Case study: Parklands junior school, Essex

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Thinking back to my own schooldays, the only spelling rule I can remember learning is "i before e, except after c". We were given lists of words to learn, but I don't recall doing anything other than just looking at them.

Nowadays, we use more active strategies with the children. I must have been a natural speller because I never found it a problem, but things were very different for my daughter, who is dyslexic. It was through helping her that I developed an interest in the mechanics of how children learn to spell, especially those with special needs, and this eventually led to my current role.

For the past two years, we have been using the Thrass (teaching handwriting, reading, and spelling skills) system with the special needs groups in Years 3 and 4. English spelling is complex, and we like Thrass as it allows pupils to see the big picture. The wall and desk charts that familiarise them with all the spelling choices for the same phoneme are particularly useful. There are even rap songs that teach them about spelling. We get them tapping to the rap, so it's all multi-sensory. It's been so successful that we're now using it with all pupils in those year groups and are planning to roll it out across the whole school.

When teaching spelling, my mantra is: rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. My pupils get 10 spellings a week and I give them a book with pages they can fold into a concertina so they can physically do the "look, cover, write, check" process more easily. I'd say it's the single most useful technique.

If you get them to say the spelling out loud too, they're using all the learning styles: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. I also draw their attention to the shape of the word by highlighting the profile in a bright colour and getting them to trace around it with their finger. Some spelling rules are useful, but you can overdo it. If a pupil doesn't have a particularly good short-term memory, bombarding them with rules is going to defeat the object. Some mnemonics can be helpful too, especially if children make up their own. I encourage them to be as outrageous as possible so they'll remember them - obviously within the constraints of common decency.

They're expected to spend 10 minutes or so on spelling every night and they have a short test every day. They get used to it, so it doesn't cause them the stress that a weekly spelling test might. And they can see their progress from day to day, which really encourages them. Checking the books may be time-consuming, but it's worth it to see the smiles on the children's faces when they see their scores getting better throughout the week. Improving spelling is a gradual process and, with extended pieces of writing, you have to strike the right balance between technical accuracy and creativity. There's an awful lot going on when pupils are writing. They have to think about ideas, grammar, punctuation and handwriting as well as spelling. We expect correct spelling of basic words and to see logical choices of letter combinations, but we don't mark every mistake; it's demoralising for them to get their books back covered in red pen.

Regional pronunciation can have a big impact on spelling. One of the most common errors is the confusion of "there" and "their". Where I come from in Wales, we separate out the "e" and the "i" in "their" so it's a two-syllable word, and you hardly ever see that mistake. Many children spell as they speak and they simply don't hear some phonemes, so thinking about pronunciation can help with the spelling of some words, but not with others.

For me, spelling is important because I value the English language. I can't even bring myself to use abbreviations when texting; I have to spell everything out properly. On the other hand, I realise that spelling is constantly evolving and the email and text language that children use nowadays will inevitably have an effect, although I think it's a detrimental one. Promoting correct spelling is one thing, but I'm not in favour of children being involved in these televised contests that have been in vogue recently. It just encourages pushy parents and most children have enough pressure on them as it is. Being a good speller should be a reward in itself, without having to show off on television.

Elaine Cappi is a Senco at Parklands junior school, Romford, Essex. The Thrass website is

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