Tag Archives: spelling

Invention vs gobbledegook

kids writing

One thing I love about working with beginning literacy learners is their use of invented spellings.  To avoid inhibiting the flow of ideas, children are encouraged to “have a go”. This invention involves an interaction of

  • knowledge of letter sound correspondence
  • recall of familiar words, such as basic sight words
  • memory of words previously encountered including words of interest or meaning to them,
  • in conjunction with available resources such as classroom word walls or lists.

The purpose is to encourage them to write, to express their ideas. There’s plenty of time for attention to the finer details later.

We early childhood teachers become experts at reading children’s writing. Like all effective readers, we use a combination of letter-sound knowledge, syntax, and meaning. If we are ever unable to decode a message, the writer is always happy to read the work to us, and may never realise the request stemmed from our reading disability.

As children’s knowledge of written language develops, their spellings more closely approximate the conventional. The comparison of writing samples taken over time informs teachers of the child’s progress. Consonants, especially beginning consonants, usually appear first; then a combination of first and last consonants. Vowels may be the last to be included.

© Norah Colvin

It is not surprising that vowels are the last to appear. They are more difficult to hear and distinguish, and not only may they be represented in more than one way (think of the long ī sound from my recent post A piece of pie), their pronunciation may (does) vary from locale to locale. Not only that, they are less important to reading than consonants. Think of text messages on the phone, or check out this article A World Without Vowels.

Or maybe now with predictive text available on phones, you are less likely to use the abbreviated form of words and allow your phone to predict what you want to write. That tends to work less than perfectly for me. It doesn’t always predict what I’m thinking and is just as likely to accept gobbledegook as any real word, let alone the correct one. Give me children’s invented spellings any day. At least I can use meaning and prior knowledge to help me unlock the message.

As a literacy educator, I am particularly interested in written language and fascinated by children’s development. I enjoyed the opportunity to write about children’s writing in a guest post on the Carrot Ranch A Class of Raw Literature earlier this year. I previously shared thoughts about spelling tests and the difficulty of knowing how to spell a word if its meaning is unknown. A variety of resources for teaching writing also appear in the readilearn collection.

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills has challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a speller. It can be one who spells or a primer like Lawrence once had. You can deviate from the primary meaning if magic catches your imagination. Go where the prompt leads. Thanks, Charli. I love this challenge. Spelling: my forte. But which meaning should I choose?

  • To represent a word in written form
  • To create an event using magic
  • To have a rest
  • To signal the occurrence of something (usual disastrous)

Can I include all four?

Here goes.

MISSPELLING SPELLING DISASTER AVERTED: NEW SPELL RELEASES OLD FOR A SPELL

Chatter erupted as assessment commenced. A pass would grant membership to the Spellnovators, but the best would replace Imara, who, for her final duty, mixed their potions and tested their spells. She praised ingenuity as stars exploded, flowers blossomed, and extinct animals reappeared. Choosing her replacement would be difficult. Suddenly her glare in Ruby’s direction spelled trouble. The chatter ceased. “What’s this?” she demanded. “Mix in happy witches!?” Ruby’s lip quivered. “Wishes. I meant to spell wishes.” Voices united in wishes. Instantaneously, everywhere, hearts opened with love.  Goodwill rained down, filling all with hope. Imara would spell in peace.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

What measure success?

 

A+

I have often expressed concern about what I consider to be an over-emphasis on standardised and national testing and the pressure it puts on students to achieve. I explained some reasons for my misgivings here and here and here, for example.

As a parent and a teacher the most important thing I want for my children is for them to be happy. After that I wish for them to be healthy and successful. But what is success? In a recent post I referred to a seventy-five year study conducted by George Vaillant who came to the conclusion that success means leading a happy life and that “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction‘”.

bee 5

Last week I wrote about spelling tests and spelling bees and the effect that doing well, or not, might have upon a learner’s self-esteem as well as attitude to self as a learner, attitude to school, and to learning in general. While writing it I was not aware of an article written by Kate Taylor and published in the New York Times on April 6 2015: At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics.

I discovered the article via a series of stepping stones from Lloyd Lofthouse to  Diane Ravitch to The New York Times.

Taylor opens the article by describing how the struggles of students to learn are made public, for all to see; posted on charts in hallways and reproduced in class newsletters. To see one’s name at the bottom of the list in a red zone, clearly showing that year level expectations have not been reached seems to be rather harsh, and humiliating for the child. Perhaps even more so if the teacher considered the student was just not trying. The teacher, it is reported, had difficulty watching the child take the tests for fear she would be upset by his mistakes. Months later the child scored 90% and was warmly congratulated.

