Representing sound in writing

Primary English: Knowledge and Understanding - Medwell Jane A. 2014

Representing sound in writing


A teacher must:

3. Demonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge

have a secure knowledge of the relevant subject(s) and curriculum areas, foster and maintain pupils’ interest in the subject, and address misunderstandings

demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship

demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject

if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics.

4. Plan and teach well structured lessons

impart knowledge and develop understanding through effective use of lesson time

promote a love of learning and children’s intellectual curiosity

contribute to the design and provision of an engaging curriculum within the relevant subject area(s).

8. Fulfil wider professional responsibilities

take responsibility for improving teaching through appropriate professional development.

Curriculum context

National Curriculum programmes of study

This knowledge is designed to underpin the teaching of the Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 programmes of study for English, which require that pupils should be taught to:

✵ apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words Y1

✵ continue to apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words until automatic decoding has become embedded and reading is fluent Y2

✵ respond speedily with the correct sound to graphemes (letters or groups of letters) for all 40+ phonemes, including, where applicable, alternative sounds for graphemes Y1

✵ read accurately by blending sounds in unfamiliar words containing GPCs that have been taught Y1

✵ read accurately by blending the sounds in words that contain the graphemes taught so far, especially recognising alternative sounds for graphemes Y2

✵ read accurately words of two or more syllables that contain the same graphemes as above Y2

✵ read words containing common suffixes Y2

✵ read common exception words, noting unusual correspondences between spelling and sound and where these occur in the word Y1/2/3/4

✵ read words containing taught GPCs and —s, —es, —ing, —ed, —er and —est endings Y1

✵ read other words of more than one syllable that contain taught GPCs Y1

✵ read words with contractions [for example, I’m, I’ll, we’ll], and understand that the apostrophe represents the omitted letter(s) Y1

✵ read most words quickly and accurately, without overt sounding and blending, when they have been frequently encountered Y2

✵ read aloud accurately books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words Y1

✵ read aloud books closely matched to their improving phonic knowledge, sounding out unfamiliar words accurately, automatically and without undue hesitation Y2

✵ re-read these books to build up their fluency and confidence in word reading Y1/2

✵ apply their growing knowledge of root words, prefixes and suffixes (etymology and morphology) as listed in English Appendix 1, both to read aloud and to understand the meaning of new words they meet Y3/4/5/6.

Pupils should be taught to:

✵ spell:

image words containing each of the 40+ phonemes already taught Y1

image common exception words Y1

image the days of the week Y1

✵ name the letters of the alphabet:

image naming the letters of the alphabet in order Y1

image using letter names to distinguish between alternative spellings of the same sound Y1

✵ add prefixes and suffixes:

image using the spelling rule for adding —s or —es as the plural marker for nouns and the third person singular marker for verbs Y1

image using the prefix un— Y1

image using —ing, —ed, —er and —est where no change is needed in the spelling of root words [for example, helping, helped, helper, eating, quicker, quickest] Y1

image use further prefixes and suffixes and understand how to add them (English Appendix 1) Y3/4/5/6

✵ spell by:

image segmenting spoken words into phonemes and representing these by graphemes, spelling many correctly Y2

image learning new ways of spelling phonemes for which one or more spellings are already known, and learn some words with each spelling, including a few common homophones Y2

image learning to spell common exception words Y2

image learning to spell more words with contracted forms Y2

image learning the possessive apostrophe (singular) [for example, the girl’s book] Y2

image distinguishing between homophones and near-homophones Y2

✵ spell further homophones Y3/4

✵ spell words that are often misspelt (English Appendix 1) Y3/4

✵ place the possessive apostrophe accurately in words with regular plurals [for example, girls’, boys’] and in words with irregular plurals [for example, children’s] Y3/4

✵ spell some words with ’silent’ letters [for example, knight, psalm, solemn] Y5/6

✵ use knowledge of morphology and etymology in spelling and understand that the spelling of some words needs to be learnt specifically, as listed in English Appendix 1 Y5/6

✵ continue to distinguish between homophones and other words which are often confused Y5/6

✵ use dictionaries to check the spelling and meaning of words Y5/6

✵ use the first two or three letters of a word to check its spelling in a dictionary Y3/4

✵ use the first three or four letters of a word to check spelling, meaning or both of these in a dictionary Y5/6

✵ use a thesaurus Y5/6

✵ apply simple spelling rules and guidance, as listed in English Appendix 1 Y1/2

✵ write from memory simple sentences dictated by the teacher that include words and punctuation taught so far Y1/2/3/4.

