Wy wee r getin spellin rong

The way we teach spelling in schools is not matching, for the most part, what the research says should be happening. The emphasis should be on breaking words down and focusing on meaning, rather than memorisation – and, crucially, we should try to make spelling fun, says Zofia Niemtus
14th December 2018, 12:00am
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Zofia Niemtus


Wy wee r getin spellin rong


You have probably seen the meme in which you are asked to read a section of text in which the letters in each word are in the wrong order (other than the first and last letters). Despite the letters being jumbled up, you are able to read the text quite comfortably. It claims to be a test based on University of Cambridge research. And it is often used as an argument as to why spelling is not as important as those pesky teachers make it out to be - "Look! It is all spelled incorrectly and yet we are reading it with ease!"

Alas, this meme - thought to have originated around 2003 - is not based on Cambridge research. Someone from the university, Matt Davis, did look into it, but only after it had been circulating for some time and because he wanted to see if there really was any Cambridge work on it. There wasn't. And the fact that we are able to read jumbled up words doesn't form the basis of a coherent argument against spelling (reading jumbled up spellings isn't actually as simple as the meme implies - read Davis' assessment for more: bit.ly/DavisSpell).

That so many people wanted to believe - and actually continue to believe - the meme and to use it as an argument against spelling tells you a lot, though, about how infuriating people find the process of ordering letters in the correct way. And this is just one of many arguments made against correct spelling: the anger directed at properly arranged letters is as vociferous as from those in the opposite camp, where correct spelling is guarded as if it were life itself.

Unfortunately, much of the ire can be traced back to the ways in which spelling was taught in school and how difficult we find spelling when we are children - and then when we are adults - as a result.

Why do we find it difficult? Well, researchers in this area suggest that, for the most part, what we know about effective spelling instruction is not filtering down to teachers.

First things first: do we really need to be teaching spelling in the age of autocorrect and spell check?

To put it simply: yes, absolutely. The squiggly red line on your screen is there to catch typos, which means homophones and grammar errors are out of its reach. Consider the sentence "your sure glad to no" instead of "you're sure glad to know". Spellchecker thinks the first is fine. Clearly, it is not fine.

What's more, written communication is now more important than it ever has been due to our reliance on digital forms of communication like email, social media and text messages. Poor spellers can have a hard time transmitting their ideas, as well as coming up against frustration, embarrassment and judgement.

And the act of correct spelling is a window into a world of knowledge that we might not get to peer through otherwise (more of which later).

Yes, spelling is a vital life skill.

So you would think we would have it all sorted on the teaching spelling front.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. There's huge variation in how spelling is taught in classrooms. The weekly spelling list is a common fixture - placing the onus on students and parents to ensure that a group of words are memorised before an end-of-week test - as is the lookcover-write-check approach.

Then some schools opt for discrete spelling programmes such as Word Study (which teaches patterns rather than words), while others use the Support for Spelling schemes of work that were introduced as part of the government's National Strategies in 1997.

Some schools link spelling to the topic being studied, while others weave it in with phonics. And some do very little explicit instruction at all.

Reading doesn't cast a spell

Part of the reason for this mixed picture, according to Rebecca Tremain, a US-based expert on child developmental psychology and reading, is a widespread lack of understanding about how to actually teach spelling.

"It always seems to be an afterthought," she says. "One issue is this long-standing belief that children will learn to spell as a result of reading. That has really worked against the teaching of spelling. The fact is, we don't necessarily become good spellers by reading.

"Everybody has words that they have read thousands and thousands of times that are difficult to spell. For me it's 'necessary'; I have to stop and think about it every time. If learning to read were a foolproof way of learning to spell, that shouldn't happen."

To learn to spell, she continues, children need to pay attention to all of the letters in a word and the sequence that those letters are presented in. But when we read, we often identify words on partial information. This is where the meme cited above was partially right: when we read, we do not tend to take in every letter.

She gives the example of "alligator": you will know what the word is without paying much attention to whether the ending is "ar", "er" or "or".

"We need children to really process all of the letters in the word in a way that they don't necessarily do when they are reading," she continues. "Reading can help to some extent, but learning to spell words requires something above and beyond that."

