Orthographic knowledge includes the understanding of a language’s spelling conventions (as well as aspects such as capitalisation and punctuation). Some languages have regular spelling patterns, meaning that an unfamiliar word can be decoded for reading, or encoded for writing, with relative ease. Such languages are considered to have a shallow, or transparent, orthography. They typically have consistent letter-sound or grapheme-phoneme correspondence. Examples include Spanish, perhaps unsurprisingly, and Welsh (those of you who have seen and heard Welsh, but who are not Welsh-speaking, might be taken aback by this little fact).

It is commonly acknowledged that English has a deep (opaque) orthography, meaning that the same letter or combination of letters can be pronounced in different ways, and the same sound can be represented by different letters or combinations of letters. Because of this many children are likely to learn to read and spell more slowly in English than in languages with regular spelling patterns.

English vocabulary has been influenced by many languages over the centuries, which adds to the irregularity in spelling and pronunciation. Spelling is especially challenging for learners with Specific Learning Difficulties, and because of the complexities of English spelling dyslexia may be detected and should be supported earlier than can be the case for other languages.

A little orthographic joke based on one first recorded in the mid 19th century:

How do you pronounce ghoti?




gh as in rough

o as in women

ti as in station



Of course, this is beyond what even English can present, but it does illustrate just how irrational and unfathomable English spelling can seem.

As discussed in earlier posts, English spelling and reading tends to be first taught through systematic instruction in synthetic phonics. This works very well for many children, and for words that are spelt regularly. A learner may quickly recognise and be able to write ‘c-a-t’, ‘a-n-d’, ‘d-o-g’, and even ‘f-i-sh’ (the digraph ‘sh’ /ʃ/ is one sound), but to write even the simplest sentence, children must remember words like ‘the’, ‘do’, and ‘he’, which cannot be spelt out using phonic knowledge.

So what can we do to help?

Rhyming/matching/sorting games

This can begin long before there is any expectation of writing, with songs, chants and spoken games where rhyming words are paired or grouped. It can be played as a physical game, with pictures and objects, always encouraging children to say the names of the objects, so that the rhyming sounds are reinforced As children learn to read and write, the words can be written, or cards with the words on can be paired etc. At this stage, it is helpful to avoid words that rhyme but have different spelling patterns e.g. ‘hair’ and ‘pear’ or words that use the same letters but are pronounced differently e.g. ‘do’ and ‘so’. Later, these confusing spellings can be used together to develop skills and reinforce differences.

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Games that support phonological knowledge acquisition can be used or adapted for orthographic knowledge development. Try rhyme hunts around the classroom or playground (be sure to plant some rhyming objects where they will be found). Circle or carpet time games can include taking turns to say a rhyming word, with the first to say a rhyme choosing an object from the feely bag for someone else to rhyme (or saying a self-chosen word, depending on age and stage).

The ‘look’ of words

Once children have begun to write and read, they can be encouraged to notice the ‘look’ or ‘shape’ of words. If your school has weekly spelling tests, it is beneficial to combine words with the same pattern in tests, so that the pattern is reinforced. This consolidation can also help when students need to write a rhyming word that is not already familiar to them.

  • ape
  • shape
  • escape

When students are ready, talk about words that sound the same but have different spelling patterns:

  • bear
  • fair
  • share

and words that look the same but sound different:

  • fear
  • tear

Combine phonology with orthography

Syllable games and similar activities can support confidence for spelling and proofreading.

All of these techniques can be used as whole class activities in the mainstream classroom, or adapted to small group work or 1:1 intervention. Benefits of this continuity between whole class and targeted support include the facts that strategies become familiar and can be consolidated more quickly, and that skills can be more easily generalised across settings and situations. As with other activities and strategies mentioned in earlier posts, this type of teaching can boost stronger skills in learners who are ready for greater independence and extension, allowing the teacher time to support those who need it.

Online and commercially produced games and activities

Syllable card game
slug in a jug
Rhyming board game


Free download


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


Armstrong, D and Squires, G. (2015) Key Perspectives on Dyslexia: An Essential Text for Educators. Abingdon: Routledge

Helland, T., Tjus, T., Hovden, M., Ofte, S. and Meimann, M. (2011) Effects of Bottom-Up and Top-Down Intervention Principles in Emergent Literacy in Children at Risk of Developmental Dyslexia: A Longitudinal Study Journal of Learning Disabilities 44 (2) pp105-122 [Online]. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022219410391188  (accessed 27 November 2015)

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