Early Years Foundation Stage

The Early Learning Goals specify that, by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, children should:


✵ read and understand simple sentences;

✵ use phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately;

✵ also read some common irregular words;

✵ demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read.


✵ use their phonic knowledge to write words in ways which match their spoken sounds;

✵ write some irregular common words;

✵ write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others;

✵ spell some words correctly and others in phonetically plausible ways.


Most children learn to understand and speak English before they learn to read and write the language. So the spoken language develops first and is written down. However, English is a language with a long and complex history and written English is not a simple coding of spoken English. Effective readers and writers use several different types of patterns in English to read and spell. This chapter deals with some of the relationships between written and spoken English because it is important that teachers know about the patterns found in spoken and written English if they are to teach them to children in the most effective ways.

The sounds of English

We learn to speak so naturally that it is easy to take for granted not only what we learn to do, but also what we learn about speech itself. For instance, when we speak there is no temporal break between words — just try pausing between each word as you speak and see how unnatural it sounds. We know where words begin and end because we have used those words again and again in different combinations, because of intonation and because we can also recognise units greater and smaller than words. Children need to develop explicit awareness of units of sound — phonological awareness. Once children know about how sound works in speech they can manipulate it and use it in their literacy learning. Children naturally play with sound as part of the development of speech and become aware of different units of sound as they develop.

One of the earliest units of sound children learn to pick out (although not to discuss explicitly) is the syllable. The syllable is a group of sounds, usually a combination of consonants and vowels, which act as a unit of rhythm in speech. Some words have only one syllable but others are polysyllabic.



(one syllable)


(two syllables)


(three syllables)


(one syllable).

It is important to remember that the syllable is a unit of sound and it can be difficult to decide where syllable boundaries occur when the word is written down. In the teaching of phonological awareness and use of syllables in poetry it is the number of syllables that is important, not where the syllable boundaries occur. However, the number of syllables can vary with pronunciation, another reason why it is important to remember that the syllable is a unit of sound, not writing. The key point is that each syllable has one vowel or vowel-like sound.


It is important to understand how phonologically aware young children are as a basis for teaching phonological awareness and phonics in reading. One way to find out whether young children can discriminate syllables, which are usually the first unit discriminated, is to get the children to ’clap’ their names or a short message to one another in circle or sharing time. You can also use shakers and other percussion instruments for the same purpose. These games help children to develop this awareness and a sense of rhythm in speech and allow you to assess their phonological awareness.


How many syllables are there in each of these words? It will help to clap out the beats (or even to shut your eyes, if the spelling distracts you).






When children are aware of syllables in speech they then become aware of smaller units of sound within these syllables. Most English syllables have a vowel (V) as their nucleus (or in a few cases a consonant (C) known as a syllabic consonant such as the sound for l, r and n) and may have consonants before the nucleus or after it. The nucleus of the syllable is very important as it carries the stress, loudness and pitch information for that syllable. This is why the syllable is such an important rhythmic and expressive unit, and why poetry often uses regularly patterned syllables.


go (CV)

at (VC)

cat (CVC)

stun (CCVC)

this (CCVC)

zigzag (CVC CVC)

The consonant(s) at the beginning of the syllable is called an onset. The rest of the syllable is known as the rime and will include the syllable nucleus (a vowel or vowel-like sound) and, possibly, a consonant or consonants. When children are aware of syllables they will usually then be able to pick out the onset and rime within each syllable. For instance, c-at in cat, th-is in this. This is an important ability, as children can then use analogy to combine different onsets and rimes to make a vast range of syllables. So a child may be able to segment c-at and then make b-at, r-at, s-at, p-at, etc. This use of analogy may be a key skill in later spelling. For early years teachers, children’s ability to identify onsets and rimes and to use analogy is a key step in developing phonological awareness. However, it is important to use single-syllable consonant—vowel—consonant (CVC) words such as dog, cat, bin, etc. when doing this early work, as onsets and rimes occur within syllables and a polysyllabic word like zigzag has two onsets and two rimes. It is also important to know that young children do not need to know or use the terms ’onset’ or ’rime’. These units are useful for teachers to recognise but children do not need to discuss or reflect on them.


