Using Metalanguage to Teach Spelling

In English, spelling a word requires you to integrate orthography (the correct sequence of letters and combinations of letters) to phonology (sounds in the word) with a knowledge of morphology (word parts that signal meaning and grammar) (Garcia, Abbott, & Berninger, 2010). Metalanguage is language used to describe and analyse languages. Daffern (2011) argues that using metalanguage to teach these three components of English spelling will lead to improvements in students’ spelling because they will have a better understanding of the linguistic processes that underpin written language. It also provides a common vocabulary for students and teachers to discuss word structure.

Phonological Awareness

Firstly, students need to be taught to be aware of the phonological components within a word including the individual phonemes (sounds), blending and segmenting those phonemes, and manipulating those phonemes by deleting phonemes (take the /l/ from clap and now you have cap), adding phonemes (add /d/ to the end of ban to make band) and substituting phonemes (change the /a/ in cat to /o/ to make cot). There is a long history of research dating back to the 1970s (see Kilpatrick, 2015) showing phonological awareness training in the early years has a positive impact on future literacy skills.

Orthographic Knowledge

Students need to be explicitly taught that the selection of certain graphemes (letters or letter combinations) representing a particular sound will depend on its position in the word (e.g., /oy/ at the end of words would be represented by ‘oy’ – enjoy, boy) and by a knowledge that certain letter combinations are not typically used in standard English (e.g., /kw/ will always be represented by ‘qu’ and not ‘kw’ or ‘cw’). The importance of this context sensitivity is highlighted in Treiman and Kessler’s (2006) study.

Morphological Knowledge

Teaching students about the meaning and function of prefixes, suffixes, root words and homophones has also been shown to be an effective way to support spelling. (e.g., Apel et al., 2014). An important part of this process is to also teach students the rules associated with connecting affixes to base or root words (as well as highlighting exceptions to the rules).

In her research, Daffern (2015) has found that explicitly teaching each of these components leads to improvements in students’ spelling as it provides them with the knowledge to determine the most likely correct spelling of words which they can’t automatically recall.


Apel, K., Masterson, J.J., & Hart, P. (2004). Integration of language components in spelling: Instruction that maximizes students’ learning. In E.R. Silliman & L.C. Wilkinson (Eds.), Language and literacy learning in schools (pp.292–315). New York, NY: Guilford.

Daffern, T. (2011). What happens when a teacher uses metalanguage to teach spelling? The Reading Teacher, 70(4), 423–434.

Daffern, T. (2015). Helping students become linguistic inquirers: A focus on spelling. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 23(1), 33-39.

Del Campo, R., Buchanan, W.R., Abbott, R.D., Berninger, V.W. (2015). Levels of phonology related to reading and writing in middle childhood. Reading and Writing, 28 (2), 183-198.

Garcia, N., Abbott, R., & Berninger, V. (2010). Predicting poor, average, and superior spellers in grades 1 to 6 from phonological, orthographic, and morphological, spelling, or reading composites. Written Language & Literacy, 13(1), 61–98. doi:10.1075/wll.13.1.03gar

Geoghegan, D., O’Neill, S., & Petersen, S. (2013). Metalanguage: The “teacher talk” of explicit literacy teaching in practice. Improving Schools, 16(2), 119–129.doi:10.1177/1365480213493707

Kilpatrick, D.A. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons : New Jersey.

Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2006). Spelling as statistical learning: Using consonantal context to spell vowels. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 642–652.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply