach spelling in our district. Do you give lists that foloow patterns? Are they tested? Or are you truly just exploring words and how they are spelled?


    • kdceci says:

      Words their Way comes with a lot of word sorts, based on development levels. We don’t use lists. Ideally, students will find words in their writing or reading that follow the patterns they’ve figured out. Word lists are too one-size fits all for our students, probably all students. We’ve also found that students can do well on a test, but not in writing, so it’s an ongoing process.


  2. Dave Secomb says:

    Hi there, I also use Words Their Way as a starting point for the exact same reasons. I find it great for differentiation as it gives a nice breakdown of what each students’ needs are. From there I’ve been using the Real Spelling toolkits to help promote an inquiry-based approach to spelling. Obviously one size doesn’t fit all so I find that I don’t follow the program religiously – often supplementing or substituting learning experiences with ideas from First Steps. This combination seems to have worked well for me so far this year (it’s only the first year I’ve done it this way). The problem I sometimes face is that there doesn’t seem to be an exact science for the progression of the program (Real Spelling). There is an overview for the kits but no hard and fast rules about which lessons to do in sequence. However, this can be good as it gives me the freedom to explore inquiries that the students show interest in at certain times of the year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • kdceci says:

      I’ll take a look at the Real Spelling toolkits. I don’t recognize them and should check them out. If you’re on Twitter, keep in touch. I’m @namastececi We’ll continue our exploration into next year. What types of assessment or anecdotal evidence you have done to assess student’s progression?


      • Dave Secomb says:

        Here’s a website that can explain Real Spelling much better than I can!

        Regarding assessment, finding the most effective method(s) is still a work in progress. A lot of observation, anecdotal notes and discussion this year. The kids still have a list of words to practice each week, which is developed from three lists: class investigations, unit words and also personal words. They then choose a mixture of 10 to focus on for the week. Not sure if I will do this next year – this is a school-wide discussion we need to have. I’m still finding that a lot of my students fall into the same spelling habits as I’ve seen in the past when students have rote learned list words each week. However when I can talk things through with them they are recognising the reasons why their spelling is incorrect (or correct) and can make connections to similar words or patterns much easier. This alone shows me that on the whole their understanding of spelling is much better than I’ve seen in some students from previous years. I’ve also noticed better results from my developing EAL students and I think its helped them by being able to go through exactly why something is spelled the way it is instead of the old ‘that’s just the way English language is’ excuse!

        I can send you a sample from one of the kits to take a look at if you like. Just message me on twitter with a contact address.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. James Forsythe says:

    Hi, I’ve always struggled with how to deal with spelling so I really appreciate this post. I’ve used Words Their Way in a past school(it was mandatory), but always had a hard time dealing with the “stand alone factor” that is involved. I also believe that the research proves that teaching spelling out of context is not very effective, I.e -lists (like others have mentioned above). As a compromise, I simply develop sight word lists (random) and add to them throughout a unit. So, I’m hoping more folks can post how they go about teaching spelling.


  4. mirandarose14 says:

    We attempt to use Real Spelling as our approach to spelling at my school and we’re trying to move away from “spelling lists”… I was hesitant at first but am now a word investigator myself -just last night I was investigating the etymology of the word “sweat”. I have been amazed at what students can find out about the logic of English spelling and how empowered they are when they really understand the reasons behind spelling. It can be really powerful if you have staff understanding and consistent use of the approach across the school. As in any staff there are different levels of comfort and experience with the approach, in and using the kits to support and balance student and teacher led word investigations. It is a paradigm shift in terms of how we understand and teach spelling, which is challenging! We are working on our PD plan to ensure incoming and returning staff understand how Real Spelling works. We have had Pete Bower’s (Word Works Kingston) come into our school and work with us in our school which has been great- he will also do consulting via Skype. We have a few teachers who have studied in France with Melvin Ramsden and have greatly benefitted from that too. Some of our more experienced teachers have done some great sessions in house- check out the Wiki, one of our Grade 4 teachers, Sarah Pickles, set up at We are still however in need of some longitudinal measures of success (particularly beyond knowledge of the rules, patterns and etymology and in actual application) at our school. Our spelling journey continues…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jackie gear says:



  6. jackie gear says:

    if someone knows his address please give it to me. there are too many JIMMY SAVILLES around.


  7. Leanne says:

    Thank you for your ideas. I headed to your page because spelling is something my school has decided needs to be a focus and because “Inquiry” is how we teach. I have just moved into year 6 and struggling/ wondering how to tackle spelling. I have always worked with First Steps as my base model. But now trying to expand my knowledge. I will try your ideas but if you have more please share. Le


  8. Jackie Bullen says:

    I remember Melvyn as a new headmaster of a primary school in Hertfordshire, the environment was exciting and innovative. I think it was probably late 70s or early 80s and wonder whether anyone could remind me of the school?


  9. Gary russell says:

    Hi. I was taught by melvyn in Morecambe in the 60s. He used to like rubbing my chest as I remember. I was 10.


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