Young children need to be able to rhyme and use analogy to generate new words. They will enjoy taking part in word games and singing rhyming songs to practise these skills.


Goswami and Bryant (1990) review research into the development of phonological knowledge and suggest a particular model for the development of reading in young children and the role of phonological awareness within it. The model proposes that children given experience of rhyme and alliteration develop an awareness of these before they begin to learn to read. They actually begin reading using only a visual approach to recognising words but very quickly their awareness of onset and rime allows them to apply analogies in order to recognise new words. Through experience of reading they begin to become aware of the phonemic basis of alphabetic script and to develop skill in using this new-found awareness. Phonological awareness, in its various forms, is therefore both a precursor to and a product of reading.

The smallest unit of sound in a word is a phoneme, and different languages use a different range of phonemes. Around 44 phonemes are used extensively in English (the number varies depending on how they are classified). It is the millions of combinations of these phonemes that make up the rich and varied vocabulary of English. It is important for teachers to understand the nature and role of phonemes in speech because phonemic awareness, that is awareness of the individual sounds in words, is essential to reading and spelling.

Linguists use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to write these sounds precisely and you will see the IPA symbols in the National Curriculum English Appendix 1 (Spelling) and some dictionaries. There is a list of the IPA sounds in the appendix to the 2014 National Curriculum if you prefer to use these symbols. For the purposes of this book we have tried to avoid using the IPA, but this makes it difficult to be specific about which sound is being discussed. When a phoneme is being discussed we have used // around it and tried to give a common word in which it is usually pronounced. It is important to recognise that all the pronunciations given are those of the received pronunciation accent and the pronunciation of some phonemes, especially vowels, may be different in different accents, without being wrong.

The easiest way to group the phonemes of English is into vowels and consonants, because these sounds have different methods of production (a phonetic point of view) and different functions in spoken English (a phonological point of view). English speech sounds are produced by converting a stream of air that is forced out of the lungs through the nasal or oral cavities (or both) into soundwaves. Consonants (unlike vowels) are produced by a closing movement somewhere in the vocal tract, involving either the lips, tongue or throat. The 24 consonant sounds in most English accents are relatively easy to write down using the 21 letters of the English alphabet reserved for consonants but you will notice that some consonants require two letters to spell them, even approximately, and others, such as /th/ (they) and /th/ (thigh) use the same letters although they sound different. This is discussed further below.


Word in which it appears


















































When teaching children to discriminate between and learn the phonemes commonly found in English words, most teachers begin with the consonant phonemes and the short vowels /a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/ so that children can blend and segment consonant—vowel—consonant words (CVC words) from the start.

Consonants usually occur at the edges of syllables (/b//o//b/) and can appear in clusters or strings with up to three consonants at the beginning of an English word and four at the end. However, not all consonants are easy to hear or to discriminate from one another or from vowels. Some pairs of consonants sound very similar — /b/ and /p/, /t/ and /d/, /k/ and /g/, /f/ and /v/ or /s/ and /z/. This is because some consonants (/b/, /d/, /g/, etc.) involve the vibration of the vocal cord and are called voiced consonants whereas others do not involve the vocal cords at all and are called unvoiced (/p/,/t/, etc.). Not surprisingly, teachers aim to pronounce these sounds as clearly as possible to help children learn to recognise and spell them. This often results in teachers adding a vowel to make the consonant sound clearer. Try saying /p/ or /b/ clearly and loudly as you would to a class of children — you may find you say ’puh’ or ’buh’. This should be avoided, as it makes it very hard for children to blend phonemes if they include extra vowels.


Say the following words to yourself, one at a time. How many consonants are there in each word? Remember that you are listening to the sounds, not the spelling, and that a sound can be written down with more than one letter.







