Where to After Phonics? by Jan Polkinghorne
Printed in the SPELD SA March 2012 newsletter

Eye have a spelling chequer,
It came with my Pea Sea.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss Steaks I can knot sea.

Eye strike the quays and type a whirred
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am write oar wrong
It tells me straight a weigh.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your shore real glad two no.
Its vary polished in its weigh.
My chequer tolled me sew.

A chequer is a bless thing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right all stiles of righting,
And aides me when eye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The chequer pours o'er every word
Two cheque sum spelling rule.

Spell Chequer
Jerrold H. Zar 1992

We now have increasing numbers of students who have been taught by synthetic phonics and are demonstrating dramatic improvements in literacy levels. Is phonics the end of the line? No! Phonics is merely a rung on the literacy ladder. For many it continues to be the primary mode of attack for unfamiliar words in both reading and writing but orthography (spelling) is far more than just phonics. When a student recognises that “poor” can be spelt “pour”, pore” or “poor” then the role of teaching just phonics is over. The only way to discover “which, which is the right witch” is in the context of written text, for without context we end up with students who can spell phonetically but produce texts like the poem at the head of this article. The spelling is perfect: the context produces the errors. In this digital age, most basic spell checkers will not pick up these errors because they work phonetically not contextually.

English orthography (correct spelling) is the combination of three interconnecting systems: - phonology- the sound system of words, morphology- the structure and meaning within a word and etymology – the origin of words. Many of the anomalies or unusual spellings in English can be explained by knowledge of morphology and etymology. History largely explains why our spelling sometimes appears awkward or illogical. Critics of phonics would argue English is so irregular it is not worth teaching rules. Serious students of English agree about 85% of English does follow rules and only 15% is irregular. Generalisations such as “in short words use ck after a short vowel and k after a long vowel” remove the need to memorise every word. Simple rules if taught by “discovery” methods make a great link between pure phonics- letter sound correspondences and spelling where vowel patterns, suffixes, prefixes, homophones etc are all considered.

The basic core of English is a combination of Anglo Saxon languages to which we owe 50% of the basic words in our language covering everyday life- the words associated with eating, sleeping and living. Added to this was the influence of the Romance Languages like French, Spanish and Portuguese. The third major influence was that of Greek and Latin to which we owe many of our words related to maths and science. Each of these languages retains its own structure, idiosyncratic spelling patterns and meaning when used in modern English. As examples of these influences look at the words, “here, there and where,”- their meaning comes from the Anglo Saxon word ‘ere’ for “place” to which is added the Latin consonant digraphs to give variation in meaning. In words such as inject, deject, reject, subject, eject, we can see the influence of the Latin base or root word “ject” meaning “throw” with prefixes again each added to alter the overall meaning of the word.

As teachers of students with a basic knowledge of phonics we need to forget the security of memorising the weekly spelling list and encourage them to look inside the words. Having taught phonics by multisensory, structured, discovery processes, it is best to continue this approach when incorporating phonology, morphology and etymology into spelling. This can begin very simply by doing a blending exercise. Use flashcards, duplicated sheets which students can cut into sections or an IWB or tablet so that words or morphemes can easily be manipulated. Continue the synthetic approach and ask students to see how many new words they can make from these morphemes:- milk, plan, jump, melt, sand, lift + ed, ing, y, s. Initially choose words with a consonant blend at the end and there will be no issues with doubling or dropping letters. Gradually introduce the spellings and conventions of language by introducing them to the same concept of blending morphemes and noticing that some double letters and some drop letters and have the students work out why. Ask questions about short vowels, long vowels, how many consonants are between the vowels, how we pronounce words like ‘hoping and hopping”. If students can “discover” these generalisations or conventions for themselves through scenarios a teacher sets up, this will be a much more meaningful process than merely having the “rule” written on the board accompanied by a list of examples. Use the analytic or segmenting approach and break words into prefix, root and suffix, find the compound words in Greek words and research their meaning and origin. Discover the wonder and music of words like astronaut – “sailor of the stars”, cacography and oesophagus.

To discover and discuss meaningfully, students need a gradually increasing vocabulary of words such as grapheme, phoneme, morpheme, vowel, consonant, short vowel, long vowel, digraph, consonant blend, syllable, prefix, suffix and root word. This word study needs to be explicit, cumulative, multisensory and fun. If there are lists of words involved they need to be lists that the students themselves have created in response to a task or list that is helping them work out answers to questions, not merely lists for random, rote, regurgitation. Any post phonic word study should include things like:- syllabification, compound words, prefixes, roots, suffixes, spelling conventions, a history of the origins of words and how the use of words like “sick, gay and radical” have changed over time, how the digital age is so rapidly changing our language and crossing the barriers of distance.

As teachers we need to spend more time posing questions than giving answers: more time encouraging students to look inside words at their form and pattern and asking why, where and when instead of merely learning a letter sequence. If we can teach this way, then we will develop students who have a love of words and an appreciation of the rich heritage of our language which will flow into their writing. Surely the purpose for which we teach spelling in the first place is to enable students to write. It is not so much the program you use but the methods you employ that are important. The tools of the trade are simple: dictionary, the internet, books and a medium to manipulated words or morphemes easily which can be as high tech as an IWB or tablet and as low tech as words on small pieces of paper. You don’t need a new spelling program to teach this way: you need to change the way you approach almost any spelling program on the market.

Once the need for basic phonics instruction is over, forget teaching spelling as such, and work on developing an interest in words and a love of language. Teach students to look for pattern and logic within a sequence of letters - not just memorise the sequence . Give them power over the unknown rather than increasing their memory bank of the known. Even the dyslexics will be on board. They love the language, they understand the logic. They just can’t retain a sequence. Demand and expect correct spelling but don’t just make it a memory game. Make it fun and an ever widening journey of discovery.

National Strategies Primary. Support for Spelling (second edition- 2009) Download from SPELD website under Information
Spelling Works - series McFarlane, K Pascal Press
Marcia, K. & Henry, P. (2003) Unlocking Literacy: Effective Decoding and Spelling Instruction. ISBN 1-55766-64-4
Ramsden, M (1993) Rescuing Spelling. ISBN 1-85741-090-4

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