Educators have been tracking children’s common spelling errors for about 100 years, and their errors haven’t changed much over all these years. When your great grandparents were in Year 1 at school, they were making the same mistakes as your own six-year-old. They wrote ‘they’ as ‘thay’, and ‘asked’ as ‘askt’, and muddled up ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’.

English spelling is complex. We don’t have an easy match between the sounds we hear and the letters we write. Looking at you, yacht! But a closer look at the common errors that children make can provide clues on how to fix the problem and get the words right  and have fun while we’re doing it.

There are two main kinds of spelling errors our children make:

  1. Over relying on sounds when they spell words.
  2. Words that sound the same but are spelt differently (homophones). For example, there, their and they’re, and to, too and two.

The first one may sound counter-intuitive. Surely you need to learn your sounds and letters in order to be able to spell. That is true. But in English, you need to also learn that there are many different letters that could represent the sounds you hear. For example, I can hear the sound ‘oo’ in ‘boo’, but that sound is represented by different letters in ‘do’, ‘flew’, ‘blue’, ‘you’, ‘two’, ‘shoe’, and even ‘choux’ and ‘coup’.

An excellent activity when you are reading or even singing with your children is to ask them to listen to the sounds in the words they hear, then check how those words are written. Get the coloured highlighter pens out, and highlight the letters that are making the sounds. Nursery rhymes are a great place to start:

Twinkle twinkle little star

How I wonder what you are

Up above the world so high

Like a diamond in the sky

Highlight the letters that are making the ‘ar’ sound in star and are, and the ‘i’ sound in high and sky. This is a fun way to help build your child’s knowledge that sounds can be represented by different letters, getting them curious about words and the way they are written. Curiosity is a great foundation for learning.

‘Askt’ is consistently one of the top 10 spelling errors in young children’s writing. They write it like this because those are the sounds they hear. But the meaning of ‘asked’ really helps us remember how to spell the word. ‘Asked’ is something we did in the past, and it is the ‘ed’ on the end that tells us this. We often put the suffix ‘ed’ on the end of actions to say they happened in the past.

If your child has misspelled asked, write the word on a piece of card, with the ‘ed’ in a different colour. Talk about the meaning of ‘ed’, then cut it off the base word. Now read the word ‘ask’ by itself. Talk about the difference in meaning between ask and asked. Then push the ‘ed’ back onto the base word ‘ask’ and read the word again. Notice how ‘ed’ sounds like ‘t’. Ask your child to then put ‘ed’ on the end of ‘jump’, ‘walk’, ‘talk’ and listen to the sound ‘ed’ makes.

Breaking words into base words and suffixes in this way is very helpful when you notice your child is over-relying on sounds and making errors as a result. Actually, it is very helpful for adults too!

By far the most common spelling errors children make are homophones – the words that sound the same but are written differently, like ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’, and ‘to’, ‘two’ and ‘too’. In fact, ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ are the top three most common spelling errors and have been since we first started collecting this information in the 1930s.

The only way to learn these words is to focus on their meaning – since they sound the same, and then notice how the letters help communicate the meaning. They are very common words, so they will be in the books you read to your children or signs in shops or the headlines of the magazines you read. When you notice one, read the whole sentence out loud with your child.

For example: ‘We remind shoppers to lock their cars’. What does ‘their’ mean? It means the cars belong to the shoppers – the cars belong to them’. So, this ‘their’ is the one that describes ownership and it goes together with ‘them’.

‘Megan and Harry say they’re happy in the USA.’ What does ‘they’re’ mean? It is two words joined together ‘they are’. The apostrophe is taking the place of ‘a’ when we push the two words together. Have your child notice ‘they’re’ when they are reading – and ask them to take away the apostrophe and read the two words separately. Do this also with ‘it’s’, where the apostrophe has taken the place of the letter ‘i’. The ‘its’ with no apostrophe is an ‘ownership’ word like ‘their’.

‘Where is the green sheep?’ ‘Over there!’ What does ‘there’ mean? It means a place, and it goes together with ‘where’. Notice the shared letter pattern these two ‘place’ words have – and notice that shared letter pattern is also a ‘place’ word – here!

Importantly don’t teach all these homophones at the same time – that is just confusing. Notice them one at a time, in context, whilst reading and focus on their meaning. An engaged reader who enjoys taking time to stop and notice the way words are spelled is well on the way to becoming a great speller. We can all help our children build this curiosity about words by being curious ourselves.


About Misty Adoniou

Misty Adoniou is an Associate Professor in Language and Literacy and is the author of Spelling It Out, a book that encourages children and adults to nurture a curiosity about words, discover their history and, in so doing, understand the logic behind the way they are spelled.