The vowels are another major category of phonemes in English speech. Vowels are the most sonorant and audible sounds in spoken English and the consonants around them sometimes depend on the vowel for their audibility. The vowels are produced in a rather different way from the consonants, using an open vocal tract and depending on the vibration of the upper vocal tract. There are 20 or so vowels in English speech and their sound quality varies from accent to accent. Although the consonants of English are relatively easy to classify and write down, the vowels are much more complicated. The IPA uses several special symbols to represent vowel sounds but we will attempt to list them without the symbols. In doing this, the most common vowels from all the systems of classification are listed.

Vowel sound

Words including that sound (note different spellings)


sat, hand


get, head


pig, him, women


dog, swan, cough


son, sun, does


pain, ape, waist


sea, feet, me


cry, shine, die, high


so, road, bone, cold


moon, do, blue


put, would, look, wolf


calm, are, father


bird, her, heard, learn


poor, sure, tour, door


all, saw, more


about, wooden, circus, sister, sofa


down, house, how, found


coin, toy, noise, voice


stair, stare, bear, hare


beer, here, fierce, near


Given that the vowels are most likely to appear in the nucleus of a syllable and that they vary widely, it is not surprising that English speaking children are usually able to discriminate the consonants in speech before the vowel sound. Look at this piece of a young child’s writing and decide which sounds the child has been able to discriminate.


David, nearly five years old, has written about his attic conversion. He uses initial consonants but does not ’hear’ most of the vowels. A notable exception is the letter name A. The piece reads: ’I got a room in the roof. It is painted white and the radiator is on. The stairs are there.’

Daniel and Ben (both aged five) have written advice for new children about writing on the class word processor. Their writing shows that they can hear vowels, but that it is very difficult to spell them look at how they both spell sounds!



When teaching children phonemes, teachers start with consonants and short vowels.


Think about the ways in which these young children write. What does it tell you about:

✵ their awareness of sounds?

✵ their understanding of the way in which English spelling works?

As a fluent writer yourself, what understandings do you think you have that these children do not yet have?

The symbols of English

Written English is never simply a case of ’speech written down’ and it never really has been. Speech and writing change at different rates and so written language is always ’behind’ the changes in speech. Also, if writing were simply a transliteration of speech, whose speech would we transcribe? Would we choose a particular accent to transcribe? Standard English spelling gives us a shared ways of recognising words, but it also means that written English is not a close representation of speech.


Most researchers into reading would now agree that it actually involves both decoding printed symbols into recognisable language and constructing meaning through interactions with these symbols. Both are necessary parts of the reading process and neither is sufficient by itself (Adams, 1994). This is why reading teaching focuses on both the decoding of language and comprehension.

There are a number of patterns in written English that are used to spell our words. Some are patterns of sound written down, some are visual patterns of letters we recognise easily and some are patterns that have developed because of meanings (these are discussed in later chapters). None of these patterns is complete, in that there is not one single system governing the spelling of all English words. However, if we know these patterns we can use them to read, write and spell.

The most obvious pattern is the representation of the sounds of English by letters and combinations of letters. If you have read the section above you can see that it is difficult to express the sounds of English in writing, with the limited 26 letters of the English alphabet. As it is so basic to our system of writing, sound—symbol correspondences (also called Grapheme—Phoneme correspondences or GPCs) are a very good system for children to learn about early in their reading and writing careers. As soon as children know that written words ’say’ something, they will begin to want to know how to work out what. Teaching them about sounds can help them to ’crack’ the code of writing, especially if the text they want to read is relevant, compelling, short or predictable.

Phonics teaching involves teaching children to match sounds (phonemes) with letters and combinations of letters (graphemes) and to blend and segment the sounds to create or decode words. The knowledge to be learnt includes the range of grapheme—phoneme correspondences (GPCs) and the skills used include blending and segmenting. These are key skills and all children need to learn them early on to make progress at early reading. However, successful phonics teaching begins when children are familiar with lots of stories and environmental print. Children do not learn to read using phonics alone and they need to know certain things to use phonics. These include knowing that text is readable, why you might want to read texts, which bits of a text you read, how text proceeds from left to right and that reading is a relevant, enjoyable activity. Most children learn these lessons very early when reading with their parents or at nursery. These ideas are also a key part of literacy teaching and reading in the Early Years Foundation Stage.

