Teaching Spelling through Mary Poppins - By John Murray

This blog post is a taste of what will be shared on my conference with John Murray - Improving Reading and Writing through Popular Children's Movies and Media on Friday 19th June in Dudley. Places are still available so click the link to book a place.

Let’s face it, the teaching and learning of spelling can be a little formulaic and is not always the most interesting of lessons to deliver.

So here’s a fun way to encourage children to talk about spelling patterns, share strategies for learning how to spell and explore reasons why people make mistakes when writing unfamiliar words.
What’s more, it can also help introduce your class to the classic Mary Poppins!

Ask your class: “What do you do when you think of a word you want to write down but you are not sure how to spell it?”

Elicit from your class which strategies they like to use, encouraging learners to share specific examples. Include one or two words that you (as their teacher and adult) find difficult to spell yourself! This will highlight that learning to spell is much more of a journey rather than a final destination and that we all, at times, make spelling errors. More importantly, it helps learners to become aware that everyone, young and old, employs a variety of techniques, strategies and tools to help them to spell. The more we have the better spellers we become!

After this discussion get into pairs and sit back to back, each individual having a wipe board and pen.
Tell them that they are going to spell a word that they will not find in a dictionary. It is a ‘nonsense word’ and as such there may be different ways to spell it… so don’t worry about being right or wrong. Tell them you want them to listen to the word and write it down. It’s a loooooong word!
Are you ready? The word is: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Once done, get each pair to face each other and share their spelling of this word.

Any part of the word that both individuals have spelt the same they underline and any part they have spelt differently they circle (or vice versa). Encourage learners to share ideas as to why each segment of the word has been spelt the same or differently and feedback these ideas to the whole class.

You will find that children will naturally segment the word even when they are not aware that they are doing so. For example, not only will most children have written the first ‘super’ the same way, but they are usually able to give specific examples (such as ‘supermarket’ and ‘Superman’) that link to prior word knowledge when explaining why they think they have spelt this section ‘correctly’.

However, useful discussion and examples can also be had when talking about why other sections of the word may have been spelt differently. For example: ‘cali’ or ‘kali’.

This will lead you into why English spelling is hard, certain letters and letter strings having the same sound but are written on the page or screen differently.

Explain to the class they are about to investigate one such spelling, a suffix that causes many adults difficulty: the difference between ‘tious’ and ‘cious’. Which one did each individual use when spelling their version of the nonsense word? Lead them towards the suffix ‘cious’.

Tell them they are about to watch a clip where this nonsense word comes from. However, they are going to also hear two more words that use the ‘cious’ suffix. One is a KS2 word, the other a KS3 word. Get them to draw a box and head each box, telling them to write down each particular word in the right box and put a star next to the one they think is hardest to spell.
Then play the following clip:

The two words the learners hear should be placed in the following boxes:

KS2 = atrocious          KS3 = precocious

Interestingly, the vast majority of Year 5 children place the two words in the appropriate box and star the word ‘precocious’.

But why is this so predictable?

It is unlikely that they will have heard the word ‘precocios’ before, let alone understand what it means, so will naturally gravitate towards putting it into the KS3 box.

However, what is interesting is that, despite it being a ‘KS3’ word, it is actually not too difficult a word to spell and most children often do so correctly. It is easy to segment and ‘pre’ and ‘co’ will have been linked in the mind with prior word knowledge and attached to specific examples in much the same was as we did when spelling ‘super’ at the start of our nonsense word.

More often than not learners will have more difficulty spelling the word ‘atrocious’, despite the greater likelihood of them having experienced the word before and understanding what the word means.

The error usually lies in the fact that it has been spelt ‘attrocious’ and that misleading links or ‘false friends’ have been made with familiar words such as ‘attack’, ‘attraction’ or ‘attic’ all of which they may well have used previously in their story writing.

Once done, tell the class they are going to work in groups [two pairs joining together] to look at the suffixes ‘tious’ and ‘cious’ and investigate any ways in which we can work out which suffix to use and when.

You are about to give them 8 ‘cious’ words and 8 ‘tious’ words in a random order. The group then has to categorise them into two goups depending on how they end.
The total 16 words are as follows:

cautious ambitious fractious infectious nutritious ostentatious scrumptious superstitious

precious suspicious delicious vicious atrocious spacious ferocious conscious

(or unconscious/subconscious)

There are several ways to give these words: provide a word hunt around the class, contextualised sentences similar to those seen in a spelling test or simply say the word out loud and having them take turns to find it in a dictionary or using an on-screen spell checker.

Once the various ‘tious’ and ‘cious’ words have been placed under the correct headings, get them to focus on the ‘tious’ words, asking them to think of any ‘family words’ that they associate or link with them. Examples might include:

cautious = caution         infection = infection        nutritious = nutritious

superstious = superstition      ambitious = ambition           fractious = fraction

What do they notice? Can you apply this test to the ‘cious’ words? Why not?  Can you apply it to to all ‘tious’ words? [try ‘ostentatious’  and ‘scrumptious’ for example]

Why not embed this further and learn to sing Mary Poppins’ song?

As someone who is not the greatest of spellers, I hope you and your learners find the clip as fun and as useful I have done in the past.

For more great ideas for using videos, songs and other media types to enhance Literacy and bring learning to life, why not join us on our conference - Improving Reading and Writing Through Popular Children's Media.

John is the author of the best-selling Reading Explorers series. He is an expert in how to develop higher order reading skills and provides high quality CPD courses for schools throughout the UK. For more information regarding his Reading, SPaG and Poetry CPD visit: www.johnmurraycpd.co.uk.


  1. I really love this set of ideas. I have just written the Year 5 and Year 6 spelling word list, ready for September, using the horrible -cious and tious words. I like to get ahead of myself. I do however have a creative way of teaching spellings I think you will like. I teach them in a Minecraft world and then record myself and share it with the class and hope the rest of the world also likes my recording, as if I make it once, I should share. If you want to see my spelling lessons and how they tie in with ICT in the classroom, look at http://www.DrFog.co.uk. Who knows, perhaps you will find a few ideas from me! :-)

  2. Love love love this idea - thank you - you just saved me one day on my English planning this week!


Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

An Empowering song for Comprehension

A Lovely Poem for Your Leavers Assembly

Teaching Direct Speech Punctuation using the iPhone text messaging!