This is not new information. The national curriculum spelling appendix, released in 2013, opens with an acknowledgement that "people read words more accurately than they spell them". In addition to the lists of words it provides - which students are statutorily required to know at each stage - it gives patterns to be taught, such as suffixes "-ment", "-ness", "-ful" , "-less" and "-ly".

It also touches on exploring relationships between meaning and spelling, offering the example of "the relationship between medical and medicine [which] may help pupils to spell the /s/ sound in medicine with the letter 'c'".

This increased focus on morphology is a step in the right direction, says Julia Carroll, professor in child development and education at Coventry University, but there is still a long way to go.

"Since the national curriculum changed in 2014, they do talk about endings, for example," she says. "But it doesn't talk much about how to relate those to meaning. And teachers aren't being taught how to break words down."

An 'unusual' approach?

There are lots to of ways do this, she explains, such as separating words into morphemes (the smallest units of meaning in a word) and exploring them. "Happy", for example, is a single morpheme, while "unhappy" has the two morphemes, "un-" and "happy". The prefix "un-" alters the meaning of happy, which students could then use to understand the words "unfriendly", "unusually" and "unaware".

Likewise, Carroll continues, there is a wealth of potential in exploring phonology (the sounds in words), by looking at elements like stressed and unstressed syllables, such as the pattern of the first-syllable stress when verbs are used as nouns, as seen when the verb "to refund" becomes the noun "refund".

And she advocates integrating spelling work into other parts of the curriculum, rather than teaching it in isolation. Practising 10 words intensely for a week and then abandoning them is unlikely to lodge them in long-term memory, she says, whereas learning words in a meaningful context and revisiting them regularly is far more effective.

Another common misstep, she continues, is grouping spellings in ways that may make them harder to remember.

"We know from cognitive psychology that if you teach two similar things at the same time, they're likely to get confused," she says. "You might be teaching the silent 'k' at the beginning of 'knight' and 'knee', and then do the silent 'g' [as in 'gnome'] at the same time. Then the child knows there's a silent letter but can't remember which one it is.

"I would say, if you're coming up with a spelling list, have one rule that you're using in that list and have lots of examples. It drives me mad when 'their', 'there' and 'they're' are on one spelling list."

Carroll also encourages teachers to indulge their own curiosity. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers explanations of the morphemes in each word (if you ever wondered why "technical" is spelled with a "ch", for example, you can confirm that it's because of its roots in Greek). There is a vast world of etymology and rules and patterns to explore, she says, but people can be daunted by the idea of teaching them.

That comes down to a perception of spelling being difficult, and this being seen as acceptable in society. "I find that people are quite willing to say, 'Oh my spelling is awful.' They wouldn't say, 'My reading is awful,'" says Carroll.

A big factor in this fear of etymology appears to be the idea that English spelling, with its patchwork of influences, is irregular to the point of being beyond rules. This permeates the view of spelling in the UK and can dictate how we teach it - both our attitude to it and the methods used.

It's an idea that has persisted over generations; take a look at these verses from The Chaos, a poem penned by Dutch writer Gerard Nolst Trenité in 1922:

"Dearest creature in creation

Studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

"Have you ever yet endeavoured

To pronounce revered and severed,

Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,

Peter, petrol and patrol?"

He goes on to list some 800 irregularities of spelling and pronunciation in total.

And yet this concept of English as being unworkable is hugely overblown, says Misty Adoniou, associate professor in language, literacy and teaching English as a second language (TESL) at the University of Canberra. "There's a view that English spelling is irrational, so there can't be a rational way to teach it," she says. "That's a misreading. It's quite systematic and where it appears to be irrational, there's usually a great story behind it."

In their 2008 paper How Words Cast Their Spell: spelling is an integral part of learning the language, not a matter of memorization, Tremain and her co-authors pointed out that nearly 50 per cent of English words are predictable based on sound-letter correspondences that can be taught (for example, the spellings of the "k" sound in "back", "cook" and "tract" are predictable to those who have learned the rules), while another 34 per cent of words are predictable except for one sound (for example "knit", "boat" and "two").

"The real problem is that nobody is taught how to teach spelling," Adoniou says. "We've been very good at testing it but not very good at teaching it."

