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Pedagogical notes

Learning lexical spelling

The English language has a deep (opaque) orthography, making it more difficult to learn than languages with shallow orthographies such as Spanish or Finnish.

A 2003 study showed that the rate of learning to read and spell in English is more than twice as slow as the rate in a language with a shallow orthography (Seymour, Aro, & Erskin).

The study further confirmed that this was neither solely attributable to the age at which children start learning to read and write a specific language nor to the teaching methods used and rather, directly due to the fundamental linguistic differences in syllabic complexity and orthographic depth of a language.

This is similar in French, also considered an opaque language. Students of French experience significant difficulties learning the language, including specific difficulties with lexical and syntactic spelling.

Overall, mastering lexical spelling depends on several factors particularly related to the complexity of the written system, to the cognitive abilities of the learner, and to the teaching methods.

The Written System

Given the complexity of English’s written system, learning to spell in English is more difficult than for many other languages ​​(Spanish, Italian, Finnish, etc.). Indeed, the writings of the words are coded according to three dimensions in English.

The Phonographemic Dimension

The phoneme to grapheme (sound to symbol) dimension encodes in writing the phonemes (sounds that make up words) into graphemes (letter or series of letters). This dimension is complex in English, which has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds. Using solely symbol to sound and sound to symbol correspondence patterns enables to spell and read approximately 50% of English words, with another 37% being close (Moats & Tolman, 2009; Reed, 2016)[1] .

For example, there are 6 spellingsto represent the sound / k / (c, k, ck, ch, cc, que), and two of those spellings, /c/ and /ch/, can be read differently (/c/→/cabbage/ and /race/;/ch/→/chimnee/ and /chaos/). The more a written system has ways of representing a phoneme, the more this system is qualified as opaque or inconsistent. English is considered as one of the most opaque systems. The polygraphy of phonemes constitutes a major source of difficulties, both with the learning and expert reader.

The derivational morphology dimension

The derivational morphology dimension conveys meaning by adding sequences of letters at the beginning (prefixes) or the end (suffixes) of words (e.g., both the words unhappy and happiness can be created from the word happy).

The logographic dimension

The logographic dimension distinguishes the meaning of homophones in writing (e.g., two, to, too). It also has the role of recalling the etymological origin of certain words. It is sometimes possible to find inside or at the end of these words letters or series of letters with a spelling that can neither be deduced by the use of phoneme to grapheme correspondences nor by the use of derivational morphology. The child has no other choice than memorizing the spelling of those words. In English, these are usually called sight words. For example, no rule allows to deduce that the word enough is spelled with the letters /gh/ at the end of the word to represent the sound /f/.

The accumulation of inconsistencies linked to these three dimensions makes learning lexical spelling particularly difficult. Indeed, orthographic error analysis shows that they happen mainly with inconsistent words and this, both among young learners and expert adults.

The written system is a determining factor in learning how to spell, but it is not the only one.

The learners’ cognitive abilities: phonological awareness and memory

The role the cognitive factor plays in learning to spell varies depending on the consistency level of the phoneme to grapheme correspondences in the learner's written system. In a transparent alphabetical system, like Spanish and Italian, where the words are written almost as they are pronounced, the phonological awareness ability plays a major role. This is this ability to identify each sound composing a word in order to be able to associate the corresponding grapheme and transcribe it. Good phonological awareness abilities as well as a good knowledge of all phonemes to grapheme correspondences are used to spell almost all words in transparent languages. In opaque alphabetic systems like French or English, where only about 50% of words can be written simply by sounding them out, the sole use of phoneme to grapheme correspondences is not enough; we must add the memorization of graphemes specific to each phonemes (/oo/: oo, u, oul), silent letters, and double consonants specific to the spelling of each of these words. In opaque languages, learning lexical spelling requires not only phonological awareness abilities, but also orthographic lexical memory abilities (the memory of written words). This memory is more important as a cognitive factor in the learning of the spelling in opaque languages ​​than in transparent languages.

