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Spelling: New Year, Knew Ewe

Okay, forgive us the title - we find it hard to resist a good pun at The Literacy Tree, especially when it includes a homophone, but this last year we have done a lot of thinking and talking about spelling and the data released around the 2017 spelling test made for interesting reading when we realised that the most misspelt word on the list was, of course, a homophone - ‘coarse’. We have long been advocates of teaching spelling in context, and those of you who have used any of our Literary Curriculum planning sequences will know that we always include contextual spelling investigations that allow children to play with spelling rules and patterns, often ‘discovering’ them for themselves and always having the chance to apply them in a purposeful writing opportunity.

However, homophones are a particular and special case. Here, context becomes increasingly important as there are many children who know how to spell the different forms of there, their and they’re - but just don’t necessarily know which to use on which occasion. This highlights the importance of linking spelling with vocabulary and grammatical awareness. The more that children understand the meaning of words in context and have a comprehension of the way the grammar of words and sentences work, the better they will be able to select the appropriate homophone when writing. ‘Coarse’ was a peculiarly interesting example of a homophone as many children would have rarely used coarse as an adjective to describe the properties of a material and so would possibly not have even realised it was a homophone in the first place - this demonstrates the importance of linking with spelling with vocabulary even further as this really was a test of language and not just the spelling of it!

So, how best to do this? Well, as we mentioned earlier, the context needs to be tangible. Be that a literary link (our particular favourite - naturally!), scientific, historical or geographical. Just as we wouldn’t expect children to learn grammar out of context, the same is true of spelling - resonance is created when there is a reason for using the newly learnt vocabulary to write a diary, a journal or a report, for example. One of our personal favourites for teaching homophones is one of those moments when an email comes through to the class, but (as you would expect!) it has been scrambled - loads of the words are missing! Of course, the scrambled words are all homophones. Here is an excerpt from an example that might sit within a sequence using The Invention of Hugo Cabret:

Dear Class 6,

I am writing to tell you about Hugo.  Did you know, his father was the _____________ horologist in Paris?  He had been ____________ the sad death of his _________, when the shopkeeper accused him of something terrible – did he really _______ the notebook?

In the first instance, we ask children to identify which words might make sense in the context of the passage – using prediction and syntax to make an educated guess.  They are then given a number of words on cards:


mourning and morning

father and farther

principle and principal

steal and steel


Initially just matching the pairs of words (this could also be carried out as a memory/matching game) and then placing the correct word into the passage, children see and hear the word in context.  It is always then worth asking children to come up with their own ideas for rhymes, mnemonics or silly sentences to help them to remember which is which, e.g. principal refers to a senior individual or the first in order of importance – the prince is your pal (for example).

Whilst at first glance, it might seem tricky or contrived to seeminly shoe-horn homophones into such a context, it actually provides a really fun way to meaningfully cover one of the most prevalent objectives (from Year 2 upwards!) in the curriculum.  As a next step, children really enjoy coming up with their own homophonic sentences and being challenged to place as many as possible within a short passage.  There are a suprisingly large number of homophones that link thematically – particularly when it comes to describing the weather (whether) and if it’s raining (reigning) or if there’ll be sun (son) – much hilarity ensues!  The venn diagram attached sets out our belief for where the best opportunities for teaching all spelling (be it homophones, words with similar suffixes or particular spelling patterns).  A good mixture of investigative work, linked with a clear context and a link to new or relevant vocabulary provides the most solid starting point for seeing the purpose for correct spelling – and most importantly the need to apply it.


The planning sequence for The Invention of Hugo Cabret can be found here.

Posted in: Curriculum

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