Assessing Your Spelling Out!

NOTE! this page follows a “spelling out loud” challenge presented on a page at this link.

You may find it useful to investigate that page before continuing here.

The principle that drives the conventions for spelling out word structure presented here is that they target the learner’s attention on the underlying structures -- the morphemes and graphemes -- of written words. The following three points outline the basic conventions relevant to the words presented on this page.

  1. The Base: Digraphs and trigraphs are announced “quickly” in the base as a way to focus attention on the graphemic structures within the base, whether it is in the presence of another morpheme in a complex word or it is a free standing word. This also appropriately brings added attention to the base or bases of complex words.

  2. Affixes: The prefix or suffix is always announced “quickly” to focus the learners attention on these units of spelling.

  3. Double Letters: The same letter twice in a row within a complex word is announced as a “double letter” only when there is no plus sign between those letters in a word sum.

(See a comprehensive description of these conventions including how to announce suffixing changes in this document.)

On the previous page you were given just the surface spelling of these words (left column) and challenged to announce their underlying structures. Now use the right hand column below to assess the accuracy of your spelling out. 

    Surface                Morphemic                          Announced Morphemic AND

     Spelling               Substructure                       Graphemic Substructure

     the                  the                                     th-e                                                 (base word)

     does               do + es                               d-o ---- es                

     doing              do + ing                              d-o ---- ing

     marry              marry                                 m-a- “double-r” - y                           (base word)

     spelled            spell + ed                           s-p-e- “double-l” ---- ed

     unhelpfully      un + help + ful + ly             un ---- h-e-l-p ---- ful ---- ly

     teacher           teach + er                           t-ea-ch ---- er

     bookkeeper    book + keep + er                b- “double-o” - k ---- k - “double-e”-p ---- er

     pondered        ponder + ed                       p-o-n-d-er ---- ed

     purple             purple                                 p-ur-p-l-e                                        (base word)

     fighting           fight + ing                           f-igh-t ---- ing

     duckling         duck + ling                          d-u-ck ---- ling 

Guidance from reliable linguistic tools, references and colleagues

Although I am supposed to be an “expert” at English spelling, just like beginners, my learning requires guidance from reliable linguistic tools (e.g., word sums and matrices), references, and learning partners.  In preparing this material on spelling out word sums I made use of all three of these supports for my own understandng. I consulted my new grapheme cards from LEX 1 to double check a few of the graphemes I was not 100% sure about. I also emailed friends with questions and ideas to help me get the content right and to present it clearly. To get started we don’t need to have all the answers, we just need to know that there are places to help us work out answers to questions.

1I have to emphasize the usefulness of these grapheme cards. The way they are organized means that I don’t need to go through every grapheme to find the one I’m looking for -- but I do look through many to find the ones I’m looking for- so I’m always discovering new things every time I look for something.

Study the written representation of the morphological structure (middle column) to help make sense of the correct announcing of structure marked on the right. For example, the word sum for <does> shows that it cannot use an <oe> digraph. A plus sign marks the morphemic boundary between these letters, and graphemes never cross morphemic boundaries. (See this link for a video of a a class investigating the spelling of <does> with word sums and a matrix.) Similarly, on the surface it may be tempting to announce a ‘double l’ in <helpfully>. However, the plus sign helps us see that this <ll> is just an accidental juxtaposition of two <l>s from separate morphemes.

What about suffixing changes?

Notice that none of these words have spelling changes due to suffixing conventions. For this introduction, I didn’t want to overload readers by addressing the suffixing conventions as well as conventions for spelling out all at once. When you get to the point of addressing suffixing changes (modelled in this document), spelling and writing them out in word sums is a way to fix them in long term memory!

(See the Big Suffix Checker from Real Spelling, or Neil Ramsden’s Interactive Suffix Checker for help with those conventions.)

What can we learn from this challenge?

If you are like most participants in my workshops, you will have had to think very carefully about trying to announce the morphemic and graphemic structures in this list of words, especially without the scaffolding provided by a written word sum to help.

When first learning about morphemes and graphemes with word sums it is challenging to know when we should or should not announce double letters, remember to pause for morpheme boundaries and specify graphemes. Further, many of these words were chosen specifically because they have surface patterns that are likely to mislead learners into announcing a substructure that is not actually there. For example, I placed <duckling> after <fighting> to highlight the <-ing> morphemic structure in your mind just before encountering a word with a final <ing> that is not the suffix in this word. (A <duckling> is not a little <*duckle>!) By making you sort through such problems, I hope to force you to attend carefully to the structures in these words.

