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Spelling words with ough

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This is a slightly modified excerpt from That Spelling Thing, a book of spelling strategies for the classroom, offering an alternative to look/say/cover/write/check. It’s written for teachers of any subject from middle primary to adult education and doesn’t require any literacy expertise. However, I’m assured there’s lots of content for teachers who are already teaching spelling. The book is due for publication in January.

Bundling by tricky code

<ough> isn’t a common grapheme but it occurs in very common words and it worries people because <ough> words look so similar. However, by thinking in sounds and using the TST script, anxious spellers no longer have to freeze, wondering if they’re writing though, through or thorough. Here’s the lesson.

Teacher is in italics

Students are in bold

Notes are in regular font.

Because the words are so simple, you don’t need puzzle pieces unless working with a very low ability group. Each student has a spelling practice sheet. Make sure the words aren’t on display anywhere!

Teacher: All the words we’re going to spell have a sound spelt o-u-g-h (saying the letter names) and you’re going to see how it can spell several different sounds.

Write ough at the top of your paper so you can look at it if you need to.

Teacher writes ough on whatever board they’re using and students write it at the top of the spelling worksheet.

T: Let’s start with ‘through’. What’s the first sound you hear in ‘through’?

Students: th saying one sound – not in chorus – just so they can hear the sound as they write it.

Students have been using the method for a while so they know to write th in the first box saying the sounds as they write. Listen out for anyone saying ‘tuh huh’. You only want to hear /th/ while you all write th.

and the next sound in through? Say it as you write it.

Everyone says ‘r’ and writes r.

and what’s the last sound in ‘through’?

Students: oo

Teacher: I bet you can figure out how you spell that one.

Everyone writes ough in one box saying ‘oo’ the whole time they’re writing. If they need to use two boxes, underline the four letters to remember it’s one sound. When you get to ‘tough’, the ou and gh will be in separate boxes.

Then write out the whole word, saying the sounds as you write.

Repeat with the rest of the following list. When you get to ‘thorough’ you’ll need to ask how many syllables and they’re going to have to think of a great spelling way of saying the first <o>. Some might choose to shift the syllables to thor/ough. Let them choose whichever they’ll find easiest to remember. (Click on photo to get a better look.)

Now you can add words like:















Add words according to the ability of your students. Review the original five and add more in the following days. Celebrate “ough Week”. Do what works for you, but try to conquer them as quickly as your students can master them. With frequent exposure and practice, the <ough> stops being the tricky bit and they can concentrate on remembering how to spell the /air/ sound in ‘thoroughfare’ and the /ay/ sound in ’breakthrough’.

The bonus of improved reading – probably in a small group

In spelling, we usually talk about spelling alternatives – all the various ways to spell a single sound. When you bundle by spelling like we’ve just done, you’re drawing attention to a different feature of the English code which is that some graphemes can be pronounced several ways. If your students confuse ‘thought’ ‘through’ and ‘though’ when reading, have them practice decoding the words, first with no additional text to avoid guessing, then in text to develop fluency. If they need a lot of that kind of practice, have a look at That Reading Thing.

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