Language and literacy skills · Special Education

Writing development in pre- and early teens

In the final stages of writing development, usually during British Key Stage 2 (age 7-11) and often into the first year or so of Key Stage 3 (age 11-14), typical learners are expected to consolidate the following skills:

  • Phonetically regular words are generally spelt correctly
  • High frequency words begin to be spelt correctly from memory
  • Many irregular spelling patterns are remembered and spelt correctly

Transitional Stage of Writing and Spelling

However, knowledge of irregular spelling patterns may occasionally cause confusion, so we see what could be called simplifications such as ‘wate‘ for ‘wait’ or over-complications e.g. ‘bight’ for ‘bite’. A growing bank of spelling patterns to draw on might result in ‘comprehension’ written as ‘comprehention’. This type of error is quite common in normal development, and will, for the most part, cease as the learner becomes a more confident writer and speller.

Everyone approaches the final stages of writing development at their own pace, and it is important to observe and support carefully rather than rushing to the conclusion that there is a specific learning difficulty. Remember that some learners may spend longer on one stage than others, whether it is the pre-writing stage, the semi-phonetic or partial alphabetic stage, the phonetic or fully alphabetic stage, or the transitional stage. and some may appear to miss one or more stage(s) altogether.

Specific Learning Difficulties and Writing

Some learners may not appear to take on early phonics instruction: this should be noted and, where appropriate, support given, but it is important to remember just how young such pupils are, and to allow time for them to become sufficiently mature to access and engage with the tasks.

Some learners will struggle to get beyond the phonetic stage, despite engaging well and appearing initially to learn the basics of letter-sound correspondence. This is sometimes attributed to high quality or intensive instruction including synthetic phonics, which sometimes means potential difficulties are not apparent in the early years.

Once difficulties have been identified and support put in place (with or without formal diagnosis), some learners will respond well to early intervention and will make good progress, with support.

Other learners in the same supportive circumstances learners will need more intensive intervention over longer periods and may eventually require assistive technology to achieve their full potential.

Another group of learners will develop such strong coping strategies that support needs are well masked and do not become apparent until they reach an academic level where the demands are too great. This could be at any stage from pre-school to post-graduate level.

The most important thing to remember is that all learners are individuals with their own strengths and needs.

A Simple View of Writing

Dockrell, Marshall and Wyse (2016) adapted from Berninger, Garcia and Abbott (2009)

This simplified representation of the processes involved in writing shows just how complex the task itself actually is, and how it, too, draws on executive function. The effort of text generation in itself is multi-layered, requiring effort to recall letters to create words to form sentences and craft whole pieces of work. At each stage, it draws on working memory, to form letters, spell, conform to grammatical rules. On top of this, enormous load is placed on a learner’s attention, they need to remember what they have been tasked with producing, make a plan for the task, have some idea of how long it will take and know what to do at what stage – a breakdown at any one of these stages could mean little or no work is done, without even considering the generation and transcription efforts. And every step is mediated via working memory, which is often compromised in learners with specific learning difficulties. Do not be surprised if your learner manages a cracking piece of work on Monday morning and then reverts to apparent inactivity for the rest of the day!

Spelling in English

English is often described as a ‘difficult’ language when it comes to the logic (or apparent lack thereof) in its spelling. Reasons for this include that it has emerged from native languages and those of settlers, including languages underpinning Anglo-Saxon, and that it has significant Anglo-Norman influences as well as the addition of words derived from ancient Greek and Latin.

Deep Orthography

Whereas some languages have what is considered a ‘shallow’ orthography, that is, spelling conventions that are regular or ‘transparent’, English spelling is less predictable and is said to have a ‘deep’ orthography. So often:

  • the same letter, or combination of letters (grapheme) can be pronounced in different ways, e.g. tea, heaven.
  • the same sound (phoneme) can be written in different ways, e.g. fish, photo, cough.


Tools to Tackle English Spelling


If a learner is to predict the spelling of unfamiliar vocabulary, they need knowledge of the alphabet and grapheme-phoneme (letter to sound) correspondence, including various possible pronunciations of individual letters, di- and trigraphs (2- and 3-letter combinations) etc.

This can be supported by teaching ‘pure’ phonemes. When saying each letter or grapheme sound, avoid the ‘schwa’ /ə/ (-uh) sound. This aids the development of phonological confidence for spelling, so, for example, c-a-t, rather than cuh – ah – tuh. Two examples of pure phoneme pronunciation for UK English can be found here:

and here:

Resources and activities include sound matching games, crafting and tracing letters, flashcards, wooden or magnetic letters for familiarity and word-building.


A secure knowledge of common letter and word patterns takes time and effort, but it can be promoted through games and exercises involving rhymes and patterns matching. Draw attention to words that rhyme and words that have the same spelling patterns. When appropriate, point our the words that rhyme but have different spelling patterns, and words that have the similar spellings but are pronounced differently.


When learners are ready, introduction to root words and the role and/or meaning of parts of words e.g. prefixes, suffixes can be very helpful. So, for example, when choosing -tion or -sion it may help to think to the root word such as immerse – immersion but complete – completion, etc.

Make a point of teaching common prefixes, suffixes and other modifying endings. Depending on learners’ age and confidence levels, discuss meanings, how the root word is changed, what other longer words have the same root etc. Learners may be interested to know the origins of different parts of words. Care should be taken to ensure that this supports learning, rather than overtaxing working memory.

The next posts will look at ways to support writing and spelling in greater detail.

This post is based on lectures presented online and to undergraduate students.


Dockrell, J. Marshall, C. and Wyse, D. (2016) ‘Teachers’ reported practices for teaching writing in England’, Reading and Writing 29 (3) pp.409-434 [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 4 July 2016)

Johnston, R. and Watson, J., (2005) The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: a seven year longitudinal study. Edinburgh: SEED [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 29 June 2016)

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