Spelling generalisations and SSP
Do you have your instruction, resources and assessment in place in your systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) program? Your next step could be to add spelling generalisations.
Teaching spelling generalisations supports students to gain a greater understanding of how written English works. This will help their development towards spelling accuracy. Learning about spelling generalisations will also support their reading due to the reciprocal nature of reading and writing.
- what makes English an opaque language
- how to support students to apply spelling generalisations
- how to incorporate spelling generalisations into your SSP lessons.
1. Spotlight on spelling generalisations
25 minutes reading and viewing
Having knowledge of spelling generalisations will help your students to develop a deeper understanding of the alphabetic code and how it works.
The following infographic shows how elements of phonics knowledge and skills build on each other to help with spelling accuracy. Spelling generalisations are a key part of this process.
Spelling generalisations are most effectively taught as part of your SSP lessons using explicit instruction. This allows students to:
- develop their knowledge in a structured and sequential way
- apply their knowledge to both reading and spelling.
Cognitive load theory supports teaching spelling using an explicit instruction approach, so students are not overloaded as they learn.
What is an opaque language?
Spelling can be more difficult in some languages than in others, depending on whether a language is transparent or opaque.
In a transparent language each written symbol represents one sound. This one-to-one correspondence makes learning to read and write relatively easy.
In an opaque language this is not the case. An opaque language has:
- some symbols that represent more than one sound
- some sounds that are represented by more than one symbol.
English is an example of an opaque language. It has a complex symbol-to-sound correspondence system. This complexity has developed over time as various languages have influenced the English language.
This 7-minute article by Jocelyn Seamer discusses the opaque nature of the English language, and provides tips on teaching complex code.
How can spelling generalisations support students’ spelling and reading?
Because of the opaqueness of English, students need to be explicitly taught spelling generalisations so that they can understand how the English writing system works. This knowledge leads to a more in-depth understanding of the alphabetic code and how it applies to reading and spelling.
Spelling generalisations can be used to show patterns in our spelling system. This helps students to group or 'chunk' similar concepts in their memory, which helps them to master the English spelling system.
Identifying and storing spelling patterns in long-term memory reduces cognitive load for students. This is because they do not need to remember how individual words are spelt. Instead, they can retrieve their knowledge of spelling generalisations to make informed choices about:
- letter patterns that make the sounds in words they are spelling
- applying sounds to letter patterns in words they are reading.
This 5-minute read explains the benefits of teaching spelling patterns, and provides tips on how to do this.
Which spelling generalisations should I teach and why?
Spelling generalisations are included in instruction for one of three main reasons.
1. To explain how the position of a sound in a word influences which letter pattern is used to make that sound. For example:
- an /oi/ sound is usually represented by oi at the start or in the middle of a one-syllable word, as in ‘oil’ and ‘spoil’
- an /oi/ sound is usually represented by oy at the end of a word, as in ‘toy’ and ‘boy’.
2. To explain how adjacent letters in a word influence the sound that a letter or letters represent. For example:
- the letter g will usually make a /g/ sound when followed by a, o, u or a consonant, as in ‘gang’, ‘got’ and ‘give’
- the letter g will usually make a /j/ sound when followed by e, i or y, as in ‘gentle’, ‘giant’ and ‘gym’.
3. To introduce multiple sounds for one letter pattern. This is best done by beginning with the most common sound, through to the least common sound, so students know which sound is the most likely one when there are several to choose from. For example, the letters ea represent various sounds including:
- /ē/ as in ‘heat’, the long e sound, which is the most common sound
- /e/ as in ‘head’, the short e sound, which is a less common sound
- /ā/ as in ‘steak’, the long a sound, which is the least common sound.
Where do spelling generalisations fit within an explicit instruction lesson structure?
Spelling generalisations are most effectively taught in your phonics lessons using explicit instruction. The steps to follow for an explicit instruction approach to your phonics lessons are:
- introduce and model a new spelling generalisation ('I do')
- give students practice applying the spelling generalisation with teacher guidance ('We do')
- give students opportunities to independently apply their knowledge of the spelling generalisation ('You do').
This 5-minute read outlines why spelling is most effectively taught explicitly and systematically.
These sample lesson slides demonstrate how to structure an explicit instruction lesson on spelling generalisations.
How do I introduce spelling generalisations into instruction? ('I do')
During the ‘I do’ part of an SSP lesson, you can explicitly teach spelling generalisations as you teach a new letter–sound correspondence. For example, when teaching the letter–sound correspondence for ck, demonstrate that ck makes a /k/ sound. Then, teach the spelling generalisation related to this letter–sound correspondence by explaining that the /k/ sound is usually represented by ck at the end of a one-syllable word when it follows a short vowel, as in ‘back’, ‘sock’ and ‘brick’.