The simplest representations of sound in writing are the consonants and short vowels represented above, which can be blended together to produce consonant vowel consonant (CVC) words. Most teachers will teach these sound—symbol correspondences by using items and words containing these consonants and short vowels and repeatedly writing the words and using the letters.


The very early stages of modern phonics schemes, designed for use in the EYFS, start with teaching consonants and short vowels and give one spelling of each. This means that children are quickly enabled to spell most things, although not correctly. Later they will learn other spellings.

Even at this simple level of representing speech in writing there are teaching decisions to be made. Most teachers teach the little (lower case) script before the capital (upper case) script. Most teachers also make the important distinction between the letter name and the sound the letter represents and teach this explicitly to children. To literate adults the idea that /c/ represents the sound at the beginning of ’cat’ may seem simple, but for young learners it is very complicated. They must have the phonological awareness to discriminate the sound /c/ aurally in a word, they must recognise this as /c/ pronounced out of context by their teacher (who will sometimes pronounce it ’cuh’, which is rather different from the sound in ’cat’). Then the young learners must associate this range of sounds with the shape C (which they will also learn to write) and they must know that the shape is called ’see’. Finally, they must accept that this doesn’t always work, as in words like cherry, chip and cheese. It really is amazing just how quickly and easily most children learn sound—symbol correspondences and the National Curriculum Programmes of study expect all children to have learnt a GPC for each of the 44 phonemes by the time they begin Year 1.

Many consonant sounds can be represented by one letter but this is not true of all. Some of the most commonly used are represented by more than one letter:


— in cheese, cheek, cherry and watch


— in thigh


— in they


— in shoe


— in ring


— in nudge

Sounds that need more than one letter to represent them in the written forms are called consonant digraphs (or, less commonly, consonant trigraphs — /j/ judge — if there are three letters). Teachers usually teach the very common consonant digraphs ch, th and sh at the same time as children learn the one-letter consonants because they aim to teach one spelling of each of the consonants and short vowels quickly.

The consonants are represented in writing in a reasonably regular way. Unfortunately, vowels are not quite as simple. The 20 vowels listed earlier can be spelt in many different ways (see the table, above). Some vowels are spelt simply by a single letter (a, e, i, o, u) but many are written using not only the five letters we traditionally call vowels (a, e, i, o, u) but also some letters we call consonants, usually r, y and w (/oi/ in boy, /ou/ in cow, shout, /er/ in circus, wooden, sister). Vowels represented by more than one letter are called vowel digraphs (road, moon, blue, down) or, less commonly, vowel trigraphs (stair, bear, leer, here).

The complexity of spelling vowels is not surprising since accents in English often use different vowels, so there are many words that are pronounced differently in different accents. One person may say b/ar/th or f/ar/st and another b/a/th or f/a/st, but they are both spelt bath and fast. As a teacher you need to know the accents of your children before selecting examples of words with particular vowel sounds.


In Year 1 and 2 of the National Curriculum Programme of Study (English), in Appendix 1 there is a list of statutory sound symbol (grapheme—phoneme) correspondences which must be taught, although the order they are taught in is not statutory.

Visual patterns in English

There is considerable evidence that adult spellers also use visual patterns to spell. Visual strategies include remembering almost automatically how some words look. The common, short and often phonically irregular words such as and, because, but, where, a, on, in are often learnt by sight, so that they do not need to be ’sounded out’ each time they are used. Learning these words can be very helpful in becoming a fluent reader or writer. For this reason word lists of common words are often compiled for suggested words that children should know early in their school experience and these are often referred to as sight or tricky words. However, these common words are difficult to remember because, on their own, they are not particularly meaningful. Most teachers have encountered children who can spell ’tyrannosaurus’ before they can spell ’because’!


The phonics scheme in use in any EYFS (Reception) class or KS1 class will include an order in which the sight words are taught. It is important to know this, because it tells you which sight words the children have already been taught when you plan lessons and resources.

Teachers use flashcards (paper and electronic), whiteboards, spelling tests, repeated demonstrations of such words, word banks and word books to help children learn more complicated but important words and the National Curriculum has lists for Years 3—6. These words are worth examining to look at unusual spelling patterns and origins. However, a powerful strategy for learning words is one suggested by Peters (see below) called Look, cover, write, check. This involves children using a fan of paper or book to look carefully at the word, analysing its shape and sometimes tracing over it with a finger or pen then covering up the word. The learner might ’close their eyes and visualise the word on their eyelids’ as they do this. The word is written down from memory and checked. If it is correct, the learner moves on; if not, the process is repeated. This common strategy aims to get children to develop a mental picture of the word.


