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Many of us have learnt to spell as a child without being specifically taught the sounds. In the past, the teaching of phonics was discouraged in schools, however, we learnt a lot through sounding out words independently. At a recent course on voice production, the importance of vowel sounds was emphasised as central to pronunciation. They were also emphasised as central to sounding out to help with spelling. Chunking (breaking up words into syllables) also helps to sound out and spell longer more challenging words.

In a pilot study, after learners revisited phonics, at 27 schools in Swindon, UK (TES magazine April 17 2015), the impact of taking students back to basics to relearn the phonic sounds and focus on building a better understanding of the links between sounds and letters was apparent. The teaching of sounds was proven to be particularly helpful for EAL students who represented 80% of the school communities. In the phonic test, children had to read 40 words, half of which are pseudo or "nonsense" words. After participating in the project, where children were taught the sounds and how to blend them through games and activities with the use of flashcards with pictures, results showed students who did not reach the required standard had reduced from 42% to 32%.

It is important to approach spelling systematically. Follow a scheme that sets of the steps clearly and ensure that learners are familiar with the basics before you lead them onto the more advanced steps. Spelling extends past letter sounds, digraphs and trigraphs. Special irregular spelling patterns (including undecodable high frequency words), prefixes and suffixes all need to be considered, among others.

Specifically teaching high frequency words (especially undecodable words) can also assist learners immensely with their spelling. Did you know that about 80% of our spoken or written text is made up of only 2,000 high frequency words? Do your learners know them? Check them out by downloading the associated resource. This list is sourced from a new general service list:

"With approved use of the two billion word Cambridge English Corpus, Dr. Charles Browne, Dr. Brent Culligan and Joseph Phillips have created a New General Service List (NGSL) of important vocabulary words for students of English as a second language . The first version of this interim list was published in early 2013 and provides over 90% coverage for most general English texts (the highest of any published list of high frequency words to date with the 1.01 version of the NGSL often getting over 92% coverage)." (access here)

Some ideas to support EAL learners with their spelling:

  • Seeing words within words
  • Syllable breakdown
  • Learning common letter patterns
  • Understanding the meanings of root words
  • Making connections to other languages
  • Words searches for some of the irregular spellings
  • Bingo
  • Spelling word hunts (looking for them in articles and newspapers)
  • Look, cover, say, write, check method


Browne, C., Culligan, B. & Phillips, J. (2013). The New General Service List. Retrieved from here

Further learning - Blog

Created: Sat 21st Dec 2013

Supporting the learning of the new language is by no means the only aspect of helping a new arrival to feel ‘at home’ in their new country. However, as it can be one of the most stressful aspects of their life change and therefore a carefully tailored plan to accommodate for their language learning needs is essential. There are a wealth of resources available for supporting teachers in helping children in their first steps of learning English.

Woman looking up with a lightbulb and question marks above her head
Created: Tue 5th Sep 2023

I have been teaching English for over 20 years and in that time I have held various teaching titles; I had a different acronym depending on which country or school I was teaching in. Over the past 20 years, I have been an ESL, an EFL, an ESP, an ESOL and an EAL teacher. As you can see ELT - English Language Teaching - comes with a whole host of acronyms. I will identify and describe them below.

*All terms below refer to students whose mother tongue is not English and who are learning English.

Created: Mon 5th May 2014

What tools are there if you have a sixth sense that something is not quite right?

At what point does a teacher start to question whether an EAL student’s lack of progress is due to English Language Development (ELD) issues or due to specific learning differences (SpLD).

These questions come up again and again. Learning English as an Additional Language is not a learning difficulty, however 20% of EAL students will follow the norm of having specific learning differences (Chapter 1, SFR24/2012, GovUK). Therefore, there is a possibility that an EAL student has SpLDs.