StarSpell 3 Spelling Guide - Early Phonics - Stage 3 of the Spelling Route

This Guide aims to demystify how spelling is learned. It shows smart ways to help learners, both using StarSpell and with activities away from the computer. All the practice in the Guide is based on actual classroom experience

Early Phonics - Stage 3 of the Spelling Route

What is phonics?

Before discussing Early Phonics, the first question to get out of the way is "What is phonics?"[†]

Phonics is an approach to reading and spelling that focuses on the letter-sound matches (also known as grapheme-phoneme correspondences) from which words are constructed.

The next important thing to realise about phonics is that it has two strands. Immediately that is recognised, what is involved in the learning of phonics is clarified.

The two strands of phonics: phonic facts and phonic skills

There are phonic facts: these are the letter-sound matches, also known as grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs). Letter-sound matches are the pieces of the code we use to represent spoken words in writing. The code specifies which letter (and letter-combination) can represent which sound (in time-honoured phrases such as c for cat, etc.). Letter-sound matches are facts, and as facts, they are to be memorised.

The other important part of phonics is phonic skills; there's the skill of blending the letter-sound matches in reading, and there's the skill of building them in spelling. As skills, they are to be developed. (The development begins in the earlier work described in Discovering Words - Stage 1 of the Spelling Route: the 'juggling' of sounds of words, and continues into real phonics, as sounds and letter-sound matches are juggled into place in reading and spelling.)

And so, given that we're thinking of written words as representing spoken words, via a code, the two terms "decoding" and "encoding" are handy reminders of the tasks that learners carry out when they read (decode) and spell (encode).

This section first describes the teaching of phonic facts: knowledge of the code. Then it goes on to describe the development of phonic skills.

What is Early Phonics?

In the Early Phonics stage, learners consolidate the basic understanding that they have already gained: that words are made up of sounds, which are represented by letters. But now they also need the detail as to which letters represent which sounds.

So, importantly, now is the time for them to lay a truly solid foundation of known letter-sound matches. A few matches will already have been learned; to these, this stage adds a further sizeable proportion of the most-used letter-sound matches. It's clear, then, that a significant amount of the learning in Early Phonics is learning phonic facts.

But in addition, learners need to develop the necessary phonic skills, in order to grasp what is involved in actual spelling.

Note that also during this stage, learners need to memorise a good word-bank of frequently used words.

We will look first at the learning of phonic facts, the letter-sound matches.

Learning letter-sound matches in Early Phonics

There are two broad (and unequal) steps to learning the whole code:

· The single-letter matches

· All the rest! (The remaining matches, usually of more than one letter e.g. ch, igh or aigh.)

Broadly speaking, Early Phonics works in that order, tackling first the single-letter matches and some digraphs (e.g. ch), moving on then to trigraphs (e.g. igh) and perhaps quadrigraphs (e.g. ough), although quadrigraphs are often tricky creatures representing more than one sound (through, though etc.) and so perhaps sit more easily in Further Phonics.

You may find it helpful to return to The Complexities of English Spelling; you're better able to help learners with their letter-sound matches if you have a grasp of the nature of the code. It not only helps you to plan sequences of work, but also helps you to explain to your pupils how the code works.

About letter-sound matches

Letter-sound matches are also known as grapheme-phoneme correspondences, or GPCs.

Of course, the term "letter-sound match" masks the fact that phonemes are often represented by digraphs, trigraphs and even quadrigraphs

There are certain frequently-used digraphs that learners need to know quite early in their phonic progress: sh, ch, th, for instance, and ar, ea, etc. The concept should be introduced quite straightforwardly: "This sound needs two letters that you already know. When they come together, they lose their own sounds and join together to make this new one".

Later however, when dealing with a much wider range of letter-sound matches learners often need practice to sharpen their understanding of the difference between the number of letters in a word, and the number of graphemes (see Matching Letters and Sounds - Activities for Stage 3).

Activities for learning a letter-sound match: three steps

There are three steps to learning a letter-sound match.