Teaching methods

Teaching methods have important repercussions on learning to spell. Some make it possible to promote this type of learning while others, on the contrary, can be totally harmful. Among the methods that have shown their efficiency, we find the error-free method, the method of teaching regular spelling patterns, the method by repeated exposure, the test-study-test method, and the visuo-semantic method. In Words Without Worries, we use the first four methods directly.

Error-free teaching

The error-free teaching method is to teach new knowledge, lexical spelling in this case, while reducing exposure to error during learning as much as possible. Several studies have shown that this method is much more effective for the memorization of spelling than methods exposing children to errors (as is most often practiced in schools). The error-free teaching method is recommended for both children and adults with or without learning disabilities.

In addition, other studies have shown that exposure to error interferes with spelling learning as well as long-term retention, in both children and adults with or without learning difficulties. Indeed, these studies have shown that the more learners are exposed to error, the less they learn to spell words. Exercises offering multiple spelling choices of the same word (e.g., familie, famylie, fammilie, famillie) or asking learners to identify spelling errors in words in a text are therefore clearly discouraged. If a child makes mistakes in a spelling quiz, it is best to correct them by using the correct spelling and focusing attention on the correctly spelled letter(s) rather than on the incorrect form. For example, if a child wrote baloon instead of balloon, it is better to present the correct written form and focus their attention on the double consonant (balloon) rather than on the incorrect form (baloon). Otherwise, it is the incorrect spelling the child will likely memorize.

Words Without Worries offers an error-free learning process to the learner using the first three games which repeatedly expose them to the correct spelling of words to memorize. Subsequently, the learner is encouraged to consolidate this learning in two other games.

Teaching orthographic regularities

As learners can neither rely on phoneme to grapheme correspondences nor use derivation to write a large number of English words, they must employ other strategies to spell them.

Research has shown that very early on, students rely on information relating to regularities in words. They show sensitivity to the frequency of occurrence of certain more "regular" spellings. They know, for example, that the phoneme /f/ is more often transcribed f than ph, that letters that can double are most often t, l and r, but not x and q, and that, as a silent consonant, the letter b appears most often at the end of a word.

This type of learning takes place implicitly, or without the child being aware of it, through repeated exposure to written words. Explicitly teaching more general spelling knowledge, which is usually learned implicitly, is an effective approach. This teaching method helps all children learn how to spell inconsistent words, particularly those children with little exposure to the written system and those with learning difficulties. This teaching method, referred to as teaching spelling patterns or teaching by morphological analysis, therefore consists in offering to children to explicitly learn lists of inconsistent (sight) words that share certain spelling regularities (e.g., the sound /k/ is written with the letter k before e, i, y, or after a consonant, long vowel, or vowel combination) or to rely on rules (e.g., the consonant /k/ is never doubled in English). This method of teaching is based on organization, an essential process for long-term memorization.

Learning by repeated exposure

To promote long-term memorization of the spelling of words, it is important to consolidate the new learning by offering children various activities, and ensuring they are exposed to at least six repetitions of each correctly spelled word. The repetition of organized information is essential to the knowledge acquisition process. Rather than copying words repeatedly to learn them, it is better for the learner to repeat the spelling of words in different games. The playful aspect of this type of learning motivates children. Research has shown that motivation promotes attention, long-term quality learning, and the memorization of new knowledge.

The teach-learn-test teaching method

This method consists in teaching something new and to evaluate learning in a close interval, repeating this sequence several times. This kind of method promotes long-term retention of new knowledge.

The visuo-semantic teaching method

This method aims to facilitate the memorization of spelling inconsistencies by soliciting three memory types: the visual memory (the memory of images/pictures), the orthographic memory (the memory of the spelling of words), and the semantic memory (the memory of world knowledge). This method consists in illustrating by a drawing (visual memory) the underlying concept to a word (semantic memory), incorporating the part(s) of the word that may be difficult to spell (orthographic memory).

The visuo-semantic teaching method strengthens the orthographic memory in a playful way, which motivates the learner. Despite its effectiveness, it has limits, since many words are difficult to illustrate (e.g., confidence). After teaching the spelling of words using Words Without Worries, using the visuo-semantic learning method as much as possible is recommended for the spelling of words that were most difficult for the learner.

