A Spelling Investigation in Action

One of the ways I approach spelling with my students is to use spelling investigations.

A spelling investigation requires a student or group of students to inquire into a spelling pattern, sound, or observation about how words are spelled, and then to find and sort examples of this and create generalisations about spelling based on the evidence found.

I usually decide on an investigation focus based on:

  • errors and misunderstandings I see in student writing
  • appropriate next steps on a scope and sequence, or
  • a question or wondering that arises from within the class.

Below I have outlined just one spelling investigation done with my class. I hope it can provide a sense of how these lessons might work for you and your students.


I introduce a sound that has multiple spelling patterns. I read some or all of a text and students listen for that sound in words. I purposely do not show the text so they can listen, rather than look for it. A familiar text is helpful so the story is already known and focusing on word sounds is easier.

When we find a word with the featured sound, we write it down, noting the letters that spelling the sound we are looking for.

Today we listened for the /shn/ sound (because a lot of my students have been interested in stop motion lately and I have seen every variation of attempted spelling possible for stop moshune/stop mishin/stop moton, to name a few). I read them a few pages of the book ‘Melu’ by Kyle Mewburn and they said “shn” whenever they heard the sound in a word. We found two instances and an almost-example, which helped to refine the task.

We started our collection of words with the target sound by listening for the sound in this book.


Students read aloud in pairs and notice when they hear the sound. Using pairs allows for one student to read while the other listens for the sound.  They write down the word if no one else in the class has written this word down yet. They add it to the growing pile of words found with the featured sound.

Tip: Have a couple of books prepared for students who are reading simpler books as they are have fewer words and those students are less likely to have success finding the words to add to the group’s collection.

One student reads while another writes the word they heard with our target sound.


With the whole group, we discuss and list all the different spellings we found, and then sort the words into columns. This is also a good time to add words students have realised fit into our spelling pattern lists but did not read.

We sorted all the words we found into spelling pattern groups.

We make a generalisation about the spelling rule.

Today it was “The shn sound can be written like sion, ssion, cean, tion, tian.”

We will add to this list over time and refer to it as a prompt for making spelling choices throughout the year.

We made a generalisation based on the evidence we found.

4 thoughts on “A Spelling Investigation in Action

  1. Hi,
    This looks like a great lesson. How often would you do an investigation and then what would you do for other lessons to support your investigation?


    • Hi Sonia,
      Thanks for reading. At the beginning of the year (or when introducing investigation) I would do these with the whole class regularly, probably weekly. Once students get the idea of how it works I do them less regularly with the whole class (about fortnightly) and do them with smaller groups based on need more regularly – as part of reading or writing or spelling lessons.

      As in the post, usually the investigations come from something that has come up with the class so we might listen for the sound in a book we are reading, or a misunderstanding or wondering might come up in a discussion and I use that as a launch point for the investigation. So often the investigation is connected to what we are doing in other areas or lessons. Does that answer your question? Happy to discuss more if needed.



  2. Regarding phoneme/phonics frequencies.

    Here is a truespel phonetics video of how the 40 US English sounds are spelled (phonics) in typical text organized by phoneme frequency and phonics frequency http://bit.ly/2AKWZyo . Data are for the top 5k words of English with a count of 15.4 million words, or about 90% of words on a page.


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