Familiar to most will be the weekly spelling test held on a Friday morning after a week’s practice at learning a list of words. Some will have dreaded the test fearing they may forget the “i before e”, “silent” letter or double letter rules, for example, their inadequacies made all too obvious by the large red crosses. Others would have relished the experience, requiring little effort to learn words they already knew, seemingly by osmosis, with the expectation of large red ticks and 10/10.
I dare say that most of you reading this blog are of the 10/10 variety. Just to be sure this is so, I have set you a little spelling test to do before you read any further. Please get your pen and paper, finger and notebook, or keyboard ready, then press PLAY to take the test.
So how did you go?
I hope you could see from that exercise that knowing how to spell has a lot to do with meaning. In fact the spelling of many of our words in English has more to do with morphology than with sound, and although sound can be helpful there are often many different letters or letter combinations that can be used to represent the same sound, for example:
According to the Bullock Report, published in 1975:
“For 6092 two-syllable words among the 9000 words in the ‘comprehension vocabularies’ of a group of 6-9 year olds, 211 different spellings of the phonemes were needed – and these spellings required 166 rules to govern their use! Even at that, 10% of the words had to be left aside as ‘exceptions’; which means that ‘even if a young child memorised these rules while learning to read he would still encounter hundreds of words not governed by them.’”
Lists of words, such as spelling lists, provide little support for learners, rarely providing context or meaning which might help them remember the words, or choose the correct meaning and therefore spelling, as shown by the spelling test exercise given above.
Rosen describes the alphabet as “a stunningly brilliant invention. We could call it a ‘cunning code’ or a ‘system of signs’ whereby we use some symbols (letters) to indicate some of the sounds of a language. … Though it is wonderful, there are some snags for users …” including:
- letters and letter combinations do not represent the same sound each time they are used (e.g. ‘c’ in ‘cat’ and ‘city’)
- letters represents different sounds according to regional accents
- a particular sound is not always represented by the same letters (see the ‘eye’ example above)
He says that “Becoming or being a reader of English involves absorbing all these variations and then forgetting that they exist.”
He explains that the alphabet is more than a system of sounds and syllables and that “Our forebears devised alphabets so that they could store and retrieve meaning … over time and/or space”.
While not speaking specifically about learning spelling words, in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means For Your Classroom” (referred to in a previous post here), Daniel T. Willingham consistently refers to the importance of meaning when acquiring knowledge. He says,
“Teachers should not take the importance of knowledge to mean they should create lists of facts . . . some benefit may might accrue, but it would be small. Knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another, and that is not true of list learning. Also … such drilling would do far more harm by making students miserable and by encouraging the belief that school is a place of boredom and drudgery, not excitement and discovery.”
When a child scores poorly in a spelling tests and their errors are marked in red they see themselves as bad spellers, lose confidence in their ability and have a defeatist attitude before they even try.
Why is spelling important?
Standard spelling is essential to ensure the meaning of the message is transmitted correctly from writer to reader. While readers may very quickly notice spelling errors in text they are reading, these few errors, when embedded in meaningful text, rarely inhibit the transmission of meaning. However if the bulk of the text is in nonstandard spelling, the message would be virtually indecipherable.
How do we learn to spell?
The most effective way most of us use to learn to spell is reading. While reading we are exposed to a large number of correctly spelled works in context. If we read often enough, we see words frequently and learn to recognise them. We notice when they are misspelled and so recognise how they are spelled.
The importance of spelling correctly is relevant to and a tool for our writing. The learning of particular words is best done in the context of writing.
These are some strategies that can be used with beginning writers:
- Model writing for them, let them see you write for real purposes, think out loud so they can see what you are doing, for example: “I going to write a . . . I’m going to start … I need to write … ”
- Encourage them to write for self-expression, to share ideas, to tell a story . . . sustained and uninterrupted writing without the fear of a red pen anywhere.
- Encourage them to listen to the sounds in the words and write any of the letters they know (Beginners usually start with the initial consonant, then perhaps the initial and final consonant. Vowel sounds are the most difficult to hear and differentiate and are irregular in how they are represented.)
- Respond to their writing with written comments to their messages, modelling the correct form, for example: If the child writes “I wet to the bich on the weced” you could reply with “Did you have fun when you went to the beach on the weekend?” This enables the child to see the importance of writing for communication, demonstrates the correct spelling without being “corrected” and provides a model which can be used in future writing.
- Encourage children to proofread their own writing by circling words they weren’t sure how to spell. Don’t always expect them to discover the correct spelling. Being able to recognise when a word is or is not spelled correctly is a first step in developing competence.
- Notice and comment on any development that can be seen in the child’s spelling ability, for example: “You have written the word ‘kitten’. You have written the ‘k’, you know that it begins with ‘k’; you have written the ‘t’ you can hear in the middle and the ‘n’ at the end. You have listened very well to the sounds in the word.”
- If you want to give a child a list of words to learn, use words that have been misspelled in independent writing. Independent writing provides you with information about what the child wants to write about.
- As they begin using technology for writing, show them how to use the tools available for checking their spelling.
As a final note, in the Conversation this week was an article by Nathaniel Swain, entitled Spelling bees don’t teach kids literacy, or much else. The article discusses a soon-to-be aired television show that pits nine to thirteen year old children against each other in a spelling competition.
“How would you go spelling feuilleton, stichomythia, cymotrichous, or appoggiatura? More importantly, do you know the meaning of these words, and could you use them in a sentence?
Challenging and insightful, or obscure and essentially pointless? Spelling bees encourage endless memorisation of complex but low-frequency words – and are a distraction from the core of literacy education.”
Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.