She places the blame with the ever-controversial topic of phonics. The enormous importance placed on it has given rise to the idea that sounds are the crucial thing to learn, she says. The national curriculum spelling appendix even states that "phonic knowledge should continue to underpin spelling after key stage 1". But phonics is not the answer to effective English spelling, Adoniou continues.

"The phonics focus has convinced people that once you've mastered your sounds, you must be fine. Everything else is sidelined. The people who promote phonics, like [UK schools minister] Nick Gibb, who rabbits on and on and on about it, have never said a word about what all this means for spelling and writing. It's like the promise was that phonics would solve all your problems, but that's just not a promise that English can keep. It's not a phonetic language."

A phonetic language, she explains, has only one written option for every sound, where English has up to 12 (as demonstrated in the famous example of "ghoti" as a spelling for "fish"). Similarly problematic, she says, is the idea of simply memorising words.

"If you're trying to remember them by looking, you're also doomed, because that's 60,000 words in an average vocabulary."

As a result, Adoniou agrees with Carroll that teaching patterns is the best way to teach spelling.

"Six-year-olds should be learning just as much about prefixes and suffixes as about phonics. And it's not beyond them. Take the 'ed' example: a five-year-old knows that. That's why they say 'I goed'. They are showing that they understand that 'ed' marks the past and making a generalised grammar rule."

How Words Cast Their Spell details three key areas for study that make spelling more predictable for students:

* The first is exploring meaningful parts of words, like suffixes and prefixes, and syllable patterns, such as open and closed syllables;

* Next it recommends exploring etymology - as does the national curriculum spelling appendix - including the interesting stories behind words (such as the claim that the term "caesarean" comes from the name Julius Caesar, who was said to have been born via the surgery);

* The third is to look at the letter patterns in words, such as the rule that words do not end with "v" - as seen in "give", "love" and "live" - with "kiev" being an exception because it is borrowed from Russian.

Tremain says that, ultimately, it's all about enabling students to become language enthusiasts. "Learning the patterns in spelling can be really exciting," she says. "Especially when you discover things. And sometimes children can be led to discover these things on their own, which is really cool."

At this point, it is important to stress that some teachers are doing all these things already. The issue, says US literacy expert Richard Gentry, is that not everyone is teaching spelling in this way.

"Exemplary educators have been doing it well for a long time," he says. "It's just that it hasn't caught on. And I'm not saying that everything most teachers are doing is wrong, not in any way. But they should reassess what they are doing with spelling.

"Coming from the scientific community, it seems that teacher education programmes aren't paying attention to the latest research in cognitive psychology and neuroimaging, so they're teaching with old methods that have been debunked by science - and that needs to change."

He refers to an "explosion of knowledge" in the past two decades in terms of understanding what happens in the brain when we spell, and he says that it has "huge implications for what we are doing in the classroom."

Gentry is currently working on a book entitled Brain Words: how the science of reading informs teaching. It's not due for release until next winter, but in it he will explain developing knowledge about the circuitry in the brain and how it stores familiar words, forming a kind of mental dictionary. He proposes a system where spelling is used to teach reading skills, rather than the reverse, as is currently common.

"For a long time, people thought spelling was for writing, but in the last two decades of research and cognitive psychology and neural imaging, we've found that spelling is at the very core of the reading brain," he claims. "We know now that when we read, we actually use the spellings in our brain to connect with our spoken language system."

He describes spelling as "food for the brain", adding that "a lack of effective spelling instruction starves the reading brain".

He recommends explicit teaching of spelling for 15 minutes per day, using techniques such as "elaborative interrogation" (where students ask "why?" questions to help secure knowledge of words) and self-explanation (where students draw links and find patterns between words).

"If you can spell a word, you can read it," he says. "But if your brain doesn't have a store of words that can be matched with spellings on the page for reading, then you can't read with fluency or comprehension."

But there are some students for whom spelling and reading will be especially challenging: those with dyslexia.

The seminal 2009 report by Sir Jim Rose explains that dyslexia is "best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category", but is characterised by difficulties in phonological awareness (linking letters to sounds), verbal memory and verbal processing speed, all of which can present serious issues with spelling.