Characteristics of Words Without Worries

As we have already pointed out, learning to spell involves different factors, including factors that relate to our writing system, the learner’s cognitive abilities, and the learning methods. Words Without Worries incorporates the most recent research on learning orthographic spelling, as well as methods that promote the teaching of new knowledge and their long-term memorization.

The target audience

Words Without Worries is intended for grade 2 to middle school learners.

The offered activities

The application’s 5 activities will lead children to learn the spelling of 10 words by opposing 2 spellings to represent the same sound (5 words by spelling). The first 3 activities are aimed at learning spelling from the error-free teaching method, the teaching of spelling regularities, and the teaching by repeated exposure. The last two activities aim at long-term consolidation with the use of the teach-learn-test teaching method.

How to play?

When opening Words Without Worries, the child must first create their profile or select the profile that they have already created. When they select Play, they must choose between the list of easy or difficult words. It should be noted that the level of difficulty applies to words and not to the mechanics of the game.

If you have chosen to create a list of words, the Personalized Lists tab will appear under the Easy and Difficult tabs. Once the level of difficulty has been chosen, the child must select the word list with which he wishes to play.

At the start of each test, the character representing the Olympus God presents the activity.

Note that the cup fills up as the child successfully completes the words. When it is full, the game is over and the child can take his cup, a sign of their success.

List of words and spelling

Words Without Worries offers a list of 40 frequent spellings with 10 inconsistent words divided between 2 levels of difficulty: easy (10 words) and difficult (10 words).

Words in the easy level are most often comparable to Grade 2 and Grade 3 words, while words in the difficult level are most often comparable to words in subsequent years.

The spellings under study are green in colour. Words Without Worries offers the user the possibility of creating their own lists of words and, therefore, to select words suitable for each learner’s characteristics. (See the section “Create your own lists”).

The selection of words and spellings

Word selection aims to promote learning the lexical orthography of the words that pose the most difficulties for learners, i.e. words with inconsistent spellings (multiple graphemes, derivable and non-derivable silent letters, frequent letter sequences, and double consonants).

The selection of graphemes under study was carried out using various criteria: their complexity (simple, i.e. one letter, or complex, i.e. several letters); if they are context-dependent or not (e.g.,graphemes like /gh/ or /s/ are context-dependent); their consistency (consistent and inconsistent); their regularity (more or less regular); their frequency (more or less frequent); their level of acquisition. The graphemes had to oppose simple graphemes to complex ones, could not be context-dependent, and had to be inconsistent, regular, and frequent, and had to oppose two levels acquisition (elementary levels vs superior levels).

Taking into account the acquisition level of the spelling of words is important, because the lexical spelling proficiency according to students’ level does not align with the list of the most frequent words in written English. 

Suggested didactic sequence

First session

Explain to the students how the words are coded.

Phoneme-grapheme correspondences

Explain that, using sound-letter correspondences, we are able to write 50% of the words by assigning one or more letters to each sound in words. Emphasize that 50% of the words are impossible to spell this way, because some sounds can be written in different ways and that others have letters that are silent. 

Derivational morphology

Explain that many words are built from little words that convey meaning, i.e. prefixes and suffixes. These are always written the same way. Show that some words end with a silent letter that serves to write another word from the same family. This letter, called a hook letter, allows you to hook one or more letters to form a word of the same family.


Explain that there are also words that end with a letter that has become silent with time. Finally, explain that some words are pronounced the same way but do not have the same meaning and that, to distinguish them from each other in writing, they are spelled differently (e.g., two, to, too). Learning the spelling of these words requires good memory.

For all other sessions

Show the child the two spellings under study and the words they will need to memorize. It is important to make sure that they know the meaning of these words, for homophones.

Get the child to pay attention to the written forms of words under study. In general, the spellings appear in green.

Get the child to learn the spelling of words and to memorize them by making them complete

Once learning is complete, ask the child to write two short stories, each containing one of the two spellings under study.


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