1) The letter-sound match is 'discovered':

· Most learners in Early Phonics need to have letter-sound matches pointed out to them.

· You can do this by introducing the letter in isolation, separate from any word, and saying its sound.

· Or you can do this by finding a suitable word and drawing attention to the letter-sound match in various ways to suit the learners' maturity level.

· Of course, a new letter-sound match is more easily memorised when met within an interesting word in an interesting context.

2) Provide lots of opportunities to meet that same letter-sound match in other words:

· Collect objects whose names begin with, or contain, the letter-sound match.

· Draw pictures.

· Note its place on an alphabet frieze.

· Incorporate it into I-spy games, odd-one-out games, etc.

· List relevant words in the learner's individual vocabulary-book/glossary.

3) Provide a wide range of activities to practise and consolidate that learning:

· There are several ideas for off-computer activities. On computer, StarSpell's five modes offer a wealth of opportunity for all three steps described here. This is illustrated with ideas for interactive whiteboard StarSpell sessions. Session 11: Here Comes a New Sound, Session12: c-grabber at work and Session 13: Count One, Count Two show lessons for the first step (introducing a new letter-sound match). Sessions 5 to 10 and Sessions 14 to 17 suggest various ideas for all three steps.

The learning of letter-sound matches: support from StarSpell's structure

The previous section tells how StarSpell's activities are designed specifically to support the learning of letter-sound matches. But StarSpell also deploys another powerful aid to learning: its list organisation.

As The complexities of English spelling describes, the phonic code for English spelling is complex. There is no doubt that this puts a responsibility on teachers to devise a clear route through the system. The clearer the route, the more support for learning.

StarSpell has carefully graded, helpfully labelled word-lists in Phonics Lists and StarSpell Lists.

Now we're considering Early Phonics, let's look at these in more detail.

The two sets of lists together offer a well-signposted map of the phonic terrain, and comprehensive coverage of all the letter-sound matches.

But to get the most out of StarSpell, selecting StarSpell features to match your teaching focus, you do need to appreciate that the two routes have different rationales.

Phonics Lists

StarSpell's Phonics Lists are organised according to a frequency-of-use rationale, introducing letter-sound matches in an order from most-used to less-used. Each list is labelled descriptively[‡].

· The purpose of Phase Two is to teach at least 19 letters. See Phonics Lists: Phase 2: Introducing simple graphemes for phonemes.

· The purpose of Phase Three is to complete the teaching of single-letter graphemes, and add 10 digraphs plus 4 trigraphs. See Phonics Lists: Phase 3: The remaining phonemes, with graphemes.

· The purpose of Phase Four is to consolidate knowledge of single letter graphemes, and, for consonants, to practise bringing them together as blends (adjacent consonants). See Phonics Lists: Phase 4: Adjacent consonants.

Then we come to Phase Five, whose purpose is three-fold. Phase 5:

· Introduces 18 new graphemes

· Teaches the alternative sounds that can be represented by some graphemes (for instance, the grapheme ow can represent both the sound in cow and in snow)

· Teaches the alternative graphemes that some sounds have (e.g. the sound of sh can also be written as in chef and as in station), letter behaviours sometimes described as 'multiple mapping'.

In order to reflect Phase Five's threefold structure, StarSpell provides three separate headings:

· Phonics Lists: Phase 5: Introducing more graphemes, deals with those 18 new graphemes.

· Phonics Lists: Phase 5: Alternative pronunciations, presents word lists for 22 graphemes that represent sounds additional to the sounds originally learned for them.

· Phonics Lists: Phase 5: Alternative spellings, has no fewer than 50 word lists, each demonstrating another way of writing a sound. E.g. in wrap, the wr has the sound /r/.

Note that certain spellings do not appear in Phonics Lists, but are to be found in StarSpell Lists sc, as in science, is one. Others are noted in the next section, StarSpell Lists.

The StarSpell Lists

The StarSpell Lists for letter-sound matches are to be found in a block, One letter for one sound up to Words with silent letters, with a few further letter-sound matches included in Further explorations.

