Language Foundations Continuum for Reading and Writing

Grades 1–4: Overall Expectation B2

Orthographic Knowledge for Reading and Spelling



“Orthographic knowledge refers to the understanding of the English spelling system and its patterns, including grapheme positions and combinations in a word.”

The English writing system, or orthography, represents speech sounds with letters or letter combinations. English’s orthography is “opaque” (as opposed to a “transparent orthography”), which means it is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship between a sound and its representation.

In opaque orthographic systems, some sounds can be represented by multiple spellings. For example, in English the ē sound can be represented by <ee> in sleep, <ea> in heap, or <y> in happy, among other spellings.

Similarly, some spellings can represent multiple sounds. For example, the letters <ow> can represent /ou/ as in how, or /ō/ as in snow.

It’s important to note that there is a structure and order behind these relationships, particularly when the position of a sound in a word is considered. The English language system has a clear structure; students need to understand the patterns in language to help them read and write.


When students start to learn to read and write, most words have a predictable relationship between letters and sounds. For example, students learn the sounds for single consonant and vowel letters, and then eventually for digraphs and trigraphs (ch, tch, etc.). 

As students become more proficient, though, we can teach them that there are sometimes multiple spellings for some sounds – this is important knowledge for spelling words, since they may need to choose between multiple different spellings. For example, if a child is writing the word ‘spray’ they would need to choose from multiple different spellings for the /ā/ sound.

We can also teach them that some spellings can have multiple sounds – this is important for reading words, since they may need to try different sounds when sounding out an unfamiliar word. For example, if a child is reading the word “crunchy”, they would need to decide which sound to pronounce for the final < y >.

Knowledge and Skills

Kindergarten to Grade 4

  • Developing an understanding that there are multiple ways to spell some phonemes and choosing between multiple graphemes to spell a phoneme
  • Using the position of the grapheme or phoneme and their knowledge of position-based tendencies, as necessary, to support spelling and determine accurate pronunciation when reading
  • (Note: Instruction in grapheme-phoneme correspondence should focus on teaching students the “most common spelling” grapheme for that phoneme in that position to support students in making the correct choices when reading and spelling. Orthographic knowledge cannot be taught in isolation and needs to be practised and applied in word decoding and spelling.)

Looks like

Kindergarten / Grade 1

  • reading and spelling words using phonemes and corresponding graphemes that have been explicitly taught

Grade 1

  • beginning to use the most common spellings for phonemes with multiple graphemes. For example, for a /k/ sound at the end of a word after a short vowel, the most common spelling is <–ck>
  • learning common endings in spelling patterns: long VCC (<–ild>, <–old>, <–ind>, <–olt>, <–ost>)
  • long vowel <y>, <ī>, and <ē>
  • consonant <–le> (e.g., bundle)
  • learning spellings of graphemes related to the /k/ sound (<k> before <e>, <i>, <y>; <c> before all other letters; <ck> follows a short vowel at the end of one-syllable words)
  • learning the most frequent spellings for some final consonant sounds directly after a short vowel: <-tch> = /ch/; <-dge> = /j/
  • the FLSZ spelling rule (i.e., <-ff>, <-ll>, <-ss>, <-zz>)
  • learning the I J U V spelling rule (these letters do not generally end a word) and that words ending in /v/ will end in <e>
  • learning plural <–s> vs. <–es>
  • learning irregular plurals
  • learning positional spellings: <ai> vs. <ay>, <oi> vs. <oy>, <ou> vs. <ow>
  • learning suffix spelling changes: doubling rule for <–ed>, <–ing>, doubling rule for <–er>, <–est>, dropping <–e> rule, <–y> to <i> rule

Grade 2

  • using the most common spellings for phonemes with multiple graphemes. For example, for a long /o/ in the middle of a word, <o-e> is the most common spelling, followed by <oa>
  • consolidating common ending spelling patterns and suffix spelling changes through systematic review
  • becoming familiar with low-frequency spellings:
    • <–ar>, <–or> = /er/ (e.g., dollar, doctor)
    • <air>, <are>, <ear> = /air/
    • <ear> = /ear/ (e.g., bear)
    • alternate long /ā/: <ei>, <ey>, <eigh>, <ea>
    • alternate long /u/: <ew>, <eu>, <ue> = /yū/; <ou> = /ü/ (e.g., soup)
    • <ough> = /aw/
    • signal vowels (<e>, <i>, <y>) for soft <c> and soft <g>
    • <ch> = /sh/, /k/; <gn> = /n/; <gh> = /g/

Grade 3

  • consolidating the concepts learned in previous grades through systematic review
  • using the most common spellings for phonemes with multiple graphemes. For example, for a long /ē/ in the middle of the word, <ee> is the most common spelling, followed by <ea>

Why is this important?

Understanding how the English language is structured is important so students do not have to memorize individual words by rote. Skilled word reading supports comprehension, and strong spelling skills support written composition.

Students cannot spell accurately by writing a letter for a sound; spelling is an analytical task that involves careful consideration of the positions of sounds and their spellings.

Hanna et al. (1966) found that:

  •   50% of English words are fully regular.
  •   36% are regular with the exception of 1 letter-sound link.
  •   10% are regular if morphology and etymology are considered.

Taken together, this means that approximately 4% of English words are truly irregular, pointing to the importance of a deep understanding of our language and the structure that supports its representation in print.

To learn more about the frequencies of spellings for each sound, Fry (2004) listed spellings for a given sound, classifying them as common, unusual, or rare. This helps us understand which grapheme-phoneme correspondences should be explicitly taught to students to support their reading and writing.


Be clear and direct with students about the structure of language. This can often be very interesting for students to understand why words are spelled the way they are. Highlighting to students that there are often patterns that govern why words are spelled the way they are can be empowering for developing readers and writers!

Frame the rules as “patterns.” English is a complex language due to its many influences; the terms “pattern” or “tendency” better account for some of the variation that can be seen in English spellings.

Teach predictable spelling choices first. For example, the pattern governing the use of -tch is quite predictable. The /ch/ sound is typically spelled <-tch> when it falls at the end of a word, directly after a short vowel sound. This is easier for students to learn than a spelling choice like <ee> vs. <ea>.

When students are spelling, it is helpful for them to know the most frequent spellings for a sound in a particular position. These “best bet” spellings help students logically decide how to represent a sound. For example, <ee> is more common in the middle of a word than <ea> is.

Capitalize on students’ developing phonemic awareness when teaching orthographic patterns. When students are spelling, encourage them to segment a word first to identify the position of a target phoneme in a word. For example, if a student was spelling the word ‘grass’, we could prompt the student to identify the sounds they heard in the word and then prompt them to identify that the /s/ sound comes at the end, directly after the short vowel sound, so it should be doubled.

Assessment for Learning

“The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning.”
Growing Success, 2010, p. 28

A variety of sources of insight into students’ application of orthographic knowledge, including early reading screening, diagnostic assessments, and progress monitoring, can be used as assessment for learning to drive evidence-based explicit and systematic instruction.

In reading, students’ knowledge, understanding, and application of orthographic patterns can be captured generally in Oral Reading Fluency screeners. Decoding diagnostics can be used to dive deeper into the specific orthographic patterns students have learned, and opportunities for future growth.

In writing, consider using a spelling inventory for assessment for learning. These tools can typically be administered to the whole class with a list of words. Students’ spelling is scored with a scoresheet that allows for a close examination of their understanding of sounds, spelling patterns, and morphology.