Taylor goes on to say that the school, which has mostly poor black and Hispanic students, outscores many students from more affluent areas with results much higher than average on the state wide tests. I know that everybody loves a winner and that we all want our students to succeed, but at what cost? The article describes the school as being very rigid with a competitive atmosphere that requires strict adherence to rules.

Last week in my post A sprinkling of semicolons I shared an article by Ron Berger who talks about regular students whose “teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm.” He says that most of the work comes from students in low-income urban schools.

I suddenly became fearful. Were the students and schools described by Berger similar to those of the Success Academy schools as described in Taylor’s article?

In both cases the students were from poor areas and they achieved remarkable success with most attending college. Austin, as described by Berger, made six drafts of his butterfly drawing before it was considered to be “scientific” enough. I wondered how much, if any, duress he had been under.

The article described Berger as the Chief Program Office of Expeditionary Learning Schools. I followed the link to discover a little more about Expeditionary Schools, checked with Wikipedia and other sites that came up in a Google search, including Open World Learning which says that expeditionary learning (EL) “fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.” It also says that EL schools “promote rigorous and engaging curriculum; active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that demands and teaches compassion and good citizenship.  EL schools are based on the Outward Bound model, which starts with the belief that we learn best through experience.

This all sounds wonderful and praise-worthy, and I was feeling a little happier about what I had shared. However, if there’s one thing I have realised after a lifetime involvement in education is that the written statements of any educational institution sound wonderful and praise-worthy. It’s the way the principles are applied in practice that makes the difference.

I didn’t like what I had read about Success Academy Charter Schools in the New York Times, so I thought I’d better check out their website to discover what philosophy and principles guide them. First thing I spotted was a letter from a parent responding to the article in the New York Times! The parent, Polina Bulman, painted a very different picture of the school from that offered in the Times.

Bulman describes the decision-making process she went through in choosing the Success Academy for her five year old daughter. She shares what had concerned her and explains how those concerns had been answered. She describes her daughter’s happiness at school and the progress she is making in all areas of her learning. She has nothing but praise for the school, and concludes her letter, which she shared on Facebook, with these words:

“I was so touched by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. I had a chance to hang out in the hallways, listening to what teachers say to students as they pass by, and watching what teachers and staff members say to one another. I saw so much collaboration and kindness, so much teamwork. The best thing is that as a parent I feel like a part of this team and am proud of it!”

These words are in quite strong contrast to those of the New York Times.

The “Approach to Learning” statement of the Success Academy explains that students are engaged in only 80 minutes of direct instruction each day and that the rest of the time they are engaged in small group instruction and hands on learning.

 

So what does all this mean?

For one thing, just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a school by its policy statement.

For another, you can’t believe everything you read, even when the source seems trustworthy, you must question the author’s credentials, viewpoint and purpose in writing, “What barrow are they pushing?” (I’m upfront about my biases!)

And mostly, question, question question.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

These are important lessons for readers of any material and of all ages. I have talked about the importance of developing critical literacy in a series of posts about using “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in the classroom. No, definitely not in science lessons, but in lessons to discuss those very points discussed above:

Don’t believe everything you read

Check an author’s credentials and purpose in writing

 And question everything.

While I applaud the end result of Austin’s butterfly drawing, I question what the process may have been. We are not privy to that, though the supportive voices of students in the video do give us an inkling. I hope for the sake of all students that it was one of encouragement and support rather than pressure. Additionally I hope that the report in the New York Times got it all wrong. But if that is so, what is Taylor’s agenda and why would she attack these particular schools so fiercely?

Note: I wrote this article a couple of days ago and upon re-reading it now I have a couple of further thoughts re my advice to check an author’s credentials and purpose in writing. I have not followed my advice. I failed to check out the author of the NY Times article. However I think it is fair to say that Lloyd Lofthouse and Diane Ravitch are both anti the emphasis on standardised testing; and the Success Academy is probably reliant on the tests to measure its “success”.

There is no black and white truth. There are only shades of grey.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

Spelling tests – How well do you score?

ABC

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.

Spelling test

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:

eye

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.

Alphabetical

In his book “Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story”, Michael Rosen explains that transmitting meaning is the reason for writing, for having an alphabet.

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.”

a phonic's teacher's lament

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.

bee 5

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.

Swain says,

“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

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.