These StarSpell Lists are organised according to a rationale slightly different from that of the Phonics Lists.

The basis for designing their progression is letter behaviour and the names of these Headings signal the behaviour they demonstrate:

· One letter for one sound

· Letters combined for one sound

· One letter alters another

· Words with silent letters.

To add a little explanation to that:

· One Letter for One Sound deals with single letter graphemes, including adjacent consonants (sometimes known as consonant blends).

· Letters Combined for One Sound deals with digraphs, some trigraphs, and some quadrigraphs.

· One Letter Alters Another is the place to explore spellings such as "c followed by an e" (as in cell), and so on.

· Words with Silent Letters is self-explanatory.

But these four lists pack a further punch. They actually protect the learner, because they build up knowledge of letter-sound matches incrementally. The StarSpell Staircase shows this graphically. Of course, diversions from the sequence are totally under the control of the user; certainly, if you stick to the List sequence, the safety measure of that incremental organisation is there.

As noted in the previous section, certain spellings do not appear in Phonics Lists, but are to be found in the StarSpell Lists, for instance sc, as in science. Others include the final e as in house, silent u as in build and guess, gue as in vague, silent h as in hour, rh as in rhyme, ei as in vein, gh as in cough. StarSpell Lists also includes headings such as "Patterns in word endings" (e.g. table, pencil, label, and so on) and "Words ending in vowels" (e.g. banana, tattoo, potato, etc.).

Note: The StarSpell Lists do assume that learners coming to One letter for one sound have already learned the single consonant sounds. That heading begins with work on the short vowels as centres of CVC words; see Thinking through letter behaviour.

Learning phonic skills in Early Phonics

Phonic skills: an overview

As introduced in The two strands of phonics, half the battle in phonics is learning phonic facts: learning which letters stand for which sounds (letter-sound matches).

Next comes learning phonic skills, that is learning to make words out of these "building bricks".

As we begin to consider the phonic skills to be learned in Early Phonics, it's worth looking back to Preparing for Phonics - Stage 2 of the Spelling Route for a reminder of the skills learners will already have acquired. Learners will have practised distinguishing each separate sound in a word (segmentation). From that, they will have grown to understand that sounds, in speech, run together to make whole words (re-assembly, see Further notes). This experience will have led them to the idea that letters stand for sounds, and that letters can be written in sequence to stand for spoken words. So a learner who has achieved phonic readiness has, in fact, had some experience of segmentation (breaking words down) and word re-assembly.

But something else of immense importance enters in Early Phonics. Now there is the need to bring the segmentation and re-assembly together in the act that is "spelling". And spelling is a further cluster of skills …

The cluster of skills that is spelling

The basic skills developed in phonic readiness (distinguishing a word's sounds, playing around with a word's sounds) become an even broader cluster of skills in the actual act of spelling.

Consider, step by step, the cluster of skills that is spelling. A speller has to:

· "Hear" the word's sounds mentally

· Keep them in mind long enough to call up the image of each sound's letter/s

· Mentally hold these sounds-plus-images (letter-sound matches) in their right order

Write them, and write them in the proper sequence for the word s/he is spelling.

In technical terms, these are tasks that call upon auditory discrimination (to distinguish each sound), visual memorisation (to recall the letters that match the sounds in print), auditory memorisation (to keep the sounds and their correct order in memory long enough to spell the word) and the physical skills of writing or typing.

Activities to develop spelling skills

We have set out some ideas for off-computer work. On computer, each of StarSpell's five modes consistently provides the experience of spelling. StarSpell's Spelling mode provides the experience of spelling in a variety of ways. For example, you can enforce a delay between seeing the word and spelling it. And then the StarPickSpelling Game can complement that with further practice in re-assembling scattered letters to spell a freshly memorised word. The StarGuess Spelling Game goes one step further again: the letters are not provided to give a prop. We also illustrate a range of relevant teaching ideas for StarSpell group work using an interactive whiteboard. For instance, Sessions 7, 8 and 9suggest the introduction to the Spelling mode; Session 18 directly tackles "spelling for real"; Session 17 and Session 23 offer illustrations of the StarPick Spelling Game activities.

Look and Learn in Early Phonics

Throughout this stage, and the other stages too, Look & Learn work marches alongside Listen & Build. This is vital, because, alongside their steady acquisition of phonic knowledge, learners need to memorise a good word-bank of frequently used words.

The concept of high frequency words

The term "high frequency word" is self-explanatory: words that occur most frequently in written language. Since 1932 at least, various lists have been compiled, typically seeking to identify "The Hundred Most-Used Words", with twelve words, 'a, and, he, is, in, it, of, that, to, was, I, the', always at or near the top of the list. The DfE (Department for Education) National Literacy Strategy (England) included its own version in 1998, and their Letters & Sounds (2007) programme continued the tradition with a 2003 analysis[§].

Of course it makes absolute sense for learners to get these words off by heart for recognition in their reading (known as acquiring sight vocabulary), and for use in their writing. After all, according to one reckoning, those twelve words comprise one quarter of all print; a further hundred have been identified as comprising one half.

Not all high frequency words are difficult to decode and encode. Some are phonically perfectly simple. However, the irony is that all too often these most-used words employ rarely-used phonics, earning many of the words the description: phonically irregular. Because they contain unusual or yet untaught letter-sound matches, they well deserve the label "tricky words".

What is involved in Look & Learn?

How spelling works explained the Look & Learn approach as calling upon spellers to examine the word and "photo" it in their memory. Of course, such a blanket statement needs quite a bit of unpicking: just how exactly does one examine a word; what techniques help you to "photo" it in your memory.

A technical term by which Look & Learn is known can get us started on this unpicking. Look & Learn is a visuo-motor memorisation activity. That is to say, an activity involves memorising a spelling by looking (that's the visual part) and hand-movement (that's the motor part).

So, there is a long-standing and well-used routine which embodies this. It's LCWC (short for Look-Cover-Write-Check):

1. Look at the word

2. Cover the word

3. Write it out from memory

4. Check to see if you were right

5. And repeat as necessary!

A straightforward LCWC routine is a perfectly good and serviceable help to many spellers in memorising words.

However, it can be expanded to engage a greater number of the learner's senses:


Visual experience of the word


Auditory experience of the word


Articulation of the word


Tactile experience of the word


Motor experience of the word

Expanding the basic LCWC routine in this way provides multi-sensory experience, enormously helpful in memorising spellings. In fact, it's probably true to say that as a full description, visuo-motor memorisation actually falls short, because a listening component makes a vital contribution, as does the learner's own speaking of the word out loud. In fact, the approach is sometimes known as the V.A.K. approach, the visual-auditory-kinaesthetic approach (movement may be referred to by the term "kinaesthetic").

However, to understand fully what is implied in that first, generalised description of Look & Learn as "examining the word and mentally photographing it", we need to explore how each step of Look-Cover-Write-Check is open to expansion; for instance, we need to consider how we can help learners to 'Look', and so on. And there is an absolute wealth of support available throughout the whole process, through the addition of refinements.

Activities using the Look & Learn approach

Off-computer spelling activities sets out ideas for off-computer activities. Early Experience of Words, Sounds and Letters - Activities for Stages 1 and 2 sets the ball rolling, while Look and Learn - Activities for Stage 3 provides extensive practice, including A basic sequence for learning high frequency words. StarSpell activities and the Spelling Route - finding your place details the support that StarSpell's five modes provide for LCWC work. Indeed, the Spelling mode was developed specifically to embed Look & Learn techniques alongside attention to phonics. The success of this union is shown in the sample StarSpell-on-interactive-whiteboard sessions in Sample sessions - Pointers for StarSpell in class. In particular, the Look & Learn Session 22: Hot Spot Study-Spot and Session 23: A Tricky Word rely on strategies that are just as applicable for easier words.

Where to find High Frequency Words in StarSpell

StarSpell's Phonics Lists include 100 high frequency words. The words are given in four lists, one for each Phase from Two to Five. Each list helpfully classifies the words as either decodable or "tricky". This matches the categories developed in the English DfE Letters & Sounds (2007).

The StarSpell Lists place High Frequency Words in Important sight words. The words are listed according to frequency of use, based on recognised surveys, including those of Burke (1964) and Huxford (1997). Within each frequency-level, the words are grouped thematically. There are also three other thematically organised lists.

Finally, there are two sets of lists in Yr2 to KS3 support: '100 most Common Words' and '200 next most common words'. These are presented in order of frequency of appearance, based on the Children's Printed Word Database by Masterson, Stuart, Dixon & Lovejoy, (2003).

In each route you can search for any individual word through the "Find a Word" button on the opening screen.

When tackling groups of High Frequency Words: remember they are best learned in groups having some internal rationale, with the words grouped together either through phonics or theme. The first two sets of StarSpell's lists do follow such organisations.

However, you may wish to create a list that's precisely individualised, as a custom list.

The why and the how of custom lists

Anywhere within any of the sections you can create whatever list immediately meets the needs of your group of learners, or of one individual learner. There is a special heading for custom lists in each section (within the Menu item Management/Edit word lists).

This facility is invaluable. It's a blank canvas. You enter the words you need, and then they acquire all the StarSpell features and activities.

Why should custom lists be necessary? Well, learners, as do we all, live, move and breathe in the real world, and the real world is not circumscribed by learning schemes. Of course it's wise - essential in fact - to have an organised learning scheme, as we lead our learners into the labyrinth of English spelling. StarSpell itself is based on its own sensible learning scheme. But wherever we have learners reading and writing in the multi-faceted real world, real language needs will assert themselves. Learners constantly find themselves needing words that are outside their current learning framework.

Furthermore, language is personal, and it is specific. Every learner has "important words" that are not necessarily easily accessed through the headings of any spelling scheme, words for matters that are personal, and for matters that are related to immediate concerns.

This Guide opened in How spelling works with the recognition that spelling serves a broader purpose beyond its acquisition for its own sake. Learners want to write, and their writing must be encouraged from the outset, whatever the status of their spelling.

This is why StarSpell offers the chance to create your own custom lists, which allow you to focus on any learner's immediate word requirements.

Note: There's an important link here to High Frequency Words. By definition, most writing will contain them. If StarSpell's High Frequency lists don't match your learners' needs closely enough, create yourself a Custom list that does.

It is worth repeating that High Frequency Words are best learned in groups having some internal rationale: the words grouped together either through phonics, or theme. StarSpell's lists do follow such organisations, but you may wish to create a list that's precisely individualised.

Useful StarSpell lists for Early Phonics

Here are the StarSpell lists which, broadly speaking, apply to Early Phonics. As has been noted, StarSpell approaches learning from a "Stage not Age" perspective. No two learners are alike. Progress differs. These lists are given as guidelines only.

Listen & Build

The level of phonic knowledge described on The Spelling Route as the stage "Early Phonics" is most catered for in the following lists. The lists are shown progressively within the routes StarSpell Lists and the Phonics Lists, but you may usefully mix and match across the two routes. For example, you could usefully make choices from Phonics Lists: Phase 2: Introducing simple graphemes for phonemes to match up with choices from StarSpell Lists: One letter for one sound > Short vowels.

Phonics Lists

· Phase 2: Introducing simple graphemes for phonemes

· Phase 3: The remaining phonemes, with graphemes

· Phase 4: Adjacent consonants

· Phase 5: Introducing more graphemes.

StarSpell Lists:One letter for one sound

· Letters combined for one sound

· One letter alters another

· Words with silent letters.

Look & Learn

The lists dedicated to High Frequency Words are hugely important:

· Phonics Lists:100 high frequency words

· StarSpell Lists: Important 'sight' words

· Yr2 to KS3 Support: 100 and next 200 most common words

In addition, the Listen & Build lists above are still appropriate.