Margaret Peters (1985) researched the strategies used by mature spellers and whether spelling was ’caught or taught’. She concluded that a lucky few do seem to ’catch’ spelling by becoming aware of patterns early and using strategies to remember them. However, most children need to have the patterns in English spelling made explicit to them and need to use a range of strategies to remember. Peters was keen to emphasise that spelling teaching should be based on the patterns inherent in English words, to give children the greatest chance of getting the words right. She emphasised the visual basis of much of adults’ spelling and the possible link with fluent handwriting, and stressed that children need very fluent and swift handwriting from an early age.

One aspect of Peters’ work that has been very popular in schools is her emphasis on the visual patterns of words. Although the common words mentioned above may not share a pattern and so may be hard to learn, some collections of words share a visual (not sound) pattern that can make them easier to learn, for instance, weir, their, weight and eight do not share a sound pattern but they all contain the very common visual pattern ei. It may be that learning words that have a shared visual pattern can help to fix them in mind. Cripps and Peters (1990) have also linked this to handwriting by emphasising the kinaesthetic learning of shape patterns. They suggest that the early learning of fluent handwriting and joined script can help children to learn common letter combinations ’by hand’. In many schools this has resulted in the teaching of handwriting being linked with the teaching of spelling and spelling tests.

Finally, in terms of visual strategies for spelling, the ability to use dictionaries, spellcheckers and word banks are all valuable skills that even mature writers need. Children must be taught these skills. Good spelling involves knowing:

✵ the sound and visual patterns in language, and how to use them;

✵ how to check spellings;

✵ when to make the effort!

Morphemic and etymological patterns in English

In addition to sound-symbol patterns, and sight words, there are other important patterns for children to know about if they are to be able to read fluently and write conventionally. Many of the patterns in words relate to the origins of words — their etymology. For instance, biscuit is a word whose origins are from the Norman French. The word refers to something which was twice (bi-) cooked (-cuit). You might see the prefix bi- in other words like bicycle. Other patterns are related to the meaning and grammatical function of words — morphological patterns, such as the use of —s or —es as a plural suffix. The knowledge of these patterns needed for teaching primary English is discussed in Chapter 5 of this book. However, it is important to recognise that all these patterns are important as ways of spelling and are a great basis for curiosity about words.


The National Curriculum Programme of Study (English) includes statutory word patterns that must be taught in Years 1/2, 3/4 and 5/6.

Handwriting in English

Handwriting is a very visible part of writing, by which individuals are often judged. However, handwriting is a skill which some people develop more easily than others and which most people become competent at with practice. An individual’s handwriting does not tell you about their intelligence or personality, although it might give you clues about the amount of effort they have put in!


Although handwriting is often considered a matter of presentation, a substantial body of international research suggests that the role of handwriting in children’s composing has been neglected. Automaticity in handwriting is now seen as of key importance in composing but UK policy and practice tends to have assumed that, by Year 6, handwriting is a matter of presentation, unrelated to composition processes. Recent research has been undertaken into the handwriting speed and orthographic motor integration of Year 6 pupils in relation to their composition (Medwell et al., 2009) and into similar aspects of the writing of Year 2 children (Medwell et al., 2007). These studies both suggest that handwriting is an important factor in composition, and that a proportion of children suffer from low levels of handwriting automaticity, which may be interfering with their composition. The teaching of handwriting is, it seems, not just important in improving children’s presentation skills, but their composition skills too.

As handwriting has developed through the centuries it has become much more widespread, more fluent in use and more adapted to a great range of purposes. This means that most people need to be able to write a ’fair’ hand for public use, although this is becoming rarer today as word processing assumes this role. People also need to be able to write fast, legible notes for their own consumption and a ’middling’ or ’rough’ hand for other occasions. Learning handwriting involves learning how to do it and when to do it. Typing is not the same as handwriting and there is some evidence that handwriting helps children to fix their knowledge of phonemes so typing is unlikely to totally replace writing by hand. There is also evidence that slow writers tend to type slowly, too.

