Why do I refer to spelling as a thorny issue? It is because I constantly hear comments about it from parents, and I see from my own pupils’ work, how bad they are at it! That tells me that something, somewhere, is going wrong. In my opinion, this is why.
Teachers and parents are wedded to the idea of the weekly spelling list. There are very few primary schools, as far as I know, where children do not come home with the obligatory spelling list, which has to be committed to memory, and tested either in the next day or two after, or the next week, if they bring the list home on a Friday.
With mum or dad encouraging, urging and assisting, the spellings are usually learnt – somehow! They are then duly tested by the teacher, and the results recorded. 90% of the class will get at least 90% of the spellings right. However, were they to be tested three days later, on exactly the same words, 90% of the class would get 90% of the words wrong. How strange, you may think. As parents say so often to me, “But he learnt that word last week for his spelling test and he got it right!” Of course he did! However, what these parents and teachers fail to realise are some simple facts about the way our memories work, and how we remember things.
If I had my way, I would ban learning lists of spellings from every primary school in the country, and this is why.
Good spellers are born, not made. Children who are good at spelling tend to be good at English, have an excellent vocabulary, and read a lot. They subconsciously absorb spelling patterns, punctuation and new words. They work out the meanings of words from contextual clues, and they use the new words which they have learnt in either their own writing, conversation, or both. They love language, and have favourite words, which they constantly use, just for the pleasure of hearing them. I was one such lucky person, and I can remember, as a child, being fascinated by the word “kedgeree”, which I kept using as often as I could, whether appropriately or not! Good spellers can look at a word which they have written and know straight away whether it looks right or not. They have an instinctive knowledge of English letter sounds and phonemes, without really needing to be taught them.
Sadly for the others, however, spelling is a chore, an impenetrable mist, whose rules constantly evade them, and whose patterns they never quite see. For these children, and there are a great number of them, learning lists of spellings will never, ever, ever, turn them into good spellers. So what do we do? How do we help these students to grasp the basics of this tricky subject? It’s actually quite simple, although I doubt if schools will do it. You simply teach them spelling rules, from a very early age.
I will digress here slightly, but this next bit is very relevant. You see, some teachers are not very good at what they do, and some are poor spellers themselves. I have a Year 6 pupil who happens to be a natural speller. Her class teacher, who has taught Year 2 up till this year, is a poor speller, and, on Friday nights, when I see Alice (name deliberately changed), she tells me how Mrs Jones (ditto) has spelt this word, or that word. I cannot believe that no-one has said anything to this lady. In another case, a national newspaper published a letter from a private tutor who works with children with literacy and dyslexia difficulties. She frequently comes into contact, through her work, with schools and teachers. She writes that she recently sat in for a Year 4 teacher in a school, where the class were learning about similes. It took her a while to figure out what the lesson was about, as the spelling on the whiteboard was “simaly.” She also tells of another occasion when she had a letter from a primary school teacher who used the word “accept” when she meant “except”. She was asking what hope there was for the children if the teachers themselves cannot spell. The reply to the letter came from Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector for OFSTED. He says that the letter writer’s experience is all too common, as he found out for himself on inspections. He states that, for years, entrants to the teaching profession have had to have passed GCSE English, or a similar qualification. As he says, “The problem is that GCSE English is no longer a real test of linguistic competence.” He goes on to state that ”the linguistic rot is so deep, it is hard to know what to do. Teachers who cannot spell produce generations of children who cannot spell, some of whom will become teachers themselves.” He concludes by asking, “How is the inexorable decline to be reversed?” I couldn’t agree more. I, too, despair of the poor practice that I see in my pupils’ books, the dreadful handwriting, the sloppy way that the children sit and the way they hold their pens or pencils.
However, back to spelling. If you want to help your child, there are two books you absolutely must get. One is called’ The Hornet Literacy Primer’, and the other, which follows on after it, is called ‘The Word Wasp’.They are both written by Harry Cowling, who is the son of Keda Cowling, the author of ‘Toe by Toe’, which is the most brilliant book ever written, and which I write about elsewhere on the website.In the introduction to ‘The Word Wasp’, Harry has written the most hard-hitting and thoughtful pieces of writing on the subject of spelling that I have ever read. In it, he states that good spelling skills cannot be acquired by memorising lists of unrelated words.When you think that a small dictionary contains over 70,000 entries, how on earth are we going to get children to remember just 5% of them? These two books break the mould. They have been trialled with students at a school in Yorkshire, as an experiment, in just one hour a week. The results, according to the headteacher, were amazing! Everything – including articulation, spelling and reading – improved. So, too, did the confidence of the students.
The books can easily be used by parents, all that is needed is the committment to carry out a short session five days a week.If your child has been through whole word systems, memory training, mnenomics, multi-sensory and kinaesthetic techniques, and still can’t spell or read vey well, then give’ The Hornet’ a try. You can order the books from either the ‘Toe by Toe’ website, or from Amazon. After all, you have nothing to lose, and a very great deal to gain!