I would also be curious to know how many of you paused after spelling out the “p-o-n-d” of the base <ponder>. You may note that I placed this word immediately after two words that use the <-er> suffix. If you did pause at that point, a likely reason is that your attention to spelling structure forced you to think of the <-er> suffix that you know, but which  is not present in <ponder>. This “foil” suffix is likely to cause us to pause to consider the structure of <ponder>. However, if we do, and then we think of the meaning of the word <pond> and <ponder>, we are likely to conclude that in this case there is no  <-er> suffix. Keep that idea in mind for the next section on assessment...

Spelling out as a tool for Instruction AND assessment

Assessment: Now that you have gone through this process yourself, I encourage you to review the video of Sofie spelling out the word <wonderfully>. This time pay close attention to the distinction between her spelling out of the base <wonder> on the left and right of the rewrite arrow. I think you will see that the way she announces the word sum gives us a powerful tool to assess her thinking about word structure.

Notice that on the left of the word sum Sofie pauses for some time after the <d> of <wonder>. This type of pause is supposed to be associated with a boundary between morphemes, but the word sum has presented <wonder> as a base. What is Sofie thinking?

I have no more information than anyone watching this video, but my guess is that Sofie pauses because the process of spelling out <wonder> has brought her attention to the final <er> which she has been taught is a common suffix. If this idea has occurred to Sofie, she is faced with contradictory information that takes time to process. The word sum does not present <er> as a suffix, but could it be word sum is wrong?  

After  that pause, she continues with the word sum. When she gets to the right side of the word sum, it appears that Sofie has made her mind up about the morphological structure of <wonder>. She does not pause in the same way, suggesting that she has concluded that <wonder> is a base and therefore does not use an <-er> suffix.

My interpretation of Sofie’s thinking is of course speculation. We don’t know if these pauses and lack of pauses signal that Sofie was a) explicitly thinking about these questions, b) responding to these morphological structures without explicit awareness, or c) pausing for reasons unrelated to word structure.  However, in a teaching situation, these pauses give us a reason to ask a student about their questions. If you caught yourself pausing between the <pond> and <er> of <ponder> you may or may not have explicitly worked through all those ideas of meaning and structure, but in a teaching situation, such a pause is an opportunity to introduce such explicit conversations.

Instruction: If we teach children specific conventions for spelling out word structure with the help of word sums, we are also creating a means of assessing how well they master those conventions. The word sum provides scaffolding for learning these conventions, and then we can start to assess the ability of learners to perceive word structure when presented with words in text. Teachers can support children’s ability to attend to and announce word structure by always trying to model spelling in this way. Notice that we can teach about word structure even with a word like <the>. Simply announcing the <th> digraph signals from the start that this word does not use a <t> grapheme, but a combination of two letters <th> in a very common digraph.

Teaching children to construct word sums is not just a teaching tool, it is also an efficient, effective assessment tool. If I have been teaching students about graphemes for the ‘long i’ recently and I also wanted to check that they still remembered the conventions for replacing single silent <e>s, I could make a small list of words like this (left column) and invite children to come to my desk and quickly spell them out. I can create my own “cheat sheet” (right two columns) so that I can see how well students are able to announce the relevant graphemic and morphemic conventions. Depending on the background of my class, I might want to provide students with the full word sum to scaffold their ability to spell out.

                Surface Spellings                               Correct Spelling Out             Sub-Structure

                fighter                                                    f-igh-t ---- er                            fight + er

                writing                                                   wr-i-t -- ‘no e’ -- ing                 write/ + ing

                buying                                                   b-uy ---- ing                             buy + ing

                sideways                                               s-i-d-e ---- w-ay ---- s              side + way + s

                sighed                                                   s-igh ---- ed                             sigh + ed

The above suggestion is for a formal assessment of what children have learned. The other advantage of teaching children to spell out word structure is that it becomes an ever-present feature of class allowing for informal assessment of what children do and do not know.

I recall visiting my friend Skot Caldwell’s Grade 1 class to do a lesson with word sums. Before I started I needed to assess what these children already knew. I noticed a word sum for <teacher> on a board from a previous investigation, so I started by asking the class if anyone could spell the word teacher for me. Hands shot up and I called on a child who matter-of-factly announced t-ea-ch ---- er. In a matter of seconds I knew not only what Skot had been teaching, but what his young students had already learned. With that information, I was able to target my lesson in line with the

background knowledge of the class.