Joanna Dunton, coordinator of the Miles Dyslexia Centre at Bangor University, likens dyslexia to trying to learn a foreign language. "Everyone is different but a common difficulty is the phonetic issue of linking letters to sounds and being able to reproduce them," she explains.

"If you consider it like learning a language, they haven't really cracked the code yet. Sometimes they will be given spellings that they have never seen before, which is like me giving you 10 words in German and saying, 'Go away and learn them.'"

She says the most pressing issue for students with dyslexia, however, is the "climate of anxiety and fear" around how spelling is taught and tested, which can lead them to "put their walls up immediately".

Instead, Dunton advocates a more exploratory, playful approach. And, actually, it is this approach - rather than any regimen of testing - that should underpin all those methods discussed in this article, she says.

"If they've spelled a word wrong and got one letter wrong, let's not make them write that word out 10 times," she says. "Instead, let's ask, 'How are you going to remember that one letter?'"

She's a big fan of mnemonics. The word "necessary", for example, can be remembered as "one collar, two sleeves".

The key is to find a way, any way, to remember the words that are tricky for you, Dunton says, whether that's breaking them down into its syllables (the "Wed-nes-day" approach) or creating a memory trick (like the fact that "dessert" has a double s, because you always want seconds of dessert).

"Words should be discussed and explored because that's a chance to expand vocabulary," she adds. "Get students to say a word and feel the word, then ask them how they are going to learn it. Make it fun. Teachers need to have more fun with spellings."

Tremain agrees: if there is one message that needs to be spread out about spelling, she says, it is that it can be fun (honest).

"English is a complex spelling system and learning to spell is always going to take a while," she says. "But it is not totally chaotic and irregular, and there are patterns in the language. I would like teachers to be trained in a way that they can appreciate those patterns and even find them kind of cool and exciting, and then share that excitement. Language is an interesting thing to learn about, and we should convey that to kids."

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer

Does spelling really matter?

English spelling started out as a relatively straightforward means of mapping spoken sounds on to written symbols, although - since the alphabet was borrowed from Latin with a different set of sounds - it presented problems, even for the Anglo-Saxons.

The relationship between speech and writing has been further disrupted by subsequent changes in pronunciation - for example, we no longer sound the "k" and "gh" in "knight" but continue to write it that way. Words borrowed from other languages, with different uses for the same letters (compare "cat", "centre" and "ciabatta") has further complicated the system.

Attempts to reform spelling to make it easier to learn go back to the 16th century, but they have failed to find a workable solution.

Restoring the link between spelling and speech fails because of the variety of English accents (should "card" be spelled with an "r" or without?), while the desire to make English spelling resemble Latin by introducing silent letters into words like "doubt" and "debt" drove speech and writing further apart.

One question that is seldom raised is whether we all need to spell the same way. In the Middle Ages, there were hundreds of spellings of common words like "through", including "drowgh", "yhurght", "trghug", "trowffe".

A fixed system is the legacy of the printing press; in the 19th century, authors like Austen and Dickens left spelling and punctuation to their printers. Today, we are witnessing a destandardising of spelling in electronic discourse, where variant spelling is tolerated, punctuation marks are repurposed and traditional processes of editing are increasingly bypassed.

Given these changes, perhaps it is time we questioned our emphasis on correct spelling, and the hours spent teaching and testing a child's grasp of a system that is riddled with inconsistencies. Although we can't fix the spelling system in English, we can keep its significance in perspective.

There never has been a golden age when everyone had the system mastered; most adults have blind-spots that have the potential to cause them embarrassment (how many "r"s and "s"s?). Should a misplaced apostrophe be sufficient reason to dismiss someone as illiterate? Does an ability to spell "necessarily" signal a more accomplished writer? Roald Dahl's letters reveal that his spelling was little better than that of the BFG, and yet he was one of the most successful writers of the 20th century.

After all, as Rabbit says of Owl's mixed success in spelling "Tuesday" in The House at Pooh Corner: "Spelling isn't everything. There are days when spelling 'Tuesday' simply doesn't count".

Simon Horobin is professor of English language and literature at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Does Spelling Matter? and How English Became English. This article first appeared in Tes in 2016

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