Having this extra layer of knowledge helps students with both their reading and spelling.
- When reading a word with ck at the end, students can be confident that the vowel before ck has a short sound.
- When spelling a word, students will segment the sounds in the word. When they hear the /k/ sound at the end of the word, and this sound comes after a short vowel sound, students can confidently choose the letters ck to represent the /k/ sound.
How do I support students to apply spelling generalisations? (‘We do’, ‘You do’)
Students can apply their knowledge of spelling generalisations during guided practice (‘We do’) and independent practice (‘You do’) within your phonics lessons. This application happens in both reading and spelling.
Applying knowledge of spelling generalisations also occurs during daily reviews.
Spelling generalisations are reviewed using questioning techniques. For example, when reviewing the digraph ai, you can:
- show the ai digraph
- ask students to say the sound that it makes (the long a sound, /ā/)
- prompt students to review the spelling generalisation associated with this letter–sound correspondence by asking: When do we use ai?
- check that the students respond accurately by saying: In the middle and sometimes at the start of a word.
This allows students to practise retrieval of the spelling generalisation you have taught them.
This can be followed up in the word-level section of a review, so students can practise applying the generalisation. For example, you can give students the words 'rainbow’, 'aimless' and 'frail' to read and/or spell.
2. Webinars: Spelling generalisations and SSP
Given the level of detail within this topic, the Literacy Hub will be presenting two one-hour webinars to cover different aspects of spelling generalisations; you can attend one or both sessions. Questions will be answered as part of the second webinar.
Both webinars will be presented by Elaine Stanley and hosted by Kerrie Shanahan, and will unpack material from the Literacy Hub’s spelling generalisations document and sample lessons.
Recordings will be available for catch-up viewing shortly after the live broadcasts.
Part 1: Teaching spelling generalisations for letter–sound correspondences
Register to view the recording of this free 60-minute webinar.
- provides a short introduction to spelling generalisations
- demonstrates how to teach spelling generalisations for letter–sound correspondences as part of your phonics lessons and daily reviews.
Part 2: Teaching syllable types
- covers how to teach syllable types as part of your phonics lessons and daily reviews
- answers your questions about spelling generalisations.
Register to view the recording of this free 60-minute webinar.
3. Putting learning into action
Actions for Foundation to Year 2 school leaders
You may wish to:
1. Lead your staff through the 'Spotlight on spelling generalisations' section and included links.
2. Discuss the following questions with your staff (reflecting and evaluating).
- Do our students have a good understanding of the English spelling system? Is this evident in their writing?
- How do we currently help students make spelling choices and apply their spelling knowledge? Does this method align with SSP principles?
- How could we make our spelling instruction more explicit?
3. Support your staff to:
- explore the resources provided in this topic
- use the spelling generalisations document to support spelling instruction during SSP lessons.
4. Work with staff to develop a consistent understanding, shared language and instructional approach around the way spelling generalisations are incorporated into SSP instruction.
Actions for teachers
1. Consider the way you currently teach spelling. Does this follow advice for best practice?
2. Determine which spelling generalisations align with the current needs of your students.
3. Start using the spelling generalisation document to support your instruction.
- Phonics lesson slides
- Phonics lesson student worksheets
These four sample slide packs present ready-to-use lessons to teach spelling patterns, with teacher notes indicating how to teach each part of the lesson. Each lesson is accompanied by a worksheet for independent practice.
This document outlines spelling generalisations included in the Literacy Hub phonics progression and explains teaching points relating to each one that may be used to support instruction.
This infographic highlights the knowledge and skill areas students need to develop for early spelling accuracy, and the key role of spelling generalisations in this development.
References, useful links and further reading
- DSF Literacy Services. The DSF Spelling Wheel.
This infographic provides a comprehensive breakdown of the knowledge and skills needed to become successful at spelling.
- DSF Literacy Services. Spelling rules: important information about English.
This collection of charts outlines useful spelling rules in a sequence from most common and simple to less common and more complex. A section on the components of grammar is also included.
- Five from Five. Spelling rules: help or hinder learning to read.
This webpage outlines the reasons for teaching spelling generalisations, including teaching tips.
- Gentry, J. Richard. Why spelling instruction should be hot in 2022/2023.
This Nomanis Notes article highlights the importance of spelling instruction.
- Keys to Literacy Blog. Spelling rules and generalizations.
This short article from the US explains why knowing spelling generalisations is useful and includes charts with suggestions on what generalisations can be explicitly taught.
- Reading Rockets. How spelling supports reading.
This article explains the strong relationship between reading and spelling, and how regular and pattern-based our English spelling system is. A short video clip by the author of the article, Dr Louisa Moats, is included.
- Seamer, Jocelyn. 10 tips for teaching the complex code.
This article includes suggestions for teaching spelling patterns.