Young children generally develop a hand preference at around 3—4 years. Some children in the EYFS will still be developing a hand preference and may swap hands. Teachers in this age phase aim to get children to develop a pen grip, scribble, paint and make marks across the page and become increasingly precise in their drawings. When children start to write they usually start with their names — these are very significant words — and may also start ’scribble writing’ long messages. It is very obvious when you work with young children that they begin to write letters using capital letters. At first this is surprising to new teachers (some suggest the parents are teaching children wrongly) but it is quite logical when you consider how difficult the round movements of a small letter ’a’ are, compared to the bold, easy strokes of a capital letter.

In some countries there is almost a national ’style’ of ’script’ and all children are taught the same letter formation — French handwriting appears distinctive to British people for this reason. In the UK the script (letter formation and joins) taught to children is decided by the school. However, it is a decision that causes much discussion because we are all attached to our particular formation of b, k, f, etc. The key requirements for script are made clear by Sassoon (1990). All scripts are basically formed from ovals and vertical strokes. Any script must join easily and fluently and must be used consistently in the school. Most schools now use letter formations that include exit strokes (kicks, or flicks) but not entry strokes. These are easy to form, clear and join logically. The formation of letters can be taught in order of the shapes or letter ’families’, and joins can be taught in a number of orders. Some schools do the ’natural’ vertical joins first, then the horizontal joins; others the reverse. In either case it is good practice for the teacher to use the same script when modelling handwriting, especially in the EYFS.


Copy the preceding paragraph as quickly (and neatly) as possible. You will notice that writing neatly slows you down!

Examine your writing. Do you see any letters that should be joined but are not? Most writers tend to abandon the ’unnatural’ joins when they write fast but be careful when you write as a model for children in class.

The most important point in teaching early handwriting is that fluent letter formation movements must be learnt early — they are very hard to change and poor letter formation inhibits joining letters. If writers cannot easily join letters, their handwriting will be less fluent in later life. It is also important for letter formation to be automatic.

Finally, there is a need for children to have the skill of accurate and fast use of the keyboard. Although not all schools teach touch typing, it is likely to be on the curriculum of many schools in the near future.


image Young children become aware of syllable and word boundaries before they can hear sounds (phonemes) in words.

image Individual phonemes can be difficult to discriminate, especially if you already know the spelling.

image Most sounds (especially vowels) can be represented in more than one way.

image The same spelling can produce more than one sound (e.g. in field and tried).

image Phonics is a method of teaching sound—symbol correspondences and the skills of blending and segmenting.

image All children need to learn to use sound—symbol correspondences to read and spell.

image Correct spelling is not based only on sound—symbol correspondences.

image Visual, etymological and morphemic strategies are useful to achieve correct spelling.

image Fluent letter formation is more important than accuracy in size or alignment.

image Joined writing should be taught as soon as possible to ensure fluency, and possibly help spelling development.


Collect some samples of early writing from children in Nursery or the Reception year. Analyse which sounds each child has been able to discriminate and consider whether there seems to be a relationship between the fluency of their letter formation and the accuracy of their spelling. Compare these aspects with samples of writing from other children in other year groups. If you can gain access to the work of one particular child over time, track the development of their understanding of sound—symbol correspondence, spelling patterns and the fluency of their handwriting.


DfE (2013) Teachers’ Standards. London: DfE. (

DfE (2013) The 2014 National Curriculum. London: DfE.


Jager Adams, M. (1990) Beginning To Read: Thinking And Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Medwell, J., Strand, S. and Wray, D. (2007) ’The Role of Handwriting in Composing for Y2 Children’. Journal of Reading, Writing and Literacy, 2 (1): 18—36.

Medwell, J., Strand, S. and Wray, D. (2009) ’The Links between Handwriting and Composing for Y6 children’. Cambridge Journal of Education, 39 (3).

Peters, M. (1967) Spelling: Caught Or Taught? London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Peters, M. and Smith, B. (1993) Spelling In Context: Strategies For Teachers And Learners. Windsor: NFER-Nelson.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Reading. London: DfES.

Sassoon, R. (1990) Handwriting: The Way To Teach It. Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes.