A cross-curricular approach to spelling

The ability to spell is without doubt a literacy skill that does span the entire curriculum. Students need to write accurately in almost every subject they study.

And, although spelling is not specifically named as one of the ‘seven capabilities' in the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2015), it is obviously an important sub-skill within literacy.

The cross-curriculum aspect of spelling development is evident in the Australian Curriculum, where the guidelines state that ‘word knowledge' (as a component of literacy) involves all students in developing a wide topic vocabulary in all learning areas, and also the capacity to spell the relevant words accurately (ACARA, 2015). The curriculum guidelines also reiterate that all aspects of literacy teaching should not be confined to English lessons alone but must be applied in all other learning areas. By implication, this will only be achieved if all teachers – including subject specialists in secondary schools – ensure that their students are able not only to read and understand new vocabulary and terminology in their subject, but can also spell those words.

I guess I was lucky back in the 1960s when I was teaching in a secondary school in the UK. I had a school principal who already saw spelling as a skill that was important in every subject. He asked me to prepare a paper for a staff development session on the topic ‘Teaching spelling is not just the responsibility of our teachers of English'. In researching that paper I acquired a deep interest in how students learn to spell and the factors that influence whether they become good spellers or struggle throughout their school life. As a result of writing that paper I came to believe firmly that, just as ‘all teachers should be teachers of reading', so too ‘all teachers should be teachers of spelling'.

During that staff development activity many years ago it was agreed that all specialist teachers in the school would prepare a list of core vocabulary for their own specialist subject, and this list would be made available to all students as a reference when writing and proofreading their work. Most teachers also agreed that students would be tested regularly on these ‘must know' words, as an incentive for learning the spellings. In some classrooms a poster-size copy of the word list was displayed permanently on the wall.

In primary schools, where teachers tend to be generalists, the view that all teachers are responsible for spelling is probably easy to accept; but subject specialist teachers in high schools may find it more difficult. ‘Surely', thinks the Geography teacher, ‘it's the English teacher who should have taught these students to spell, even if the primary school had not managed to do so?' The History teacher may say: ‘Oh yes, I always correct the spellings in my students' assignments … so, yes, I am attending to spelling.' But helping students improve takes much more than that. There is no evidence that simply marking corrections in students' work in any subject has an effect on that student's future ability to spell those words.

One recent development in teaching spelling has implications for all teachers. It has been found that treating spelling as part of a broader concept, namely ‘word study', can greatly increase students' interest in words – for example, discovering where the words came from, how they are constructed and can be changed, and how different parts of words signal different units of meanings. Word study from Year 6 onwards should therefore include some attention to basic etymology and morphology as an aid to spelling (Scott, 2010). The Australian Curriculum at Year 8 states that students should understand how complex words are constructed, and should draw on morphemic knowledge as well as on phonological knowledge and visual memory when spelling these words.

All teachers, including subject specialists, should develop an interest and enthusiasm for the words that are the life-blood of their subject. Why do geography and geometry begin with the same unit of meaning? What meaning does ‘-ology' have in biology, sociology and technology? A good starting point for teachers to develop this interest in words for themselves is the book The story of English in 100 words (Crystal, 2012).

We still have a long way to go to facilitate the development of spelling as a cross-curricular topic in our schools. It would help if the theme could be promoted in all teacher education courses.

Peter Westwood's most recent title is Teaching spelling: Exploring commonsense strategies and best practices (Routledge). New editions of his three books on learning difficulties (Reading and Learning Difficulties; Teaching and Learning Difficulties; and Numeracy and Learning Difficulties) will be published by ACER next month.


Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2015). Literacy: Key ideas. Accessed 11 August 2016 at http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/generalcapabilities/literacy/introduction/key-ideas

Crystal, D. (2012). The story of English in 100 words. London: Profile Books.

Scott, R.M. (2010). Word study instruction: Research into practice monograph 27. Ontario: The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat.

How are you supporting students to not only develop a wide topic vocabulary, but also learn how to spell those words?

Think about a time where you’ve corrected spelling in a students’ work and they’ve continued to make the same mistakes. Why do you think this might be? How can you provide further support?