Nick Holdsworth meets the exponent of a 'Fonetik' spelling system from New Zealand which is aimed at helping people who never learn to master correct written English.
A remedial spelling system that takes students back to the basics of rendering spoken language into understandable printed text promises hope for the legions of children and adults who never achieve mastery of correct spelling.
The "Fonetik" system, devised by a Wellington-based educational psychologist with the backing of the New Zealand special education service, challenges one of English teaching's most sacred cows: that anything less than correct conventional spelling is wrong. Instead the system, as its name implies, encourages poor spellers to use phonetic cues in spoken English to create spellings which are correct in phonetic terms and are readily understood.
Once this has been mastered, the poor speller can then go on to learn the correct conventional spellings using electronic spell checkers, dictionaries, or help from a teacher or classmates when proof-reading essays, stories or reports.
Craig Jackson, who devised the system, sub-titled "Making Sense of Spelling", claims trials in four Wellington primary schools over the past two years suggest the system gives children aged 10 to 13 a useful alternative tool for arriving at correct spelling, allowing them to overcome the obstacles presented by traditional methods.
An educational psychologist with more than 28 years' experience, Mr Jackson was in London over the summer introducing the system to UK educationists. One school in the south London borough of Sutton will be trying it this term with pupils who have difficulty with spelling.
"The two key things that children require are knowledge of the five short regular vowel sounds and the ability to break words down into syllables and repeat each syllable in what I call phonetic chunks," says Mr Jackson. "If children are able to do this they are able to create a phonetic pattern that carries meaning in print."
If this approach gives children a key to unlocking the spelling of English, with its many confusing rules and irregularities, then the key for teachers using the system is to let go of the pervasive attitude that sees anything other than an entirely correct spelling as wrong.
"What is not generally recognised is that a regular phonetic spelling carries meaning in print just as effectively as conventional spelling," Mr Jackson says. The trick for a teacher is quite simple: to study children's spelling to find the pattern of incorrect spellings; help them listen to and recognise the short vowel sounds correctly; identify syllables and then encourage them to create words which clearly carry meaning.
The "Fonetik" system keeps its rules to a minimum, identifying the plethora of rules in English spelling as among the factors which hold back poor spellers.
When marking work using the system, teachers give one tick to a word spelled correctly phonetically - and there may be several variations - and two for a word given correctly in its conventional form. The use of electronic calculator-sized phonetic spell checkers, which give correct spellings for phonetic renderings, is encouraged.
Poor spelling is not a matter of laziness or low intelligence, Mr Jackson insists. But it is often a result of poor educational attention to transmitting the basics without offering alternative approaches for children with spelling difficulties.
By late primary or intermediate age, incorrect attempts by a child to spell a word represent failed attempts to spell in a phonetic pattern. Most of these patterns do, however, communicate the meaning of the word. "Fonetik" aims to decrease the number of phonetically ineffective attempts to spell, while increasing those that do carry meaning. Having gained some confidence, children can tackle the conventional spellings with greater ease.
"With a conventional spelling programme, students must specifically remember the unique visual configuration and appearance of every word. With a phonetic programme, pupils need only to remember to apply the strategy itself which then immediately generates the phonetic spelling of any word," says Mr Jackson.
Examples of ineffective phonetic attempts might be: "sevel", "vegbill" and "tict" for "several", "vegetable" and "ticket". But effective phonetic spellings could be "severel", "vegterbill" and "tickit", because they all readily carry meaning.
In short guidance notes issued for teachers using phonetic spellings, all 90 words carried clear meaning, a third were correctly spelled and the correct conventional spelling for more than 95 per cent of the rest could be swiftly found using an electronic spell checker: "Orl techers need too no ubowt thi fonetik speling program: wun, aksept and giv stoodent credit for both understandibil as well as convenshinil speling in ther storees and writen assinmints . . ."
In controlled trials with 10 and 11-year-old pupils in Wellington, remedial spellers achieved an average increase in correct spellings of 39 per cent after just six 20-minute sessions using the "Fonetik" system, Mr Jackson says.
Alan Jensen, senior educational psychologist in the London borough of Sutton and an associate psychology tutor at the Institute of Education in London, is carrying out initial pilots of the system in a secondary school in Carshalton this term.
"It's an innovative technique," he says. "Anything that is going to work with children for whom everything else has failed could offer great potential. I am keen to try it out with one or two children and if it looks promising I might like to ask one or two trainee psychologists at the Institute of Education to do an evaluation for their masters degrees," he says.
John Eaton, director of the Wellington Catholic Education Office, says: "English spelling is very complicated and follows few predictable patterns. 'Fonetik' spelling helps children to develop the skills necessary to grasp the intricacies of conventional spelling. This success leads to confidence and builds self-esteem in children for whom rote learning or visualisation of word forms will always be a problem. 'Fonetik' spelling is a means to an end and it really works."
But English spelling guru Dr Margaret Peters, whose latest book, Spelling in Context, was published in 1993, is highly critical. Mr Jackson's system is a "traditional and acceptable approach to the teaching of word-attack skills for reading," she says, but is inadequate for spelling, especially under a national curriculum which demands graphic knowledge and recognition of word meanings from consistent letter patterns. "It is not enough for a child to spell check or just have a spelling corrected," she says.
"The child needs to be moved on to autonomy in spelling and won't be unless directed to letter patterns in the word being written, letter patterns which accord with spelling convention. This can only happen if the child looks at the word with the correct letter pattern and looks with interest and intention to reproduce."