Resources from Real Spelling to support assessment

Users of Real Spelling know that word sums are fundamental to that resource, but as emphasized in that resource, the word sum is a long established linguistic tool, not an invention of Real Spelling. The conventions for spelling out described here are influenced directly by what I learned from Real Spelling, but it is worth pointing out that I have adapted the specific conventions for spelling out described here from what I have learned from that resource. You, of course are welcome to adapt conventions I describe according to your own professional judgement. The guiding principle for any adaptations of spelling out is not what WordWorks or Real Spelling says -- it is whether or not those conventions for spelling out accurately represent the existing structure of English spelling.

(For example, the video below shows slightly different conventions for spelling out, but critically those conventions remain directly tied to spelling structure.)

For more on assessing students’ understanding about English spelling, I highly recommend the new revised (version 2) of Orthographic Analysis disk available from Real Spelling on its own or as part of the Real Spelling Tool Box 2.

The Word Word Sum as a “Worked Example” of word structure

The document on spelling out word structure at this link includes diagrams or what I think of as worked examples (Sweller & Cooper, 1985) of the conventions for spelling out word structure on the left and right of the rewrite arrow in a word sum.1 “A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem" (Clark, Nguyen, & Sweller, 2006, p. 190). These diagrams can also be seen as examples of what Van Merriënboer (1997) called “process worksheets.”

That document includes one worked example for each of the three main suffixing changes (replacing, single, silent <e>, doubling final, single consonants, changing <y> to <i>). It also includes a one page description of the process of spelling out and explains how this instructional practice is in line with the recommendations for assessment “backward design” from Understanding By Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Word sums as a tool for instruction and assessment of understanding of the world -- not “just” words

In this introduction to word sums so far I have only addressed using them for teaching and assessing understanding of the structure and meaning of words. This is valuable as a tool for development of spelling, vocabulary and reading skill , but structured word inquiry with word sums is not just about understanding words. This practice is a tool that scaffolds learning about concepts in any subject area, expressing that understanding effectively. I will point to two examples of teachers who, having given their students the conceptual tool of the word sum, then used that knowledge as a tool for developing conceptual understanding of different subject areas.

  1. 1)Understanding science: Click here for a document describing an impromptu use of word sums to investigate the term <condensation>. I have long pointed to this story of a Grade 4/5 class in an underprivileged Kingston neighbourhood in which students suggested they do a word sum of this term that was introduced at the end of a science class on this topic. This is a good example of an “inquiry-led” structured word inquiry, and illustrates how this “mechanical word knowledge” becomes a tool for understanding that can be applied to any subject area.

  2. 2)Understanding the political world: The video embedded to the right shows a Grade 7 student presenting his learning as part of a unit of study in humanities. The student starts by announcing a word sum for the word <dissident> and then recounts his research on the structure, history of that word, and how these inform the meaning of this word. He then links his learning of this word structure and meaning to his views on historical and current events. I originally posted this video at this link where you can also find documents with the original assignment by the students teacher, and another similar assessment tool with written work by a variety of students. It is 


1The worked example effect was first demonstrated by Sweller and Cooper (1985) and is fundamental to Sweller’s (1998) cognitive load theory. For more on the this research I recommend Schnotz, & Kürschner’s (2007) excellent review. If you are interested in more, I am happy to share a pdf of a  term paper I wrote for a graduate course in which I attempted to summarize cognitive load theory and how I see structured word inquiry is consistent with its recommendations for instructional design.


Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F., and Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Linguistic-Educator Exchange, (

Real Spelling, (see

Schnotz, W., & Kürschner, C. (2007). A reconsideration of cognitive load theory. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 496–508.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem-solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257–285.

Sweller, J., & Cooper, G. A. (1985). The use of worked examples as a substitute or problem solving in learning algebra. Cognition and Instruction, 2, 59–89.

Van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (1997). Training complex cognitive skills. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J.(2005). Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Ed. USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


See a brilliant lesson in Skot Caldwell’s Grade 1 class in targeting graphemes with the help of word sums.

Above is a video from a Skot Caldwell’s Grade 1 class later in the same year in which he used word sums to help students identify graphemes.


Copyright Susan and Peter Bowers 2008

(See a brilliant lesson by Skot later in that year targeting graphemes with the help of word sums here.)

(See a brilliant lesson by Skot later in that year targeting graphemes with the help of word sums here.)


  1. announced

Assessing Your Spelling Out!

Assessing Your Spelling Out!

Assessing Your Spelling Out!

Assessing Your Spelling Out!

Assessing Your Spelling Out!